Relationships that start with a spark and not much else aren't necessarily doomed from the get-go, new University of Iowa research suggests.
In an analysis of relationship surveys, UI sociologist Anthony Paik found that average relationship quality was higher for individuals who waited until things were serious to have sex compared to those who became sexually involved in "hookups," "friends with benefits," or casual dating relationships.
But having sex early on wasn't to blame for the disparity. When Paik factored out people who weren't interested in getting serious, he found no real difference in relationship quality. That is, couples who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship ended up just as happy as those who dated and waited.
"We didn't see much evidence that relationships were lower quality because they started off as hookups," said Paik, an assistant professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "The study suggests that rewarding relationships are possible for those who delay sex. But it's also possible for true love to emerge if things start off with a more 'Sex and the City' approach, when people spot each other across the room, become sexually involved and then build a relationship."
Published this month in the journal Social Science Research, the study analyzed surveys of 642 heterosexual adults in the Chicago area. Relationship quality was measured by asking about the extent to which each person loved their partner, the relationship's future, level of satisfaction with intimacy, and how their lives would be different if the relationship ended. The survey also asked when participants became sexually involved with their partners.
So if not the context of sexual involvement, what is behind the lower quality scores for relationships initiated as hookups? Paik points to selection: Certain people are prone to finding relationships unrewarding, and those individuals are more likely to form hookups.
"The question is whether it's the type of relationship that causes lower quality or whether it's the people," he said. "The finding is that it's something about the people."
People with higher numbers of past sexual partners were more likely to form hookups, and to report lower relationship quality. Through the acquisition of partners, Paik said, they begin to favor short-term relationships and find the long-term ones less rewarding.
It's also likely that people who are predisposed to short-term relationships are screened out of serious ones because they don't invest the time and energy to develop long-term ties, Paik said.
The research showed that plenty of people date even if they aren't interested in a long-term relationship. It's a bit surprising, Paik said, since dating falls under the romance category, while "friends with benefits" and hookups do not.
"While hookups or friends with benefits can turn into true love, both parties typically enter the relationship for sex and the expectations are fairly low," Paik said. "In the casual dating category, some people think they're headed for a long-term relationship, but there are also people who are only in it for sex. It basically brings 'players' and 'non-players' together. As a consequence, it raises the question of whether casual dating is a useful institution. This paper would suggest not really, because it doesn't screen out the non-romantic types."
In conducting the study, Paik controlled for several factors known to influence relationship quality, such as marital status, children and social embeddedness. Consistent with prior research, he found that unmarried couples and those with children had lower relationship quality, but couples with positive ties to each other's relatives had higher relationship quality.
While this study found that nonromantic sexual relationships can become something special, they can also be risky. Paik's earlier studies indicate that people involved in hookups are more likely to have concurrent sexual partners, which can increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
In a study of Chicago-area adults published earlier this year, Paik reported that being involved with a friend increased the likelihood of non-monogamy by 44 percent for women and 25 percent for men. Involvement with an acquaintance or stranger increased the odds by 30 percent for women and 43 percent for men.