Relationships in Early Adulthood

Love, intimacy, and adult relationships go hand‐in‐hand. Psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed that love consists of three components: passion, decision/commitment, and intimacy. Passion concerns the intense feelings of physiological arousal and excitement (including sexual arousal) present in a relationship, while decision/commitment concerns the decision to love the partner and maintain the relationship. Intimacy concerns the sense of warmth and closeness in a loving relationship, including the desires to help the partner, to self‐disclose, and to keep the partner in one's life. People express intimacy in three ways:

  • Physical intimacy involves mutual affection and sexual activity.

  • Psychological intimacy involves sharing feelings and thoughts.

  • Social intimacy involves enjoying the same friends and types of recreation.

The many varieties of love described by Sternberg consist of varying degrees of passion, commitment, and intimacy. For example, infatuation, or “puppy love”—so characteristic of adolescence—involves passion, but not intimacy or commitment.

In addition to love and intimacy, sexuality is realized during young adulthood within the context of one or more relationships, whether long‐ or short‐term. Although adolescent sexuality is of a growing and maturing nature, adult sexuality is fully expressive. The following sections discuss some of the more familiar types of adult relationships.


Today, many people are choosing singlehood, or the “single lifestyle.” Regardless of their reasons for not marrying, many singles clearly lead satisfying and rewarding lives. Many claim that singlehood gives them personal control over their living space and freedom from interpersonal obligations. Today the number of singles in the United States remains at about 26 percent of men and 19 percent of women in the 1990s staying single for at least a portion of adulthood. Eventually, approximately 95 percent of Americans will marry.

Most singles date; many are sexually active, with the preferred sexual activities for singles remaining the same as those for other adults. Some singles choose celibacy—abstaining from sexual relationships.

Cohabitation and marriage

and marriage comprise the two most common long‐term relationships of adulthood. Cohabitors are unmarried people who live together and have sex together. More than 3 million Americans (most between the ages of 25 and 45) cohabitate. Many individuals claim that they cohabitate as a test for marital compatibility, even though no solid evidence supports the idea that cohabitation increases later marital satisfaction. In contrast, some research suggests a relationship between premarital cohabitation and increased divorce rates. Other individuals claim that they cohabitate as an alternative to marriage, not as a trial marriage.

The long‐term relationship most preferred by Americans is marriage. More than 90 percent of Americans will marry at least once, the average age for first‐time marriage being 24 for females and 26 for males.

Marriage can be advantageous. Married people tend toward healthier and happier lives than their never‐married, divorced, and widowed counterparts. On average, married males live longer than single males. Marriages seem happiest in the early years, although marital satisfaction increases again in the later years after parental responsibilities end and finances stabilize.

Marriage can also be disadvantageous. Numerous problems and conflicts arise in long‐term relationships. Unrealistic expectations about marriage, as well as differences over sex, finances, household responsibilities, and parenting, create only a few of the potential problem areas.

As dual‐career marriages become more common, so do potential complications. If one spouse refuses to assist, the other spouse may become stressed over managing a career, taking care of household chores, and raising the children. As much as Americans may hate to admit this fact, women in our culture still bear the primary responsibilities of child rearing. Conflicting demands may partly explain why married women with children leave their jobs more often than childless and single women.

Multiple roles, however, can be positive and rewarding. If of sufficient quality, these roles may lead to increased self‐esteem, feelings of independence, and a greater sense of fulfillment.

Extramarital relationships

Severe problems in a marriage may lead one or both spouses to engage in extramarital affairs. Nonconsensual extramarital sexual activity (not agreed upon in advance by both married partners) constitutes a violation of commitment and trust between spouses. Whatever the reasons, nonconsensual affairs can irreparably damage a marriage. Marriages in which one or both partners “cheat” typically end in divorce. Some couples may choose to stay together for monetary reasons or until the children move out. On the other hand, consensual extramarital sexual activity (“swinging”) involves both partners consenting to relationships outside of the marriage. Some couples find this to be an acceptable solution to their marital difficulties, while others find it to be detrimental to the long‐term viability of their marriage.


When significant problems in a relationship arise, some couples decide on divorce, or the legal termination of a marriage. About 50 percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, the average duration of these marriages is about 7 years.

Both the process and aftermath of divorce place great stress on both partners. Divorce can lead to increased risk of experiencing financial hardship, developing medical conditions (for example, ulcers) and mental problems (anxiety, depression), having a serious accident, attempting suicide, or dying prematurely. The couple's children and the extended families also suffer during a divorce, especially when disagreements over custody of the children ensue. Most divorcees, their children, and their families eventually cope. About 75 percent of divorcees remarry, and most of these second marriages remain intact until the death of one of the spouses.


Friends play an important role in the lives of young adults. Most human relationships, including casual acquaintances, are nonloving in that they do not involve true passion, commitment, or intimacy. According to Sternberg, intimacy, but not passion or commitment, characterizes friendships. In other words, closeness and warmth exist without feelings of passionate arousal and permanence. Friends normally come from similar backgrounds, share the same interests, and enjoy each other's company.

Although many young adults feel the time pressures of going to school, working, and starting a family, they usually manage to maintain at least some friendships, though perhaps with difficulty. As life responsibilities increase, time for socializing with others may be at a premium.

Adult friendships tend to be same‐sex, non‐romantic relationships. Adults often characterize their friendships as involving respect, trust, understanding, and acceptance—typically the same features as romantic relationships, but without the passion and intense commitment. Friendships also differ according to gender. Females tend to be more relational in their interactions, confiding their problems and feelings to other females. Males, on the other hand, tend to minimize confiding about their problems and feelings; instead, they seek out common‐interest activities with other males.

Friends provide a healthy alternative to family members and acquaintances. They can offer emotional and social support, a different perspective, and a change of pace from daily routines.

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