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Cory Silverberg

Is It Me, or Is Our Relationship Churning?

By January 28, 2013

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A recent study, reported in the Journal of Adolescent Research, caught my eye. It was a term in the title of the article that I had never heard before: "Relationship Churning in Emerging Adulthood: On/Off Relationships and Sex With an Ex."

Relationship churning? What could that mean? I had, literally, a gut response, remembering all those times when I couldn't figure out if was still in, or completely out, of a relationship. Did that slammed door denote the end of something or was it like a starter pistol, a bang that signified the hard work was about to begin, and I better get moving?

As it turns out, this is more or less what the authors meant when they coined the term. The study, which relied on data taken from a longitudinal study of 7th, 9th, and 11th graders in Lucas County, Ohio between 2001 and 2007, examines how often people reconcile (for any length of time) with someone they were formerly dating and how often they have sex with their ex. This middle space, where you may be broken up but not really, or really broken up but still having sex, is what they call relationship churning.

I was surprised by their findings. Not by how frequently people reported it, but that they didn't report it more. Forty four percent of those surveyed reported getting back together with a romantic partner they had dated in the past two years. And of those 53% said they had sex with their exes. Unfortunately it doesn't seem as if they asked about having sex with an ex that you didn't reconcile with.

But still, it's one of those statistics that makes me wonder how non-representative the people in my life are. Way more than half the people I know have, at one time, had sex with an ex. Most agree it was a bad decision in the long run. Almost all agree that in the moment it was either comforting, hot, or just inevitable. The researchers note that their numbers may be low because they only asked people about their present or most recent experience and not lifetime experience of reconciling or having sex with an ex.

Other than the terminology what struck me most about the paper was how different it would be if we let people produce research on themselves. In this case we have adults describing young people. Only they aren't young people, they are "emerging adults" and the context of the study is the idea that during this time, adolescence and early adulthood, "learning how to form, maintain, and gracefully end romantic and sexual relationships with others is arguably one of the critical developmental tasks."

As an adult, it's hard not to read that without laughing. Does anyone really emerge from their youth knowing how to do this well? I mean some probably can do it better than others, but outside of movies and television shows, when do romantic and sexual relationships end gracefully? I think I'd like to argue that the idea of relationship churning is less a discrete period of time between other kinds of relationships and more of a parallel experience, that is tied to opportunity and context.

But that might just be me. I have a very weak stomach.

If you're interested in reading more, the paper is available for free download for a limited time. You can access it here:

Journal of Adolescent Research: Relationship Churning in Emerging Adulthood: On/Off Relationships and Sex With an Ex

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January 31, 2013 at 4:45 pm
(1) Maria says:

I wonder what researchers’ findings would be if they actually had interviewed adults with some sexual life experience instead of SEVENTH GRADERS. In fact, doesn’t that seem like a strange thing to ask young teenagers ? They may of course be having sex but how many are able to look over their vast lifetimes and answer that question?
I am a great deal older than this cohort, but I agree, that when I look back at the times I did this “churning,” it did feel yucky, if not exactly a mistake. On one occasion it was trying to hold onto a dead relationship; on another the sex I had remembered as being so good was really crappy. And yes, if I had had anything else going on at the time I probably wouldn’t have done it.

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