OK, we’ve hung on, what’s going on now?
Source: Antoniodiaz / Shutterstock
Hang on, that is to say relaxed sexual activity between unengaged partners – is very common among young adults today. The majority of students (65 to 80 percent) have connected in their lifetime, and emerging adults reported nearly twice as many recent connection partners as first dates (Bradshaw et al. 2010).
Despite the frequency of connections, we don’t know much about what (if anything) happens between partners after they connect. Because, by definition, connections don’t involve any additional commitments or obligations, it makes sense to think that most connection partners go their separate ways after a date and never interact again.
But things might not be that simple. A 2008 study (England, Shafer & Fogarty, 2008) found that two-thirds of students in a committed romantic relationship said they bonded with their partner before becoming exclusive. Thus, certain branches must develop in romantic relationship. But how many? And could some dating partners become “just friends” or remain sexually involved, dating repeatedly without developing any kind of romantic feelings or commitments?
Eliza Weitbrecht, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Cincinnati (now a postdoctoral fellow at Palo Alto VA), and I tried to answer some of these questions by exploring the relationship results of branching in a sample of students. In this study published in Personal relationships, male and female students (who had all recently hooked up) filled out questionnaires about their most recent connection. (Note: We measured other things as well, but in this article I will focus on data related to what happens between partners after a connection). We asked participants to give a code name to their most recent sign-in partner. Then, 10 weeks later, participants were reminded of the specific partner via the code name they provided. We asked them to report what type of interactions or relationships they currently have, if any, with this partner.
The results were quite interesting. Unlike conceptualizations of sex as “one night stands,” only 17% of participants said they had no longer had contact with their connection partner. The most common outcome was continued sex, which occurred in a third of cases, followed by Friendship, reported by 28 percent of the sample. Surprisingly enough, 23% of participants said they were now involved in some way or another with the bonding partner: 11% were in an occasional or indefinite romantic relationship, and 12% were in a relationship. exclusive and committed.
Thus, it appears that the actual relationship outcomes of connections between college students are quite varied – many different things can happen between connection partners after the actual event. Although, consistent with stereotypical notions, some relationships did not include any other interaction between partners, this was true in less than a fifth of cases. Additionally, intercourse only resulted in continued sexual involvement in about a third of cases. This means that many connection partners continue to connect with each other, but their “relationship” does not develop further.
However, our data suggests that just as often, connection partners become friends. And in another fifth of cases, they move on to “something more,” a type of romantic relationship. More specifically, for 12% of our sample, that “something more” was a committed romantic relationship.
Taken together, these findings contradict concerns that today’s young adults live in a “culture of connection,” where traditional, committed romantic relationships are non-existent. It seems true that some sexual relationships are one-off encounters that do not involve any other contact between partners, and that others may occur over and over again, but involve nothing more than sex. But at the same time, these findings suggest that romantic relationships are sometimes the start of a path that young couples take to develop a more traditional romantic relationship. For young people interested in starting a relationship, the trick may be to figure out which outcome is most likely if they hook up with that person they find attractive.