You are on page 1of 20

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191 DOI 10.

1007/s10591-009-9111-9 ORIGINAL PAPER

Dating is Hard Work: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Sexual and Romantic Relationships in Young Adulthood
Jamie E. Banker Christine E. Kaestle Katherine R. Allen

Published online: 16 January 2010 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Abstract This study utilized a qualitative approach informed by a narrative perspective to examine 57 young adults stories about sexual and romantic relationships. Participants (25 men and 32 women) were asked to dene relationships in terms of how they know they are in a romantic or a sexual partnership. Young adults identied the language they use for different types of relationships, their perceptions of the hierarchy of romantic and sexual relationships, and their confusion or uncertainty about their relationship experiences. We discuss implications for clinicians working with young adults and provide suggestions for re-storying the confusing territory of intimate (and sometimes impersonal) interaction. Keywords Narrative therapy Sexual relationships Romantic relationships Young adults

According to the narrative perspective, people create their lived experience through the language they use. Their reality of themselves, their families, and their romantic and sexual relationships are a result of the personal stories they tell (Freedman and Combs 1996). Young adults often use common terms and shared language with their peers when referring to romantic and sexual relationships (Furman and Hand 2006). Developing romantic relationships is a normative task during the adolescent years (Erikson 1950; ZimmerGembeck 2002), and individuals tend to process these relationships as they move into
J. E. Banker (&) Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA e-mail: jbanker@vt.edu C. E. Kaestle Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 315 Wallace Hall (0416), Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA e-mail: kaestle@vt.edu K. R. Allen Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 401C Wallace Hall (0416), Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA e-mail: kallen@vt.edu

123

174

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

young adulthood using a common language. In narrative family therapy, the language and meanings people have about sexual and romantic relationships can act as a map for future relationships (Freedman and Combs 1996; Monk et al. 1997). In this article we examine how the dominant culture inuences the way young men and women use language to create meaning about their relationships. More specically, the goal of our research was to look for themes and common threads among young adult narratives about their romantic and sexual relationships that could assist clinicians with implications for clinical practice.

Background In therapy, people tell their personal stories. Narrative family therapists (NFTs) believe people come to therapy when their stories have become problem saturated (Walsh and Keenan 1997). The language people use is often related to problems and therefore, their world is problematic. NFTs focus on the language their clients use because they believe words and terms not only create peoples realities, but also keep peoples realities alive (Freedman and Combs 1996). NFTs dene reality from a postmodern perspective. Reality, according to postmodernism, has four main ideologies: (a) realities are presented through language, (b) realities are socially constructed, (c) there are no essential truths, and (d) peoples life stories organize and maintain their realities (Freedman and Combs 1996; Monk et al. 1997; Walsh and Keenan 1997). According to the rst ideology, realities are presented through language. Since the only words people know are the words they share with others in language (Freedman and Combs 1996; Monk et al. 1997), people learn to talk and use words based on the words around them (Taylor 1989). There are times when people are not fully aware of the language they use and how their words affect their lives, especially if they are repeating words and stories they have heard from others. Peers are a strong socializing agent during young adulthood (Lau et al. 1990), and young adults often use language they hear their peers use. Such mimicking is a common and sometimes unconscious process (Karremans and Verwijmeren 2008; Reinisch and Beasley 1990). Further, young adults may not be aware that the words they use are also inuencing the creation of their realities. In theories of life-span development, mate selection (Havighurst 1972) and nding a long-term partner have been described as central to young adulthood (Cantor et al. 1992). According to Arnett (2000), the time span from the late teens to mid-twenties is a distinctive period during which individuals experiment with a variety of romantic and sexual experiences. NFTs believe that people identify themselves through their interchange of language with others (Hoffman 1990; Walsh and Keenan 1997), so word choices may reveal much about this important developmental process. Because they recognize that realities are presented through language, NFTs are interested in understanding the meaning of words and how the words are used. For this reason, it is helpful for NFTs to be familiar with some of the basic theories of linguistics, such as the categorization of language (Taylor 1989). Words evoke a mental image of a specic category, and that mental representation should embody certain attributes of the category in which the word belongs. Words also may be metaphorically assigned membership in a category by virtue of their similarities to the prototype or core representation a person has in mind for a category. One example of how the category assignment process can work through metaphor is the concept of a whole versus its parts. The concrete and very physical concept of a whole item made up of parts can be applied to more abstract concepts such as families with parts (members) or romantic couples who represent a whole that can actually

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

175

split or break up into two parts (Lakoff 1987). Some words create a mental image or representation that is central to the prototype category. However, some categories may not have a clear prototype, causing confusion between the speaker and listener (Hampel and Vangelisti 2008; Taylor 1989). NFTs attempt to keep these possible confusions in mind when evaluating communications. The second and third postmodernist ideologies are that language is socially constructed and there are no essential truths. Society is responsible for constructing the lenses through which people create their relationships, whether these relationships are romantic, sexual, or other types (Walsh and Keenan 1997). Because a persons language is a product of his or her surroundings (Monk et al. 1997), young adults are using their peers, parents, or favorite media stars words to discuss sexual and romantic relationships. Linguists also would agree that words and their meanings are socially constructed. Leach (1964) notes that the categories in which a word belongs are subjective. Instead of language categories being innate constructs in the human mind, the categories are taken into peoples minds based on society and culture. The attributes of specic words do not always have to do with the intrinsic make-up of the object, but could have to do with the role an object plays in a particular culture. For example, clothing can be discussed in terms of its quality, design, and physical constitution, or it can be discussed in terms of what the clothing represents or what meaning it holds in a specic culture. A dress can have many different meanings. A sun dress, a bathing suit cover up, or a wedding dress all hold different meanings. In addition, those same dresses suggest something about gender and socioeconomic status (Cox and Dittmar 1995). Similar to clothing, language about relationships is inuenced by the dominant culture and is constantly changing. From a feminist perspective, one way that dominant culture inuences young adults is through gender stereotypes and gender scripts (Tolman 2002). The notion of unequal sexual desire between the genders is an example of oppressive language. Typically, the dominant culture suggests that normal boys have raging sexual hormones and normal girls long for emotional connection (Carpenter 2002; Tolman 2002). These clear gender differences in romantic and sexual relationships (Mongeau et al. 2007; Montgomery and Sorell 1998; Peplau 2003; Shulman and Kipnis 2001) are often played out in relationships, creating a double standard. For example, it has been found that women may focus more on care and attachment in their relationships than males (Shulman and Scharf 2000).The sexual revolution in the 1970s was supposed to allow women to be more sexually liberated and minimize the gender differences in expressions of sexuality (Cook 2004). However, while womens sexual behaviors have changed over the past 20 years and women have been more sexually liberal, this double standard still exists (Bogle 2008; Carpenter 2002; Holland et al. 1998; Jackson and Cram 2003; Lees 1993; Risman and Schwartz 2002). In fact, Risman and Schwartz (2002) report that the sexual revolution is still in progress. Many young women use language that illustrates the dominance of a sexual double standard (Bogle 2008; Jackson and Cram 2003). Young women often talk about sexual desire in relation to male needs instead of their own needs (Holland et al. 1998; Patrick et al. 2007). Their language positions them as passive objects of male sexual desire. The young women in Tolmans (2002) study described a conict between their own sexual desire and their fear of the double standard. The constant social reconstruction of language also means that researchers sometimes misunderstand young adult vocabulary. For example, there has been an increase in the use of the term hook up in the popular media and research literature. Researchers commonly dene and operationalize hooking up despite the ambiguity surrounding the term (Eshbaugh and Gute 2008; Gute and Eshbaugh

123

176

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

2008; Lambert et al. 2003; Paul et al. 2000). For this reason it is important to continue to learn and adapt to the meaning of relationship language. According to the fourth postmodern ideology, a persons life story organizes and maintains his or her reality. Therefore, in this study we seek to understand what language young adults are using to identify and dene their relationships and how gender affects relationship language. This information can help inform and update clinicians who work with young adults and their families.

Methodology Participants We analyzed narratives from a convenience sample of 57 college students from a large (approximately 27,000 students) public university in the Southeast. The participants were enrolled in a global issues human sexuality course. All three authors have been instructors for this course, which ranges in size from 75 to 160 students. In this study, twenty-ve male students and 32 female students volunteered to participate. All the students in the class were undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 24 (mean = 20 years old). Student names were removed from any materials before they were included in the data set (pseudonyms are used in this article), and students were not asked to provide any other demographic information in order to preserve anonymity. Because students from every college on campus were enrolled in the course, the demographics for this course likely reect the demographics of the university as a whole. That is, 70% of the students live in the state, with two-thirds from suburban areas and one-third from rural areas. The undergraduate enrollment patterns by race are as follows: 72% of students are White, 7% Asian, 4% African American, 2% Hispanic, 2% International, less than 1% Native American, and 12% unknown. Procedures and Analysis Permission to conduct the study was granted by the university Institutional Review Board. All students were offered the opportunity to write a short (1 page) narrative for extra credit. Students could choose to write this narrative in response to one of three questions provided by the instructor. All extra credit questions explored how young adults experience and think about sexuality and gender in some way. This study was based on the answers students wrote to one of the extra-credit questions. The open ended question used to elicit detailed descriptions of romantic and sexual relationships was: What does it mean to be a male or female and to be involved romantically or sexually with another person? How do you know you are in a romantic relationship? What do you call this type of relationship? How do you distinguish it from a hook-up? What is the difference from a romantic partnership and sexual partnership? When they are combined what do you call it? In what ways does your gender relate to these terms and/or your experiences within these types of relationships? Students who chose to complete the extra credit turned in a typed response narrative to one of the questions and put their name in the upper right hand corner. The teaching assistant then awarded credit to any student turning in a full page of text, regardless of whether the student indicated that he or she would or would not participate in the study.

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

177

The teaching assistant separated the narratives by gender and then copied the pages from all the students who agreed to participate. The student assistant then removed the upper right corner to render the narratives anonymous. These unidentied narratives, still grouped by gender, were provided to the research team for analysis (N = 57). None of the students who answered the question of interest and agreed to participate were excluded from analysis. An integrative perspective guided the data analysis: Our aim was to understand the gendered meaning of the relational words young adults used from a narrative therapy perspective. Two research questions were central in the search for themes and patterns in the data: (a) What language do young adults use to identify and dene their romantic and sexual relationships? and (b) In what ways is gender evident in how young adults dene their relationships? We examined these questions from the narrative family therapy perspective to better understand how young adults denitions of their relationships may inform clinicians working with youth and families. The research team (one doctoral student and two professors) met weekly to create the coding scheme, discuss the emerging themes, and conduct the analysis. Any modication or concerns were discussed in team meetings and decisions about the data analysis were made collectively. The analysis involved multiple readings for coding categories and emerging themes (Bogdan and Biklen 1998). In the beginning of the analysis, narratives were read to gain a preliminary idea of the students relationship terms and denitions. From this initial reading, common terms and denitions emerged. Once there was evidence of common terms, the authors conducted summative content analyses to detect all terms and identify the most commonly used language. The results were compared to minimize error. The rst thematic coding scheme was then developed after the three investigators read through the narratives again. The three investigators then coded the data independently and met to revise the coding categories into mutually exclusive groups. After four more readings, agreement was reached, and the data were coded and analyzed.

Findings The three major themes that emerged from the multiple readings became our nal coding categories. These coding categories consisted of: (a) language for types and denitions of relationships, (b) hierarchical language of romantic and sexual relationships, and (c) confusion and uncertainty in the relationship story. Language for Relationship Types and Denitions In terms of relationships, we examined the labels and the corresponding denitions respondents used to describe four types of relationship categories that emerged from the data analysis: (1) romantic, (2) sexual, (3) combination of romantic and sexual, and (4) not yet romantic or sexual. Together, male and female students used a large vocabulary (70 different terms were used 237 times) to refer to all the relationship categories. The various labels and denitions used throughout the narratives could mean that young adults have many different ways to dene a relationship, or it could mean that they do not have clear denitions for their relationships. For example, Bogle (2008) found that the denition of hook up was unclear and had an ambiguous meaning. The large vocabulary also could mean that young adults have many words for describing a few important relationship types

123

178

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

(Taylor 1989). No gender differences were found in any of the four coding categories. Females and males used the same language when discussing these relationship types. Romantic partnership. The rst relationship type discussed in the narratives was romantic partnerships. When young adults discussed romantic partnerships they discussed non-sexual relationships. There were 20 different words used to label a romantic partnership. Involved romantically, dating, a relationship and partner are a few of the words young adults used to label romantic partnerships. Some of the shared language used to dene romantic partnerships included emotional attachment, deep bond and close connection. Young adults used positive and strong, emotionally laden language when discussing the denitions of these romantic partnerships. This language depicts what is gained from being in a romantic partnership. For example, when describing a romantic relationship Adrian used the language deep emotional connection with another person. Young adults were clear that romantic involvement provides emotional closeness and attachment. Adrian repeated in his narrative: Being involved romantically with another person means that you have a deep emotional connection with them. Dating and friendship are examples of two other shared words that were used throughout the narratives to describe romantic involvement. For example, Oliver discussed what he has gained from being romantically involved: Being romantically involved requires feeling more than physical attraction. It is usually with someone you are dating, have been with for a long time, or in cases that I have been through, a best friend that you are extremely close with. Oliver qualied the friendship he has experienced while being romantically involved as a best friend. The wording best friend is powerful because it implies that there is no friendship greater. Olivers discussion of closeness leaves no room for questioning the extent of his feeling. He labels the closeness as extreme. Like Oliver, many of the young adults referred to dating, and also made an association between romantic relationships and friendship. Along with what people personally gain from a romantic partnership, young adults discussed what characteristics they think should be present in such a relationship. Exclusivity, trust, and commitment were shared words used throughout the discussions of characteristics of romantic partnerships. Young adults explained they would know that they were in a romantic partnership if they were in a committed relationship that was exclusive, and if they trusted their partner. The emphasis placed on these three characteristics showed that young adults strongly value these relationship characteristics. Tristan discussed the importance of trust and exclusivity when he was talking about a romantic relationship: Being in a romantic relationship means I can trust the person to tell them anything without worrying about their reaction. For me romantic relationships are based on trust, if you can trust the person and you are in a relationship where you rely on them for support and companionship, and you are involved more than just friends are then you are in a romantic relationship. I have always called this kind of relationship going out or being together; this implies that you are in an exclusive relationship with a person. Overall, the language used to discuss romantic partnerships was laden with positive emotions. Supportive, trustworthy, attraction, without worry, best friends and companionship are a few of the positive shared terms. While some people were

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

179

confused about whether or not they were currently in such a relationship, they were able to clearly state the positive characteristics involved in a romantic Partnership. Sexual partnership. The second relationship type was sexual partnerships. When young adults discussed sexual partnerships they explained relationships that were only sexual. Similar to romantic relationships, both males and females used the same shared language when discussing these sexual partnerships. Eighteen different shared words were used to refer to a strictly sexual relationship. The young adults used many other words that were not used often enough to call them shared language, but were similar to the shared words. For example, fuck buddy was used throughout the narratives, but a few young adults used the words sex buddy. The language used to discuss a sexual partnership was distinctly different from the language used to discuss a romantic partnership. In contrast to young adults discussion of what they gain from romantic partnerships, they discussed sexual partnerships in terms of what the relationship did not offer rather than what it did offer. Some of the shared language phrases used to discuss sexual partnerships included hook up, no emotional attachment, no commitment, and no love. This language emphasizes the absence of various characteristics rather than naming positive characteristics. Emma used a language of decits to discuss a hook-up. She said, A hookup to me, is strictly physical with no emotional attachment or meaning and no strings attached. In addition to saying what the sexual partnership is not, young adults also qualied the relationship by using the word just, for example, just sexual, or just one night. Using the word just implies that the partnership is limited or does not have more to offer than what is explicitly stated. Addisyn explained the way a just sex relationship differs from a committed romantic relationship: People in a sexual relationship are happy with just sex. They dont need the attachment, and they dont really want to have the commitment that comes along with marriage and a romantic relationship. While young adults used the language of what is absent to discuss sexual partnerships, their language was less clear than the language of romantic partnerships. Also, the meanings were more inconsistent between or even within each narrative. In Emmas denition of hook-up, she clearly outlined what it did not include (emotional attachment or meaning), but when she tried to describe what it does include, her denition was more vague, encompassing different behaviors with different contexts. She wrote, I dene a hookup differently depending on whom I am talking with. Ive used the term to describe just making out with someone, and everything in between all the way to having sex. Similar to Emmas discussion of hook-up, there are other shared words that seem to have an unclear or contradictory meaning. Two examples of shared words that were used in confusing ways are friends with benets and fuck buddies. Friends with benets was often used to mean a regular sexual partner. Sometimes friends with benets also were described as people who did not interact with each other under any circumstances that were not sexual. Fuck buddy was most commonly used to mean a person with whom one is sexually active once or twice without any emotional attachment or close bond. Thus, the meanings of friendship words were varied and were not consistent among these young adults. In romantic partnerships, friends and best friends had a positive meaning attached to the language. A friend was used in conjunction with emotional attachment and a close bond. In the case of sexual relations, friends or buddy is not a person with whom one has any attachment or emotional bond. In fact, friends with benets and sex buddies were people who are not well known to each other and may only see each other for sexual encounters. For example, when talking about friends with benets, Joshua said:

123

180

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

If a girl nds a guy to be very attractive they will hit on them and at least in the college years I have seen a lot of the time the girls will go back with the guy even though they dont even really know him. This is the most classic view of friends with benets. In sum, and in contrast to their assessment of romantic relationships, the participants in this study were not clear about the gain or value of sexual partnerships. These young adults used the shared language of one night stands, only physical, or strictly sex to discuss the benets of sexual partnerships, but their discussion did not illustrate whether or not they value these characteristics. Combination partnership. The third relationship category was the combination partnership, which was both sexual and romantic. Committed sexually, emotional attachment, strong feelings, and romance were some of the shared words for combination partnerships. The language used for romantic partnerships and the combination partnerships was very similar. However, young adults had more shared language about the combination partnership than any of the other relationship types. Twenty-seven shared words were used to discuss the combination partnerships, and the language was consistent between the genders. Romantic partnership and the combination partnership narratives not only had much of the same shared language, but also had similar discussions and meanings of the shared language. One way the two categories were similar was illustrated in the value statements about the relationship and explicit discussions using strong positive language. Some of the shared language for a combination partnership was a true relationship, a real relationship, and a healthy relationship. These words all have qualiers (true, real, and healthy) that suggest young adults value this type of relationship. For both romantic and combination partnerships, the young adults discussed the importance of relationship depth by discussing deep connections and emotional bonds. Brandon described sharing a combination relationship with another person as sharing souls. Brandon stated, Someone who shares these two relationships at the same time shares them not only physically, but mentally and with their souls. In discussions about the combination partnership, some young adults used the language of love. Love is a common word associated with relationships in popular culture, but these young adults did not refer to love very often in their descriptions of any of the relationship types with the exception of the combination partnership. Elijah did not seem sure of how to label a combination partnership but decided ultimately to call this type of relationship love: I think that a good healthy relationship is a balance between an emotional connection and taking the time to get to know someone well, and having a strong sexual relationship where both partners are pleased. When these two things are combined, I guess you could call that love. Combination partnership descriptions provided some of the rare examples in which young adults used future-focused language. Exclusivity and commitment were used to describe both romantic partnerships and combination partnerships. However, in the combination partnership, the language extended past exclusivity and commitment to discuss longevity, indicating the value of long lasting relationships. Olivia talked about why she thinks combination partnerships last longer. She said, If a romantic partnership and a sexual partnership are combined, then it equals a good relationship. The two people are then not only emotionally involved, but sexually involved, and the relationship is a lot more likely to last longer. While the romantic and combination partnership language was

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

181

similar, the positive language about combination partnerships was more expansive with more shared language, and the future oriented discussions suggested that the combination partnership was worth keeping. Not yet romantic or sexual. The narratives also revealed a fourth category of relationships that the young adults were unwilling to label as romantic or sexual. We named this category not yet romantic or sexual, as it included relationships that could develop in various directions. The language that was shared in this category was limited and not as extensive as in the other three categories. Five shared words were used to describe the not yet romantic or sexual category: hanging out, talking, friends, irting and casual dating. These ve words were consistent between the genders. Most of the discussions about not yet romantic or sexual partnerships used language about time frames and decision-making. The focus was on a timeframe during which relationships could develop or people could decide what type of relationship they want. Participants described how not yet romantic or sexual provided them with the necessary time to make decisions regarding how interested they were in each other, time to get to know each other, and time before the real relationship begins. Joshua talked about the not yet romantic or sexual as a stage in which people hang out in order to make decisions about a relationship status: The view girls can have about guys is that a particular guy is really fun to hang out with, so he would make a good friend. They [girls] are less likely to jump the gun on a relationship, and more likely to wait for a time to see who the guy really is before they make a relationship decision. The shared words used to discuss not yet romantic or sexual partnership did not have as clear or discernable meanings as the language used for romantic and combination partnerships. The young adults used the word friend in the not yet romantic or sexual category, but it did not seem to match the friend meaning for romantic partnerships or the word friend in sexual partnerships. The not yet romantic or sexual category is a potential starting point for a relationship, but when and how long this type of partnership exists varied. Joshua talked about not yet romantic or sexual as a time for people to decide if they are interested in each other. Many other narratives indicated that being not yet romantic or sexual occurs when two people are already interested in each other. For example, Chase referred to an emergent relationship as talking. He said, His talking to her is the most casual way of saying that he is interested and has gone out a few times. In contrast, when Emma was talking about the various stages of relationships she said hanging out is when people want to publicly show their interest in each other: Hanging out refers to when the two are ready for others to know they are interested in each other, and are taking their relationship one step closer to boyfriend/girlfriend status. I dont consider talking or hanging out to be exclusive relationships. While temporal language was used to discuss not yet romantic or sexual as a starting point, what occurs in the not yet romantic or sexual category seemed to vary. Most young adults used a language of potentiality because they agreed that it is a precursor to another relationship type. Emma discussed the not yet romantic or sexual category as a selfdiscovery period and referred to the lack of shared language that is connected to this partnership. She stated that not yet romantic or sexual has no titles, no commitment, and it is selsh and fun. Emmas discussion of the not yet romantic or sexual partnership also uses temporal language but does not address how much time someone is in this stage:

123

182

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

Nothing is taken for granted since there are no titles or rules. Titles and commitment scare me to be honest, and I want to have fun and be with someone when its right for us both. This is a selsh point in our lives, as well as a self discovery period. Although not yet romantic or sexual is about timing, only parts of the not yet romantic or sexual time have a clear meaning. Young adults were clear that not yet romantic or sexual takes place before a romantic, sexual, or combination relationship begins, but they used varied language to discuss what is involved in this partnership and the specic timeframe people remained in this stage. Hierarchical Language of Romantic and Sexual Relationships Perceptions of a hierarchy of romantic and sexual relationships emerged throughout the discussions about relationships types. The young adults were not asked to identify their own relationship preference in their narratives, but most young adults revealed value-laden language that identied a denite hierarchy for the types of relationships they perceived as better. The hierarchy appeared from the young adults words and discussions about relationship types. Both males and females created the same hierarchy in their language about relationship types. First place. According to the participants, the combination partnership is at the top of the relationship hierarchy. Catlin called the combination partnership, an ideal relationship. She said, When the sexual and romantic aspects are combined I think this is an ideal relationship. Hierarchical language was evident in discussions about all the relationship types. In fact, discussions about sexual, not yet romantic or sexual, and romantic types all referenced the combination partnership as the best relationship possible. The language young adults used for the combination partnership was noticeably different from the language used for all the other relationship types (i.e. perfect, ideal, best). Unlike not yet romantic or sexual and sexual partnerships, discussions about combination partnerships did not have ambiguous language. For example, the values statement Tristan makes about combination partnerships is that there is nothing better than a perfect relationship and this relationship is something he wants to keep: When the two are combined I would call it perfect. I dont know of any ofcial terms but I believe that if you nd a relationship where there is a healthy balance between the romantic and sexual aspects it is a relationship worth holding onto. When the young adults discussed how they valued combination partnerships, the strong positive language they used could be seen as romanticized and idealistic. Audrey said, I would consider a combination of a romantic relationship and a sexual partnership one of the most beautiful things in the world. Participants were clear about the value of this type of relationship and used language that no other type could match. Second place. When discussing romantic partnerships, young adults used the language of gain. Language about romantic partnerships consisted of what these partnerships had to offer. They identied positive feelings associated with romantic partnerships. They also identied the gains they received from this partnership type as important and valuable. Dominic talked about partners who satisfy each other and care about one another. He said, In a romantic relationship, people are caring and want to satisfy each other. They care about one another and want to be together. In a romantic relationship the partners like to do things together. Although participants seemed pleased with the meaning of romantic

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

183

relationships, they still acknowledged that a better relationship exists. When Hannah discussed her own personal relationship she stated that romantic relationships include emotional attachment, but then stated that the combination partnership had even more depth: The difference is that romantic can be those cute little lovey dovey and emotional attachments without sex being involved. For me, a sexual partner is the next step from a romantic relationship; I guess I consider it as a prerequisite. When combined I feel as though the relationship should be more serious, and even more in depth with communication. Romantic relationships were valuable to these young adults, but their language suggests that they would rather have a combination partnership. Tristan discussed the importance of relationships in his life and said, A romantic relationship is much more important than a sexual relationship, though having both at the same time is even better. Third place. As previously discussed, the meaning of not yet romantic or sexual is a starting point for a relationship. Many young adults discussed this relationship type with indifference. Some commented that it is a necessary time to make decisions, and others said it is just a time to get to know each other. No strong language or meaning was attributed to this relationship type like the language that was used in the top of the hierarchy. Chase talked casually about how various outcomes might evolve from a not yet romantic or sexual relationship. He said, This would be the stage where the term talking to would be appropriate. From here the relationship would grow and most likely sexual intercourse would become a factor. A what are we discussion would then pursue. Based on the young adults language, this type of partnership does not seem to inherently offer any benets, but the language is not about decits either. Chase talked about the potential for growth and Chloe talked about hanging out as the potential precursor for a romantic relationship: At rst we used to hang out in groups and then eventually he asked me if I wanted to watch a movie or go out to dinner, just so the two of us could hang out. It was at this point that I realized that he and I would soon be entering a romantic relationship. Overall, not yet romantic or sexual did not have strong language or positive words associated with it. However, this partnership suggests potential in the hierarchy of relationships. Not yet romantic or sexual is a hopeful partnership. Fourth place. Sexual partnerships were the bottom rung of the relationship hierarchy ladder. While many young adults said that they engaged in sexual partnerships, the language used to discuss sexual partnerships indicated their low value. Sexual partnerships were constantly discussed in a language of decits about what they did not offer rather then what they did offer. When using the language of decits, the young adults often were referring to the same characteristics they referred to in romantic partnerships, but highlighted the absence of these characteristics in sexual partnerships. This language focused on what was missing and built stories of lack or deciency. While young adults in this sample discussed what they liked about sexual relationships, they followed up their discussion with a desire to nd a better relationship. Colin talked about the value of girls who are looking for just sex, but he is still looking for a relationship that has more than just sex: I could have a sexual partnership with girls that are just looking for sex from me. This kind of understanding on both parts would be how separate relationships of

123

184

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

fuck buddies (pardon my language) begins. This is a person that can be called on at any time that I am feeling horny to have sex with no strings attached. A lot of guys in college maintain this kind of relationship with multiple girls so that they can just hook up whenever they please and still be free to look for the girl that they want to be involved in relationship with. Not only were sexual relationships discussed in terms of decits, but they also lack potential. All other relationship categories have some potential to be a better or best relationship. According to many of the young adults, once people experience a sexual relationship, they cannot move to the not yet romantic or sexual because they are past the starting out time frame. A sexual partnership cannot change into a romantic partnership because sex is already present, and it cannot move up the hierarchy to a combination partnership either, even if feelings start to develop. Ava talked about the difculty of a sexual relationship changing into any other type of relationship: Any fuck-buddy situation I have ever heard of has always gotten complicated at some point. Either one person starts getting too emotionally involved and wants more of a committed, romantic relationship, or they both become more interested and things start becoming awkward. Since sexual relationships have no potential to move up the hierarchy, they are considered dead end relationships. Emily said that many people look for another relationship with meaning. She also said that feelings may develop in a sexual relationship but when the feelings are not returned she feels empty and guilty: Speaking from my personal experience, I know that hooks-ups may also come with the emotions of guilt and a feeling of emptiness if loving feelings for ones partner are developed yet not returned. Many people may nd themselves looking for something more meaningful. The main quality that the young adults said sexual partnerships offer is sex without attachment. Subsequently, they talked about how sex is not fullling in a strictly sexual relationship. The main benet of a sexual relationship is not truly a benet. Elizabeth talked about how sexual partnerships are not only unsatisfying but can also leave her feeling uncared for and hurt: In my own experience, I feel like sex in a sexual relationship can be very unsatisfying. My partner in this relationship was not in tune to my feelings and needs when it came to sex and he only cared about himself. This in turn left me always wanting more and in the long run hurt me very badly. The young adults said participating in sexual relationships can hurt. The relationship stories they created used language that suggests they do not value purely sexual partnerships. In fact, the language creates a story of relationship deciency, no relationship potential, and emotional hurt and pain. Confused or Uncertain Relationship Stories Throughout the narratives, stories about confusion and uncertainty surfaced as soon as the young adults began writing about relationship types. Participants were confused about explaining their own romantic or sexual relationships, as if they did not know when they were in one type of relationship or another. For Natalie, the uncertainty language appeared

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

185

as she discussed romantic versus sexual relationships. She said, It is very hard to know whether you are in a romantic relationship or a sexual one. Some of the uncertainty in the relationship stories came from connecting their own relationships to their denitions and terms. Specically, the participants did not know what their partners thought about their relationship. The discussions of relationship types suggested that they do not discuss the type of relationship they are in with their partners. Throughout the narratives, the young adults often gave meaning to a relationship type, but then followed up by saying, I am not sure what type of relationship I am in, or I am not sure what my partner would call this relationship. This uncertainty related to a lack of communication and making decisions about the type of relationship alone. Aaron stated that he needed to talk with his partner before labeling the relationship but, he was not comfortable initiating that conversation: I guess to answer the question how do you know you are in a romantic relationship is kind of difcult. Usually, I try my best not to really ask the question, well what are we now? Sometimes you really have to ask that though. Isabella did not know how to differentiate between the shared language of romantic or sexual partnerships, that for her, had ambiguous meanings: Sometimes it is difcult to know when you are in a romantic relationship. Since, in this day and age, it is very common for people to get involved sexually without romantic feelings for one another; there is sometimes a blurry line between an exclusive, real relationship, and a hook-up or friends with benets. Some young adults went a step further and bluntly admitted that they did not understand the language that they and their peers are using. Sophia explained that she has never experienced a hook up and therefore did not understand what a hook-up was. She said, Because I do not hook-up myself it still confuses me. Maybe I have had a hook-up, but since I do not understand it I do not think I have. Like Sophia, Ryan used transparent language about his confusion: As you can tell I am still confused in the whole relationship thing. The young adults acknowledged that they are bombarded by many outside inuences that teach them about relationships. Isaac stated that these inuences can make relationships more confusing, stating that people are ruled by others rather than by themselves. Society and the dominant culture have a large impact on language and the meanings attributed to relationships. The impact can confuse young adults when they do not know why they need to act a certain way or be a certain way in a relationship. These outside inuences that Isaac referred to can create and maintain stories of uncertainty (Freedman and Combs 1996). Issac said, I nd dating can be somewhat difcult and confusing. The society of dating is often ruled by others and not the actual people trying to partake in a relationship.

Discussion In this study, young adults employed a large vocabulary to discuss a few specic relationships. We were surprised to nd that male and female peers shared the same language. Participants used 20 or more shared words to describe romantic and combination partnerships, and most of their language represented clearly dened concepts. Their discussions were lled with positive adjectives and words, which revealed the high values placed on these relationship types. These two categories were characterized by gain and future

123

186

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

language, which placed these relationships at the top of the hierarchy. The not yet romantic or sexual category was lled with temporal language to explain that not yet romantic or sexual is only a stage. While there were fewer shared words in the not yet romantic or sexual category, there was also less similarity in the meanings discussed and the underlying relationship pattern was not as clear. Sexual relationships were at the bottom of the hierarchy. The young adults sexual language in these narratives depicted a clear understanding of what a sexual relationship did not offer. Further, many of the participants ended their narratives by stating that they were looking for something better than a sexual relationship. The word friend was used in each relationship category and demonstrates how confusing the vocabulary is and how important context is for interpretation. In romantic and combination partnerships, young adults referred to a best friend and close friends. In sexual relationships, young adults discussed friends with benets, and in not yet romantic or sexual partnerships, young adults talked about being friends or just friends. The word friend did not hold the same meaning in all of these categories. In romantic and combination partnerships, the word friend was used in a way comparable to the relational type the researchers anticipated, whereas the word friend in sexual partnerships and not yet romantic or sexual partnerships was used to refer to different mental images. Another way the stories of confusion were told was through contradictory or unclear discussions about sexual relationships. With sexual partnerships, young adults used decit language, but then justied the relationship and explained why relational decits might be good. Since realities, from a narrative perspective, are socially constructed, we turned to society to learn more about the current reality of sexual relationships (Freedman and Combs 1996; Monk et al. 1997). The dominant culture suggests that both males and females should want sexual relationships. Because men in our society are supposed to want sexual relationships naturally and women are supposed to be more sexually liberated now than in the past (Holland et al. 1998; Jackson and Cram 2003; Lees 1993; Risman and Schwartz 2002; Tolman 2002), young adults may feel a need to say they want these relationships. The young adults acknowledged these sexual scripts, but their stated desires ultimately reject the dominant cultural scripts. Males and females report wanting more than just a sexual relationship, even though they are aware that the cultural message suggests they should want purely sex. Specically, the males discussed the purely sexual relationships and their involvement in them, while their language devalued this type of relationship and rejected the gendered sexual script. Both males and females equally used a language of decits and noted what the strictly sexual relationships do not offer. The young adults offset their decit language to say they wanted these relationships just like society tells them they should. In fact, the participants reported they felt outside pressures to act a certain way in a relationship or to obtain a certain type of relationship. Tolman (2002) states that girls are bombarded with confusing and contradictory dominant culture messages about how they should manage their developing sexuality. One of these messages is not to be a prude but also not to be a slut. Such messages are similar to the confusing and contradictory narratives of the young adults in this study regarding sexual relationships. While these young adults were able to categorize, explain, and sometimes justify their thoughts about relationships, when they began talking about their own relationships, they overtly acknowledged confusion and uncertainty. There was a disconnect between their shared language, the meaning they attributed to relationship types, and their own experience of relationships. Participants used words like confused, hard and not sure when talking about their own relationships. Often, they did not know what type of relationships they were in themselves and they did not know how to communicate with their partners about their relationship (Bogle 2008). How do they know what relationship is best

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

187

if they have never experienced the relationship? While the young adults agree that the combined partnership is the best, they have limited or no evidence to suggest that this notion is true. Much of their united language and meaning may be a result of cultural or societal values rather than personal experience. Young adults live through their stories, and many of their stories were about the combination partnership as an idealistic relationship. Since many of them stated they have not experienced the combination partnership, it is hard to know how attainable or realistic their expectations for this type of relationship are.

Clinical Implications Therapists can use the principles from NFT and the discussion from these 57 young adults to better understand the changing language of romantic and sexual relationships (Bogle 2008). A previous study about relationship status recommended that future research clarify relationship language, because language is always evolving (Surra et al. 2007). As therapists, we can use the shared language found in Table 1 as a way to connect with clients. Because making decisions about signicant relationships often happens during young adulthood (Erikson 1950), therapists need to be prepared to help young adults (1) clarify the meaning of their relationship language, (2) negotiate hierarchical language, and (3) re-story confusion. First, therapists must prepare themselves by learning about their clients language. Knowing and understanding clients language is not only important to NFTs but to family therapists in general, no matter their theoretical orientation. Therefore, learning about young adults romantic and sexual language could benet all therapists working with this population (Cottrell and Boston 2002; Muntigl 2004). In addition to therapists understanding the language, they also can help their clients understand the language they are using. Helping young adults clarify the meaning of their language is specically important for NFTs because in this approach it is believed that language creates reality (Freedman and Combs 1996). Therapists can do this by asking young adults for their interpretation of the words they are using (Cottrell and Boston 2002). For example, a client may talk about his or her desire to hook up and the therapist could ask the client to clarify the meaning of a hook up. However, after dening it out loud, the client may realize that it is not a hook up prefers, but rather a connection with someone emotionally. This exercise can help the therapist understand as well as make the meaning clearer for the client. With the clients language, the therapist then can talk to the young adult about what it was like to attempt to connect emotionally or whether he or she wants to continue to attempt to connect in the same way. Some participants in this study offered denitions for relationship types that were ambiguous and confusing, suggesting that the young adults did not have a clear denition of the words they were using. Asking young adults to journal about their relationships or their ideas about relationships (Stone 1998) is one way for clients to reect on the words they use and gain insight into how they take language from various sources (Muntigl 2004). In addition, young adults can bring their journals into therapy and discuss their word choices and language. Because the written language can differ from how young adults speak, the therapist can help the client make a connection between the words the therapist hears and what the client is writing. Also, the young adults in this study had trouble connecting their relationship labels and denitions to their own lives and relationships. Part of this confusion may be due to a lack of experience. In instances such as this, a therapist can help a client prepare for the future by helping him or her set realistic and healthy relationship expectations.

123

188 Table 1 Young adults shared language for four partnership types

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

Partnership type Combination partnership

Shared language Ideal True Real Love Healthy Committed sexually Emotional attachment Strong feelings Romance Deep connections Close friends A relationship Dating Partner Emotional attachment Bond Connection Exclusivity Trust Commitment Supportive Trustworthy Attraction Without worry Best friends Companionship Hanging out Talking Friends Flirting Casual dating Hook up Friends with benets Booty call Fuck buddy No emotional attachment No commitment No love Just sexual One night stands Only physical Strictly sex

Romantic partnership

Not yet romantic or sexual partnership

Sexual partnership

Secondly, therapists can help clients negotiate the hierarchical language. Part of setting realistic expectations involves challenging dominant cultural inuences. If a therapist is familiar with the shared words young adults are using, they may have a better understanding of how dominant cultural messages may be inuencing their clients language. The hierarchical language used by the participants in this study illustrates the inuence of the dominant culture on young adults perceptions of relationships. Helping young adults become aware of societal inuences can help build insight. These young adults often justied sexual relationships while using language that devalued that type of relationship. Therefore, helping young adults sort out this contradiction is critical. They also described an idealistic relationship, but then reported that most of them had not experienced this type

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

189

of relationship. Therapists can begin by highlighting the hierarchical language and encouraging young adults to know why they prefer certain types of relationships. Having a relationship hierarchy is not inherently good or bad, but therapists can encourage young adults to understand how they may be inuenced by societal values. Therapists should encourage young adults to choose what type of relationship they want once clients have sorted out the types of outside inuences that may be affecting their realities. Third, therapists can use the shared language described in this study to help clients re-story their relationships. Stories of confusion or uncertainty were created by a lack of communication between partners. Participants often said they did not know what type of relationship they were in because they had not discussed it with their partners. Therapists can coach young adults on how to communicate with their partners in a comfortable way as well as provide psychoeducation on healthy communication and the possible consequences of not communicating effectively. Mongeau et al. (2007) found communicating to be one of the most important ways to reduce dating confusion and uncertainty. Therapists also can search for the young adults sexual or romantic experiences that did not get storied. Adding those experiences may change the confusion story to a preferred story (Muntigl 2004). The therapists goal is to encourage clients to write their own stories and appreciate any differences they may have when compared to those of the dominant culture or their peers. Ultimately, therapists can help young adults become aware of dominant cultural inuences on their individual stories so each can choose to maintain or resist the dominant message and create his or her own meanings and stories. According to NFTs, when the language that participated in creating a particular reality changes, then change can occur in actions, relationships, beliefs, and values (Freedman and Combs 1996; Monk et al. 1997). A young adult may be surprised to nd that using different language may not only make more sense to him or her, but also will help him or her feel differently. Negotiating new meanings for the language that is used to describe sexual and romantic relationships can help eliminate confusion, and create new stories, therefore, new realities. As we learn about young adults shared language we can then invite our clients to describe their relationships and what they want from their relationships in a different language that does not make dating such hard work.

References
Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469480. Bogdan, R., & Biklen, S. (1998). Qualitative research in education (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon. Bogle, K. A. (2008). Hooking up: Sex, dating, and relationships on campus. New York: New York University Press. Cantor, N., Acker, M., & Cook-Flanagan, C. (1992). Conict and preoccupation in the intimacy life task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 644655. Carpenter, L. M. (2002). Gender and the meaning and experience of virginity loss in the contemporary United States. Gender & Society, 16, 345365. Cook, H. (2004). The long sexual revolution: English women, sex, and contraception, 18001975. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Cottrell, D., & Boston, P. (2002). Practitioner review: The effectiveness of systemic family therapy for children and adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 573586. Cox, J., & Dittmar, H. (1995). The functions of clothes and clothing (dis)satisfaction: A gender analysis among British students. Journal of Consumer Policy, 18, 237266. Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

123

190

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

Eshbaugh, E. M., & Gute, G. (2008). Hookups and sexual regret among college women. The Journal of Social Psychology, 148, 7789. Freedman, J., & Combs, G. (1996). Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York: Norton. Furman, W., & Hand, L. S. (2006). The slippery nature of romantic relationships: Issues in denition and differentiation. In A. C. Crouter & A. Booth (Eds.), Romance and sex in adolescence and emerging adulthood: Risks and opportunities (pp. 171178). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Gute, G., & Eshbaugh, E. M. (2008). Personality as a predictor of hooking up among college students. Journal of Community Health Nursing, http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title*content=t775648098* db=all*tab=issueslist*branches=25-v2525,26-43. Hampel, A. D., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2008). Commitment expectation in romantic relationships: Application of a prototype interaction-pattern model. Personal Relationships, 15, 81102. Havighurst, R. J. (1972). Developmental tasks and education (3rd ed.). New York: McKay. Hoffman, L. (1990). Constructing realities: An art of lenses. Family Process, 29, 112. Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (1998). The male in the head: Young people, heterosexuality and power. London: Tufnell Press. Jackson, S. M., & Cram, F. (2003). Disrupting the sexual double standard: Young womens talk about heterosexuality. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 113127. Karremans, J. C., & Verwijmeren, T. (2008). Mimicking attractive opposite-sex others: The role of romantic relationship status. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 939950. Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, re, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Lambert, T. A., Kahn, A. S., & Apple, K. J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and booking up. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 129133. Lau, R. R., Quadrel, M. J., & Hartman, K. A. (1990). Development and change of young adults preventive health beliefs and behavior: Inuence from parents and peers. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 31, 240259. Leach, E. (1964). Anthropological aspects of language: Animal categories and verbal abuse. In E. H. Lenneberg (Ed.), New directions in the study of language (pp. 2363). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Lees, S. (1993). Sugar and spice: Sexuality and adolescent girls. London: Penguin. Mongeau, P. A., Jacobsen, J., & Donnerstein, C. (2007). Dening dates and rst date goals: Generalizing from undergraduates to single adults. Communication Research, 34, 526547. Monk, G., Winslade, J., Crocket, K., & Epston, D. (Eds.). (1997). Narrative therapy in practice: The archaeology of hope. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Montgomery, M. J., & Sorell, G. T. (1998). Love and dating experiences in early and middle adolescence: Grade and gender comparisons. Journal of Adolescence, 21, 677689. Muntigl, P. (2004). Ontogenesis in narrative therapy: A linguistic-semiotic examination of client change. Family Process, 43, 109131. Patrick, M. E., Maggs, J. L., & Abar, C. C. (2007). Reasons to have sex, personal goals, and sexual behavior during the transition to college. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 240249. Paul, E. L., McManus, B., & Hayes, A. (2000). Hookups: Characteristics and correlates of college students spontaneous and anonymous sexual experiences. The Journal of Sex Research, 37, 7688. Peplau, L. A. (2003). Human sexuality: How do men and women differ. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(2), 3740. Reinisch, J. M., & Beasley, R. (1990). The Kinsey Institute new report on sex: What you must know to be sexually literate. New York: St. Martins Press. Risman, B., & Schwartz, P. (2002). After the sexual revolution: Gender politics in teen dating. Contexts, 1, 1624. Shulman, S., & Kipnis, O. (2001). Adolescent romantic relationships: A look from the future. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 337351. Shulman, S., & Scharf, M. (2000). Adolescent romantic behaviors and perceptions: Age- and gender related differences, and links with family and peer relationships. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 99118. Stone, M. (1998). Journaling with clients. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 45, 435545. Surra, C. A., Boettcher-Burke, T. M. J., Cottle, N. R., West, A. R., & Gray, C. R. (2007). The treatment of relationship status in research on dating and mate selection. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 207221. Taylor, J. R. (1989). Linguistic categorization: Prototypes in linguistic theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

123

Contemp Fam Ther (2010) 32:173191

191

Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Walsh, W. M., & Keenan, R. (1997). Narrative family therapy. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 5, 332336. Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2002). The development of romantic relationships and adaptations in the system of peer relationships. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 216225.

123

Copyright of Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal is the property of Springer Science & Business Media B.V. and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.