Uncertainty and Ambivalence in Young Urban Mobile Single Adult Romantic Relationships

Posted on 06. Aug, 2011 by in Research Papers

AFARRI Articles From the Archives of the Romantic Relationship Institute August 2011

Billy Lee Kidd, PhD ­­­­­

Abstract

The uncertain nature of young urban mobile single adult [YUMS] romantic relationships was conceptualized in this study through the use of grounded theory methods. Informed by social constructivist theory, the data were analyzed within an Atlas.ti software environment. The results supported a core category that the uncertainty inherent in the lives of young adults creates not only a peer group attitude of ambivalence toward long-term romantic relationships and marriage but a feeling that the traditional guidelines for romantic relationships are dysfunctional and outdated. While supporting these results, a contrast study held in a different region of the United States demonstrated the presence of a bifurcated young adult population: one segment of the population is actively working at improving cross-gender intimate communications while the other group is actively working to avoid romantic intimacy altogether.

Key words: young adult, emerging adulthood, romantic relationships, marriage, ambivalence, uncertainty, friendship network, Mensa

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There has been a sizable shift in the sociocultural forces that influence young urban mobile single adult [YUMS] romantic relationships (Arnett, 2004). Their relationships have been impacted by technological innovations, a globalized job market, increased mobility, a shift in gender roles, as well as by the deinstitutionalization of marriage (Coontz, 2006; Le Bourdais & Lapierre-Adamcyk, 2004). This creates so much uncertainty in romantic affiliations that the traditional milestones and timelines for relationships have become ambiguous (Collins & van Dulmen, 2006; Kidd, 2009; Reitzle, 2007; Vennum & Fincham, 2011). It follows that the traditional ways in which social scientists conceptualize young adult romantic affiliations may not always be sufficient to describe what is occurring within this new sociocultural milieu.

The purpose of this research project was to create an expanded understanding of the sociocultural stage on which young urban mobile single adults, between 18 and 30, act out their romantic relationships. The objective therein was to build a grounded theory which conceptualizes the peer group epistemological understandings on which young adults base their decisions about romance. While the literature has acknowledged the ambiguous nature of young adult affiliations (Arnett, 2004; Collins and van Dulmen, 2006), there has been few attempts to create a grounded theory that conceptualizes how relationships actually take place within the postmodern young adult sociocultural milieu. Without such an explanation, the gaps in the literature concerning the young adult population remain unfilled (Gibbons & Ashdown, 2006; Hendry & Kloep, 2007). In the meantime, this population continues to be misunderstood and does not obtain full societal support in building the next generation of families (Clark, 2004).

A social psychology constructivist perspective (Vygotsky, 1978) guided the research process during this study. This perspective holds that individuals construct the meanings of their personal relationships within the context of a peer group knowledge base (Blumer, 1969). It follows that the interview protocol was designed to uncover the common peer group understandings that the research participants used for interpreting what is going on within their romantic relationships. It was held that these understandings would be unique to the participants’ postmodern cohort and, therefore, differ from that of previous generations of young adults (Eyerman & Turner, 1998).

Methods

Research Participants

This project involved two separate studies, a primary study and a contrast study. For the primary study, 12 participants were selected by convenience sampling. They were between 19 and 29 years old. Their mean age was 25. While half the participants were currently enrolled in school, 2 of the 12 participants had master’s degrees, 7 participants had baccalaureate degrees, and 2 participants had associate degrees. There were 3 males and 9 females who participated. Nine of the participants were employed. Eight of the participants lived in Portland, Oregon, and four lived in the San Rosa, California. There was no requirement that participants had to currently be involved in a romantic relationship, and only half were. None were married, and none had children.

The contrast study was conducted at the 2007 Mensa USA, Inc., Annual Gathering (for details see, Kidd, 2009). The 4 participants were from Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Ages ranged from 18 to 29. One participant had a baccalaureate degree, two were enrolled in undergraduate programs, and one was a high school graduate. Two were employed. All were single and did not have children. None were currently involved in a serious romantic relationship.

Research Design

Grounded theory methods (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser, 2001) were used to construct a theory that explains the tentative nature of single young adult romantic relationships (Arnett, 2004). This was accomplished by combining phenomenological methods of data gathering and theme abstraction (Giorgi, 1985) with grounded theory heuristics. The use of data gathered in  this fashion is in keeping with Glaser’s (2001) dictum that “all is data.” The overall method was justified further by Charmaz’s (2006) reasoning that any sound method of gathering and analyzing data can be used in combination with grounded theory practices. The Atlas.ti  (Scientific Software Development, 2007) qualitative data analysis program was used for analyzing the data.

Procedure

For the primary study, there were two initial focus groups, followed by four individual interviews. The coding process rendered 115 phenomenological-based meaning units that were abstracted from the transcripts of the combined dialogues (Giorgi, 1985). These phenomenological-based meaning units were treated as the equivalent of focused-coding units (Charmaz, 2006).

Six natural categories emerged from these coding units when they were analyzed with grounded theory methods (See Appendix A). This process involved using abductive inference (Pierce, 1974, 1979) coupled with a constant-comparative sorting method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This procedure of discovering categories was facilitated by the unique Atlas.ti sorting system that ties quotations of the interview transcript to the codes and memos that arise from them. During this process, lower-order codes that related to general themes were placed into columns on Atlas.ti network pages. These columns of interrelated codes were combined hierarchically through the creation of higher-order codes that synthesized emergent themes. This process continued until six theoretical categories were produced.

These theoretical categories were then woven together into a narrative which explained the participants’ collective peer-group story (Glaser, 1978). That narrative, when reworked for verbal and scientific clarity, was transformed into a grounded theory. That theory conceptualized how the uncertainty in the participants’ sociocultural milieu creates feelings of ambivalence towards serious, long-term romantic relationships and marriage.

Research Participant Member Check

Member-checking has become an integrated part of grounded theory practice for establishing credibility as an alternative to internal validity (Charmaz, 2006; Lincoln & Guba, 1985, 1999). To that end, the six superordinate theoretical codes that supported the core category in the primary study were discussed with one of the research participants. The participant said these statements represent how her peers understand these issues. Thereafter, all six charts that depicted the six superordinate theoretical categories were reviewed by another research participant. That participant noted that charts explained his “whole life.” After the first draft of the report for the current study was written, parts of it were presented to one of the research participants. That participant agreed that the ideas and concepts in the paper represented a clear picture of how his peers approached romantic relationships. At each stage of the member check, the feedback from the participants was incorporated into the succeeding draft of the evolving, final report.

Contrast Study

In qualitative studies, transferability is a proxy for external validity (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, 1999). When a conceptualization can be transferred to other research endeavors, it enhances the trustworthiness of the original study, thereby increasing its authenticity. To that end, a separate focus group was held in Birmingham, Alabama. It took place at the 2007 Mensa USA, Inc., Annual Gathering (for details see, Kidd, 2009). The same research methods that were used in the primary study rendered 40 focused-coding units. When those were analyzed, four theoretical categories emerged from the data. When woven together, they formed an adjunct theory that supported the findings from the primary study, which are reported in the next section.

Results from the Primary Study

Six major theoretical categories emerged from the transcripts of the individual and focus group interviews. These categories supported, explained, and elucidated the core category that the uncertainty inherent in the young adult sociocultural milieu creates a peer group attitude of ambivalence towards serious long-term romantic relationships and marriage. These theoretical categories are discussed below and are followed by the grounded theory that emerged from them.

Six Emergent Theoretical Categories

Romance as a Non-Committed Learning Experience

The research participants reported that making life course decisions concerning career, finances, and lifestyle was generally more important than establishing serious long-term romantic relationships. They did not use the expression committed relationship, however, when discussing this. That was because committing to a relationship was seen as something people did at age 30 or older. Before that age, romantic relationships were so tenuous that the idea of commitment seemed unattainable.

The tenuousness of this situation was reflected in the fact that young adult relationship behaviors are so variegated that there are no agreed upon peer group guidelines for romance. That was made clear during a focus group discussion. A 29-year-old male consultant said:

I think it’s very unclear—the differences between romance, and dating, and relationships. Is it all the same thing? Is it different facets to the same piece?  What is appropriate, and what is not—it’s very confusing … There aren’t any clear rules to dating, even much less for all relationships. There’s not really any set of guidelines.

Evidence of how this causes confusion in romantic affiliations was evident in every interview. Without common peer group guidelines, definitions, or milestones, each relationship is approached as a new situation where one learns by trial and error. Under these circumstances, romance becomes a non-committed learning experience. Inherent in this conceptualization is that dating often is a casual, dressed-down experience where finding a marriage partner is not a central concern. Dating itself is sometimes replaced by social endeavors where a person is invited to participate in an activity with a potential-partner’s friends.

In this environment, choosing romantic or sexual partners is sometimes a product of rational choice rather than the outcome of falling in love. Passionate romantic love was, in fact, seen as too unstable a foundation on which to base a long-term relationship. Rather than search for a permanent partner, the participants tended to analyze whether someone met their present functional needs. This focus on ration decision-making, however, does not mean the participants did not fall in love. Falling in love was, rather, as one participant said, “Something you try once or twice, and then move on because it is just too crazy.”

Cautious Romantic Attachment

The research participants reported that the process of bonding to a romantic partner was a serious issue to be approached with caution. They said that all too many couples in their parents’ generation were bonded together in a contentious relationship that embodied an endless argument. Rather than faulting their parents’ generation, however, they blamed the traditional bonding process itself for such relationships. Falling in love in order to create a committed romantic partnership simply does not make sense. An in-love passionate attachment was seen as being a very unstable, unreliable bond, which often implodes on itself. They said there had to be a better way to create a long-term relationship.

As it stood, however, there was no agreed upon approach for romantic bonding to replace falling madly in love. When the participants spoke of romantic bonding, they said their cautious style of making romantic attachments could be likened to putting a potential partner through a vetting process. This is different than what was traditionally called dating. Bonding and dating were often seen as separate issues, similar to how sex and reproduction have become separated (Baker, 2008). The bonding process was more akin to watching how a potential long-term partner handles oneself in various situations over time. This slow process of building a relationship differs from the traditional act of making a blind commitment that cannot be renegotiated, except through divorce.

It followed that the participants did not speak of searching for the perfect soul mate. They said there are too many life course tasks to accomplish before they could be that serious about finding a partner. In all actuality, only one of the 12 research participants in the primary study, a 29-year-old woman, was actively looking for a permanent mate. But the participants also noted that the tentative relationships they participated in were not necessarily what they really wanted or desired. It was, rather, all they could achieve considering their current socioeconomic statuses and standing within society. Moreover, they said that a subgroup containing, perhaps, 20% of their peers rejected the very idea of intimacy between partners and romantic attachment in favor of having no-strings-attached sexual liaisons.

Friends Provide Emotional Support

Friends often figured more prominently than romantic partners in providing emotional support for the participants. They also turned to their everyday friends more often for the emotional support than to their families. This included seeking out their friends to get feedback and insight concerning stressful social issues, such as problems concerning sexuality and romantic partners.

Within their friendship circles, the research participants generally developed intimate cross-gender, communication skills. The development of these skills was seen as a necessary preparation for later serious romantic relationships. It follows that the mutuality and emotional support found within a best friends’ affiliations becomes something that might be expected in future long-term romantic relationships. Yet, with such a strong reliance on friends to provide so much of each other’s emotional support, the participants reported that they do not always expect a deep emotional attachment to take place in their current romantic relationships.

Low Key Sexual Relationships

The research participants reported that their approach to sexual relationships varies from that of previous generations of young adults. Nowadays, the period between reaching sexual maturity and selecting a long-term partner generally lasts from between 10 and 20 years. Consequently, casual sex practices have replaced the search for long-term partners and getting married. As a result, there is a strong focus on preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

At the same time, sexual exploration has become an accepted female prerogative. Women want to embrace their sexuality because it is an important part of life. What is more, being judged by how many sexual partners one has had was seen as being outdated.

It followed that the participants reported that their peers generally did not make moral judgments about each other’s sexual behaviors. They said that seeking sexual pleasure was normal and that one does not have to be passionately in love in order to have a sexual relationship.

In taking these positions, the participants said they believed they still held to the same values regarding sex as their parents. What is different is their way of expressing those values. They said, however, that a subgroup of their peers—the singlehood, no-strings-attached crowd—may, in the long run, prove to be different from their parents because of the value they place on having sex without emotional intimacy.

Marriage is De-emphasized

The research participants saw marriage as a relationship that would occur at a later stage of their lives when they had obtained full adulthood statuses. Attainment of those statuses would allow them to carry adult responsibilities, one of which was involvement in a long-term serious relationship.

They said that their peers had set the bar for marriage quite high because they were quite leery of repeating the marriage patterns demonstrated by their parents. Those was described as falling in love, marrying, and having children, followed by incessant arguing, divorce, and then repeating the pattern all over again. Consequently, marriage was seen as a negotiated agreement, not as a contract.

As such, the functionality and satisfaction of a relationship was seen as being dependent on the level of the partners’ communication skills. The only milestones leading to marriage were finishing school and establishing economic independence. Yet, the participants also expected that future partners would have achieved a semblance of emotional maturity and would be capable of admitting to their mistakes.

Current partners, however, were often exempt from the high expectations pertaining to future marital partners. That was because current romantic and sexual relationships were regarded as transitional learning experiences. From this position, past relationships could be seen as win-win affiliations, where both people had learned something.

Of note is that the participants saw the general economic and demographic strength of today’s robust singlehood culture as acting as a counterweight that is balanced against the traditional marriage culture. Singles supported each other emotionally and maintained lifestyles that conflicted with the prospect of long-term partnering and marriage. Also, the fact that motherhood is under-supported by society was seen as a factor making it harder to commit to having children. And so, it followed that three of the participants reported no interest in getting married and having children.

Postmodern Developmental Tasks

The research participants reported that in today’s complex world assertive behaviors are essential for mastering the tasks that establish full adulthood statuses. Yet they reported that some young adults react with indifference toward establishing those statuses. Such indifference was generally tolerated by the participants’ peers until age 26. Thereafter, it was expected that friends and colleagues stop “acting like adolescents and grow up.”

A young adult woman’s life-course task was to discover economic independence, not the establishment of a long-term romantic relationship. This arises from young single adult women’s increasing sense of economic and sexual empowerment. Young women were also expected to develop a strong sense of self. Therefore, a young woman would not necessarily expect to have a strong we-ness identity from being part of a couple when she did marry. Nor were young women expected to base their future identity solely on being a mother. In this context, the participants reported that a romantic partner should be but one person in a married individuals’ social support network, not the entire connection.

The male participants had low-key attitudes about how gender roles were changing. So, for example, in one of the focus groups two women were discussing cross-gender friends having sex together, a behavior called friends with benefits. The dialogue ensued as follows:

First Woman: “I think that friends with benefits is along the lines where there’s always one person that kind of thinks it may be going somewhere, or would want it to, and the other person could care less if the relationship ended tomorrow.”

Second Woman: “It’s usually the male that doesn’t care.”

First Woman: “I’ve been in a situation where it was the other way around.”

Second Woman: “That happens.”

Male Participant: “You go, girl!”

The young man’s low-key response elicited laughter. But the expression “you go, girl,” basically translates to “get it on, girl!” By saying this, he not only lowered the cross-gender tension in the discussion but volunteered his support for female assertiveness and self-determination.

This was typical of how the young adult men handled cross-gender tension in the focus group discussions. This reflected the fact that there was no apparent gender differences in willingness and ability to communicate about romantic, sexual, and gender identity issues.

Theory of Uncertainty and Ambivalence in Young Adult Romantic Relationships

All six of the theoretical categories discussed in the previous section related to the uncertainty and ambivalence that young adults experience in their romantic relationships. When woven together into a conceptual narrative, they generated a theory that elucidates and explains the peer group understandings that provide the social framework in which the participants’ romantic relationships took place. That theory is stated as follows:

Young urban mobile single adults have no agreed-upon peer group guidelines for romantic relationships. This creates a social environment where romantic relationships are seen as tentative affiliations. The impact of this situation creates a peer group sense of ambivalence toward passionate romantic partnering, long-term commitments, and marriage.

It follows that romantic relationships are often seen as non-committed learning experiences. This attitude arises from a social milieu in which serious romantic relationships must compete for time and energy against career goals, financial concerns, and casual sex affiliations that are supported by a strong singlehood culture. Consequently, many young adults have adopted a style of romantic attachment whereby they make rational decisions about serious relationships during a cautious commitment process.

Within this milieu, socially successful young adults often display an assertive style of communication in their cross-gender interactions. These exchanges may eventually lead to negotiated romantic relationships where partners support each other’s career and life course goals. Yet due to a lack of role models that exemplify intimate relationships, social success can be conceived of in terms of superficial affiliations for sexual convenience. Consequently, some young adults may want to have a meaningful relationship but feel ambivalent about trying to do so because they would not know how.

In this environment, young adults often rely on their friends to provide emotional support, companionate bonding, and a place to improve cross-gender communication skills. This companionate support acts as a coping mechanism for coping within this ambiguous relationship  milieu, where changed timelines and milestones delay young adult involvement in committed romantic partnerships.

The ambiguous character of romantic relationships within this social environment propels a subgroup of young adults to focus their social energies on partying and having fun. Their casual-sex relationships preclude opportunities to learn intimate cross-gender communication skills that might eventually lead to meaningful relationships. As a result, they shun bonded attachments and reject the prospect of serious long-term relationships.

Results from the Contrast Study

A separate study was undertaken to demonstrate whether the same research methods used on the West Coast of the United States yielded similar results on the East Coast. To that end, a focus group was held with four young adult attendees at the 2007 Mensa Annual Gathering in Birmingham, Alabama.

Forty themes arose from the transcript of that discussion. When those themes were examined from a grounded theory perspective, four theoretical coding categories emerged. These categories related to how romantic relationships were impacted by globalized economic and sociocultural change. Each of these four theoretical coding categories will be examined below. That will be followed by the grounded theory that emerged from them.

Four Emergent Theoretical Categories

Modern Romance Issues

The participants in the contrast study noted that romantic relationships in their social world have no agreed upon guidelines, timelines, or milestones. They said the lack guidelines created the need for functional, cross-gender communication skills. It also led the participants to believe that meaningful serious relationships in a modern age require emotional maturity. These beliefs, they reported, has caused their peers to set the bar quite high for serious romantic relationships and marriage.

The participants also reported that the lack of generation guidelines for romantic relationships has led to a subgroup of their peers to avoid intimacy altogether. For them, the bar for relationships is quite low, based on mostly on companionate drinking and on sexuality with no strings attached.

A major concern of the participants was the belief that traditional romantic relationships of their parents’ generation did not always allow for genuine emotional growth. They said that the pomp and circumstances and formulaic thinking surrounding marriage can hinder partners from developing their relational skills. Despite this focus on functional relationships, the participants noted that one’s romantic relationships should not interfere with following one’s passion and focusing on one’s own personal development.

Modern Friendships Issues

In the participants’ social world, friends turn to each other when under stress, when making important decisions, for romantic and sexual relationships advice, and for shared activities, including simply having fun. In doing this, friends help friends discover a meaningful reality within a society in transition, where isolation, loneliness, and depression are a common by product of rapid social-economic change.

Friends often have deeper ties of trust with each other than with their romantic partners. The key issue here may be that friends are able to support and accept each other’s emotional development over time, while people bonded simply by a passionate romantic tie may not be able to make such adjustments and provide support for developmental change. It follows that the participants said that an serious long-term romantic partner would have to be accepted by one’s friendship group.

Friendship groups form, the participants reported, around shared principles, which is the glue that holds friendship networks together. While divergent value systems are broadly tolerated across the macrocosm of the young urban single adult population (Arnett, 2004), this sharing of similar moral perspectives was seen as the motivator for collections of young adults to gravitate together into a particular friendship group in the microcosm. In contrast to their own circles, the participants noted that some friendship groups are simply social drinking and hookup networks, where emotional intimacy among friends fully never develops.

Modern Marriage Issues

The participants reported that the general acceptance of cohabitation, single parenting, and childbearing outside of marriage restrained young adults’ interest in marriage as a relational, institutional, and legal entity. They said that these issues had changed young adults’ options and made the traditional milestones of their parents’ generation outdated.

In today’s complex world, marriage required emotional maturity, continued personal development, and the maintenance of an I-ness sense of self, in contrast to a we-ness couple identity. It follows that the participants did not expect to have marital partners who would be emotionally dependent on them. Partners without a strong sense of self cannot sufficiently communicate their needs and desires, and therefore, effective communication within couples breaks down.

The participants also noted that a sound marriage requires intimate sharing in a supportive and positively-balanced relationship, with partners who had reached a minimum level of emotional maturity. They said further that a romantic friendship affiliation within marriage allowed for a deep level of commitment, where partners support each other’s personal development and spiritual growth.

Interestingly, the participants noted that a subgroup of their peers has no interest in these issues surrounding marriage. Young adults in this group act like their singlehood world will keep them socially afloat indefinitely, thereby precluding the need for future serious romantic relationships.

Modern Society in Transition

They said that there were few barriers to cross-gender communication among their peers. The discussion among their peers of gender issues had started at an early age, sometime in late grade school or early middle school. Upon reaching young adulthood, the old standard of gender rivalry had been replaced by one of gender equality. In these circumstances, male expression of emotional feelings was simply a given, as was female discussion of sexuality.

The participants noted, however, that some young adults are not adept at successfully coping in this postmodern social environment. People without friendship support networks can become isolated and invest unduly in maintaining online personas and fictionalized identities that become more important to them than face-to-face social activities.

It was also noted that a sizable minority of young adults, perhaps 25%, simply were not interested in intimate romantic relationships. Rather, they sought non-committed sexual encounters that are often of a one-time nature. This group was characterized as having a proclivity for socializing in bars and being unconcerned about meaningful relationships. It was posited by the participants that this avoidance of attachment between partners is one way of coping with the transitive and ambiguous nature of postmodern love. The resultant emotional distance between partners was seen as a method of avoiding emotional pain.

Avoidance of attachment contrasts with the participants’ general coping strategy of developing intimate social skills within a friendship network and applying those skills to their romantic relationships. In that context, romantic relationships are then seen as learning experiences in which individuals can discover what will be important to them in future long-term, serious relationships.

Theory of Bifurcated Postmodern Romantic Relationships

The results of this study endorse a theory of bifurcated romantic relationships, where young urban mobile single adults, facing constant sociocultural change, choose between two general styles of romantic partnering: constructive intimacy or attachment avoidance. This is done in order to cope with the reality that there are no established peer group guidelines for postmodern love. These two styles of partnering commonly find support in friendship circles, where similar morals bind young adults together to either practice intimate cross-gender communication skills or to avoid emotional attachment altogether.

Discussion

In the present study, we created a grounded theory that conceptualizes the tentative and uncertain nature of young urban mobile single adult [YUMS] romantic relationships. In making this conceptualization, we provided a theoretical foundation for interpreting the ambivalent feelings many young adults have regarding serious romantic relationships and marriage (Jaison & Ganong, 2011). We also discovered two generational coping strategies for dealing with the tentative nature of postmodern love.

Thetheory of uncertainty and ambivalence in young adult romantic relationships explains how relationship uncertainty arises from constant sociocultural change. Constant change has left  young adults, between ages 18 and 30, without any guidelines that regulate romantic relationships. This creates a peer group sense of ambivalence toward serious romantic relationships and marriage. This type of social uncertainty, as an influence on romantic relationships, stands in contrast to the current body of literature that mostly focuses on the uncertainty that arises between partners who are already in relationships.

With the contrast study, we demonstrated  that the sense of uncertainty concerning serious romantic relationships is similar on the West and East Coasts of the United States. On both coasts, young adult relationships are impacted by technological innovations, a globalized job market, increased mobility, female economic and sexual empowerment, and a shift in gender roles, as well as by the deinstitutionalization of marriage.

Our conceptualization of the uncertain nature of postmodern young adult romance was supported by several key themes that emerged from our conversations with the research participants. The participants reported that romantic relationships were seen as non-committed learning experiences that did not necessarily lead to marriage. Consequently, they often relied on their friends to provide that emotional support which has been traditionally given by spouses and the nuclear family. They also reported that casual sexual relationships were generally accepted without the encumbrances of moral judgments. At the same time, in-love passionate bonds were not seen as enduring or stable enough to support long-term romantic relationships and marriage.

It followed that the participants endorsed a cautious style of romantic attachment in a situation where the bar for marriage was set quite high. In this atmosphere, traditional gender roles were in a state of flux, as young women actualized their new economic and sexual empowerment. Adjusting to these circumstances, men and women showed no apparent differences between abilities or willingness to communicate about romantic and sexual issues. The research participants perceived these attitudes and behaviors to be a part of a generational response to the socioeconomic structural changes that are taking place worldwide.

These findings demonstrate how changes in the socioeconomic structure have pushed a substantial segment of American young adults into identifying with the postmodern era. Within this segment of the young adult population, romantic relationships are not defined as taking place on a set timeline or with any agreed upon expectations (Arnett, 2004). Rather, relationships are individually-negotiated, tenuous arrangements, often conceptualized in terms of time, distance, place, and convenience. The participants did not expect the uncertainty inherent in these arrangements to resolve before they obtain full adult statuses at approximately age 30.

It was significant that the participants had ambivalent feelings not just about long-term relationships but also about each step of the traditional partnering sequence. That sequence is commonly considered to have five steps: dating, falling in love, making a commitment, marrying, and having children. The female research participants said that this leaves out the parts about discovering one’s sexual and economic potentials, two tasks the must be accomplished before they settle down with a permanent partner. Both men and women said these five steps of traditional partnering seemed more appropriate for people who were aged 30 and older.

All the participants agreed that commitment is something that must wait until they have attained full adulthood statuses and are performing associated adult roles. Meanwhile, they said they live in relationship limbo on the edge of full adulthood, where making commitments to relationships, as well as to adult roles, is a slow, cautious, cognitive-oriented process.

The underlying structural issue here is that socioeconomic change has been taking place for the participants’ entire lives. So they have watched as the rules that guided relationships for their parents’ generation lost their relevance in the swirl of postmodern cultural change. In the process, they became aware of the lack of role models, who displayed functional behaviors concerning romantic partnering, which were appropriate for their evolving sociocultural niche.

The research participants believed their peers had successfully adapted to this situation by acknowledging and accepting the uncertainty inherent to this stage of their lives. They would have liked to have guidelines for romance to replace the traditional ones that were viewed as dysfunctional, but they were not overwhelmed by the lack of them. In the meantime, they accepted the fact that the development of emotional maturity must precede the development of the ties that bind romantic partners into long-term relationships. They said that not all of their peers felt this way and that, in fact, there were two different coping styles for dealing with the tenuous relationships inherent to young adulthood.

One relationship coping strategy is to work at improving intimate cross-gender communication skills within the context of friendship networks. With the help of friends, romantic relationships are seen as learning experiences, rather than win-lose experiences, should two partners split up. The object here is to prepare oneself for the art of emotionally mature communication for that time, around age 30, when a serious, long-term relationship can be established. The participants believed that at least half of their peers have adopted this coping strategy.

The other coping strategy is to avoid intimacy altogether. The young adults who adopt this strategy were said to foresee futures where they would be single and not engaged in serious romantic relationships whatsoever. Instead, they envisioned cross-gender relationships in terms of companionate drinking and sexual escapades. The research participants guessed that between 20-25% of their peers use this coping strategy to deal with the uncertainty surrounding postmodern love.

This bifurcation of romantic relationship coping strategies divides young adults into two categories: those who are working at improving intimate cross-gender communications and those who avoid them. It would seem that this general division of postmodern youth needs to be taken into consideration when setting up future studies concerning young adult relationships.

In conceptualizing the tentative situation of postmodern young adult romantic relationships, we believe we have added to the literature concerning young adult romantic relationships. In doing this, we have offered a new template for comprehending young adult behaviors and attitudes. While the traditional template frames marriage as the goal of young adult dating activities, our template frames romantic relationships within the postmodern reality of constant change (Beronsky, 2005; Rosa, 2007). Within that framework, a prime developmental task for young adults is to generate positive coping strategies to deal with their feelings of ambivalence regarding serious, long-term romantic relationships.

Our findings stand in distinction to the research studies that frame commitment to meaningful relationships as a normative prospect that is achievable for young adults under age 30 (for example, see Levitt et al., 2006) . Contrary to that traditional framework, our participants believed that establishing a meaningful, long-term romantic partnership before age 30 is very difficult. They could cite only a few cases among their peers where especially-mature couples had accomplished it.

During the course of the current study, the participants disclosed that they were strongly aware of how the young adult life course developmental tasks are changing from generation to generation. They were also aware of how their peer group conceptualization of these tasks influences how individuals experience themselves and form an identity within the evolving postmodern social reality.

For example, they told how young adult identity rumination starts to end at age 26. That is when the process of commitment to life course options begins to solidify and a full adult identity begins to coalesce. They said that before age 26, however, it generally is not clear where their life course choices are going to lead them. This idea of late-young-adulthood identity coalescence is being studied by other researchers (see for example, Luyckx, Schwartz, & Goossens, 2008), and we hope our contribution will further the advancement of that body of literature.

Development and identity theorists have, of course, been trying to come to grips with these sorts of postmodern issues for more than a decade (Arnett, 2000). The focus of their work has been on the large variety of life course choices available in the postindustrial environment. They have also focused on how long and complex a process it is to establish a full adult identity in a globalized technocracy. The elongated period of time wherein adolescents move forward and commit to adult roles has been called emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Arnett (2004) postulated that during this extended sojourn between adolescence and full adulthood many young adults live in a state of identity moratorium (Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1968).

We did not find evidence that any of the participants were experiencing a classic identity moratorium. Yet, in one sense, there was a readiness to want to make life choices and an unwillingness to commit to any one option prematurely. But on the other hand, the participants in the research study all appeared to have a strong sense of self. All were committed in various ways in working toward achieving full adulthood statuses.

If we were to describe what we did not see, however, Erikson’s identity diffusion probably fits. In this case, the participants reported how 20-25% of their peers were comfortable with acting like adolescents, without being concerned about making adult commitments. This subgroup of YUMS appears to have stepped away from working on developmentally-appropriate young adult tasks that would allow them to reach full adulthood statuses.

To combine what we saw along with what the participants reported, it seems to us that emerging adulthood extends adolescence up to age 26. That is when commitment to careers was supposed to take place. This is a natural outcome of the world of work becoming more complex, where a living wage is hard to achieve before age 30.

This reminds us of the fact that the concept of adolescence was only invented at the beginning of the last century (see Hall,1904). That was when universal schooling started and the process of childhood discovery was extended through the teenage years. Today, with adolescence now being extended by the demands of a complex world, 26 is the new 18. That is when, according to the participants, you must attempt to take responsibility for your life, whether you are ready or not.

Moving beyond how our finding relate to psychological theory, we would like to note that the Atlas.ti computer software program (Scientific Software Development, 2007) assisted us is significant ways in building a grounded theory. Most importantly, it allowed us to construct aggregated themes across interviews. Also, the convenience of having all the interview transcript quotations available, directly linked to the codes from which they arose, as well as to the related memos involved in the theory building process, expanded our ability to comprehend the underlying assumptions of what was actually be discussed.

In small, interview-based studies, a question generally arises concerning the sample size. The total number of research participants, 16, cannot begin to represent the entire YUMS population. In fact, the research participants even said so, noting that people from rural backgrounds and certain ethnic and religious groups do not live in the same sociocultural niche as they do. With the contrast study, we demonstrated, however, that young urban adults from the Southern and Eastern United States appear to hold to the same peer group epistemological understandings as our West Coast participants.

In the contrast study, we also showed that a group of young adults purposely selected to have intellectual abilities at or above the 98th percentile would likewise hold to similar understandings as the participants who were selected simply by convenience sampling. Thus, it appears that in an incremental fashion we have demonstrated the transferability of our findings.

It must be added, however, that the all the participants were self-selective in that they each seemed to be interested in being part of a project that they hoped would help their cohort establish new guidelines for romantic relationships. The research participants also appeared to all have high social and career expectations. It might be said, then, that young adults with average social and economic expectations were not represented in this study.

It follows that we acknowledge that the young adult sociocultural landscape is not homogenous. Some young adults go to work right out of high school, fall in love, and get married in the traditional fashion. They may understand some of the frustrations voiced by our research participants concerning the uncertainty of romantic relationships. But they probably do not have the same ambivalent feelings concerning long-term relationships and marriage.

It follows that the ultimate transferability of this research cannot be demonstrated by us but must be demonstrated by other researchers. They will either find the information useful or they will not (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). What is important is that the findings represent a conceptualization that explains the research participants underlying motivations as best as was possible in light of our competence as researchers at the time that the study took place (Glaser, 2001).

Appendix A

Six Emergent Theoretical Categories

[Click on the figures to enlarge them]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Romantic relationship issues. The combined themes point towards a non-committed, learning-oriented style of romantic relationships.

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Figure 2.  Modern friendship issues. The combined themes suggest that friendship networks are the primary means of the participants’ emotional and affiliative support.

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Figure 3. Modern sexual issues. The combined themes suggest that sexual exploration occurs within an environment of relaxed timelines, where competing options are consider.

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Figure 4. Modern marriage issues. The combined themes suggest that marriage is deemphasized, but not devalued, because of changed timelines and partner expectations.

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Figure 5. Modern romantic attachment issues. The themes related to romantic attachment point towards cognitive evaluation when making bonding choices, as well as cautious commitment.

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6. Modern identity issues. The combined themes related to identity suggest take-charge and self-defined characteristics support a negotiated style of romantic relationships.

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One Response to “Uncertainty and Ambivalence in Young Urban Mobile Single Adult Romantic Relationships”

  1. Dr. Billy Kidd 17 May 2013 at 2:22 PM #

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