Types of Romantic Relationships in Emerging Adulthood: Implications for Relationship Education

By Sarah Hokanson

Bottom-Line First: This study identified different types of romantic relationships in emerging adulthood. Understanding different relationships can help relationship educators better serve participants with different types of relationships who can benefit from different skills and principles.

Emerging adulthood is a period of transition that creates a lot of variety in romantic relationships. At this point in life, people have various beliefs and goals for their relationships; some are looking to get married, others want something temporary, and some are more focused on their personal life goals than their romantic relationships. Because of this, relationships can look very different from person to person during this life stage.

Understanding these differences can help us focus and tailor couple relationship education (CRE) programs to meet the needs of different couples. CRE programs for emerging adults have become an important tool in the relationship educator’s toolbox. But are these programs tailored to meet the different kinds of relationships we see in emerging adulthood? (Of course, some of these programs focus on single young adults not in a relationship, helping them make smart choices about forming healthy relationships.)

The goal of this study[1] was to identify a typology – distinct types – of emerging adult romantic relationships by looking at different dimensions of romantic relationship. The study included 396 romantically involved, unmarried emerging adults.[2] Participants were ages 18 to 29, with a mean age of 24, 51% were female, and 67% were white.

Researchers collected data (via a Qualtrics survey) on several relationship measures including relationship dynamics (warmth and support, negative interactions, and relationship satisfaction), the length of relationship, consolidation (number of stayovers per week and the percentage of free time spent with partner), and commitment (self-reported likelihood of marrying current partner). They also included the individual measures of depressive symptoms and life satisfaction.

Researchers found 5, relatively distinct types of emerging adult romantic relationships:

  • Happily Consolidated (31%) – These relationships were characterized by positive relationship dynamics, strong commitment, the highest levels of consolidation of any group, and long duration (M = 3.4 years). This group had the largest proportions of engaged and cohabiting couples and the smallest proportion of casually dating couples. Life satisfaction was high and depression was low for this group.
  • Happily Independent (19%) – These relationships were characterized by positive relationship dynamics, strong commitment, less consolidation than other groups, and moderate duration (M = 1.7 years). This group was made up of the youngest participants, on average, and the largest proportion of current students. They were mostly in exclusive relationships, had the lowest levels of relationship cycling (ending and restarting the relationship), and none were cohabiting.
  • Exploratory (18%) – These relationships were characterized by moderately positive relational dynamics, the least commitment, the lowest levels of consolidation, and the shortest duration of any of the groups (M = .9 years). Most of these couples reported they were casually dating, and about half were current students.
  • Stuck (23%) – These relationships were characterized by mostly negative relational dynamics, low commitment, high consolidation, and the longest duration of any groups (M = 3.5 years). A little more than half of these couples were exclusive, 19% were engaged, many were cohabiting, more than half had experienced relationship cycling, and they were generally older than other groups (M = 25.2). Depression was high for this group.
  • High Intensity (9%) – These relationships were characterized by mixed relational dynamics including high warmth, support, and relationship satisfaction, but also high levels of negative interactions. Relationships also had high commitment, high consolidation, and a medium duration (M = 2.1 years). These couples were mostly exclusive or engaged, had high levels of cohabitation, and had the highest levels of relationship cycling. Interestingly, both life satisfaction and depression were high in this group.

These distinct groups help to highlight noteworthy differences within emerging adult relationships. Understanding these differences can help relationship educators know how best to help each group by providing different content and approaches to their interventions.

Here are some implications of these findings:

  • Screening, tailoring, adapting. We often use broad categories to define relationships – looking at whether couples are married, dating, or cohabiting, or looking at how long they have been together – but these groups may be too simplistic for emerging adults. As we see in this study, not all dating couples have the same kinds of relationships or the same needs in relationship education. Asking more detailed questions to really understand the relationship can allow us to help different kinds of couples by guiding them to different interventions that emphasize different skills or information to fulfill their specific needs. This suggest the value of some kind of screening for emerging adults interested in RE programs or clearer marketing about the types of couples they serve best. It also suggests the possibility of tailoring or adapting more generic programs to focus on specific sets of needs.
  • Traditional CRE. Happily Consolidated couples had good personal and relationship outcomes, which reflects a healthy relationship. These couples are probably well served with traditional couple-based relationship education where they can learn skills and plan for the future. These programs will help already happy and healthy couples maintain their relationships and continue to move forward. Happily Independent couples also had good outcomes, although they were low in consolidation. Though high consolidation reflects a healthier relationship, a degree of relationship independence may be appropriate at this life stage and individuals can eventually transition into happily consolidated relationships. These relationships could be benefited by a traditional relationship education curriculum, perhaps with an emphasis on preparing for the future and learning skills to help them grow closer and work together more as a couple.
  • Exploring the future. Exploratory couple relationships can be part of a stage of exploration which is common during this period of life. While these relationships don’t show high levels of commitment, consolidation, or positive relational dynamics, exploring different relationships during this time can lead to finding a healthy relationship. Exploratory couples (or individual partners within these relationships) could benefit from RE focused on helping participants to decide what they want for their relationship in the long term and to help them to make deliberate decisions about their relationship. Deciding to move in together or have a child together are important decisions to think through before sliding deeper into the relationship. Depending on whether they want to continue their relationship, individuals could use education focused on communicating about their expectations and goals for the relationship with their significant other or principles about how and when to best end the relationship.
  • Healthy Break-ups. Stuck couples could be caught in a pattern of relationship ambiguity, unsure of where their relationship is going, or using their relationship for stability during a very unstable period of life. High levels of relationship cycling may suggest that a lot of these relationships are just taking their time ending. These kinds of relationships are associated with elevated depressive symptoms. Since this has such a significant negative impact on personal outcomes, personal or couple counseling, in addition to couple relationship education, might be appropriate. CRE programs serving these couples need to find a sensitive but effective way of helping participants make difficult decision about the future of the relationship and healthy ways of breaking up, if the future seems dim. Most of these couples are cohabiting and many probably have children. So good instruction on healthy coparenting would be a valuable element of the curriculum.
  • Unhealthy relationships. High Intensity couples had a lot of positive and negative interactions, the highest life satisfaction, but the highest depressive symptoms. Researchers have found that if the positive balances out the negative, these kinds of relationships can be healthy. However, the high depressive symptoms for this group found in this study suggest that the positive may not be balancing out the negative, and these relationships generally are not healthy. Similar to Stuck couples, the concern over significant negative outcomes may make personal or couple counseling a good idea for those in high intensity relationships. Programs could develop ways of encouraging and directing individuals and couples to counseling. And, again, instruction about healthy break-ups may be important to cover.

Altogether, this study helps us recognize the importance of being aware of the different needs of young RE participants, the different kinds of relationships they are in, and their individual needs.

Endnotes:

[1] Beckmeyer, J. J., & Jamison, T. B. (2020). Identifying a typology of emerging adult romantic relationships: Implications for relationship education. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studieshttps://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12464

[2] Note that there were 338 single individuals (34%) and 223 married individuals (23%) in the larger study.