Dating or Dangerous Liaisons: How Do We Choose?By Barbara Jaquish
Jacquelyn Wiersma wants to know why people select a certain person as a romantic partner. She can’t answer that question yet, but on her way to the answer, she has learned some important things about the lives of teenagers and young adults.
Teenagers are famous for experimentation. To figure out who they are and how they fit into the world, they try on adult independence and experiences. Whether it’s dating, drinking or drugs, they make choices that have consequences, some fleeting and some lifelong. They explore behaviors that may become memories or lessons or a lifestyle.
Underage drinking at a party may be a one-time bit of rebellion or the beginning of a life centered on alcohol. Dating may be a pleasant, though sometimes anxious, activity that helps an adolescent learn about relating to a potential mate. Or it may be a training ground for relationships based on mutual support for risky behavior. The choices they make as adolescents may well influence the decisions they make as young adults, including their selection of a life partner.
Wiersma, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences, has examined existing research results and found little that focuses on mate selection and drinking. She hopes to identify the shape of factors and decisions that go into the complex task of mate selection by looking at the choice of a romantic partner in the context of risk taking and by tracking behaviors as adolescents transition to young adulthood. Wiersma has been involved in a series of studies, most often with colleagues from Texas Tech and Penn State, which have approached the question from the angles of drinking or violence in romantic partnerships.
By the Numbers
Thus far, Wiersma’s research has drawn from data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health – also known as Add Health – a nationally representative, longitudinal study of health-related behaviors of adolescents and their outcomes in young adulthood. Funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and other federal agencies, Add Health was originally designed to study how teenagers’ health and behaviors are influenced by social context – their families, friends, schools and communities. Among the health behaviors studied were tobacco use, sexual activity, sun exposure and drug and alcohol use.
Add Health is an ambitious and complex project that initially involved researchers from seven institutions, led by principal investigator J. Richard Udry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The researchers were assisted by an advisory board of scientists and adolescent health specialists as well as specialists from the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health Service.
The first phase of the study in 1994 involved surveys of 90,000 teenagers from 145 schools around the country. The second phase involved in-home interviews with 20,000 students and their parents. In addition to input from parents, the data from surveys of school administrators and information collected about community characteristics provide an independent measure of the context adolescents live in and the factors that could influence them. In Wave III of the study, researchers again surveyed participants at ages 18 to 26. Wave IV touched the next phase of life, ages 24 to 32. The resulting rich trove of data is available to researchers worldwide and has resulted in hundreds of published results and scholarly articles.
Most studies that have examined alcohol use in relationships have only looked at married couples, and the Add Health data has been useful in the initial stages of Wiersma’s quest to understand partner selection with dating and cohabiting partners as well.
“Mate selection is based on a few variables, such as the influence of peers and religion,” she says, “but in young adults, drinking is also prominent and shouldn’t be ignored.”
Little research has examined couple-level substance abuse within young adult romantic relationships. For those who start young adult life with higher education, in general, during those four years of college, people date more and drink more than during other stages of life.
Romance and Drinking
In a 2010 study, Wiersma and colleagues used Add Health data on drinking and romantic partnerships in adolescents and young adults to look at the experiences of 852 couples, including couples who were dating, cohabiting and married. They found that drinking in adolescence carried through to partners’ drinking in young adulthood. Six years had passed between the adolescent and young adult surveys, suggesting that “drinking behaviors may be important when choosing a potential romantic partner, even beyond demographic similarities.”
For males, there was a strong association between their drinking and their partner’s drinking. That is, the researchers wrote, “The more men’s female partners drank, the more he drank, more so than for women with their male partners.” In the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, men’s drinking tended to increase, whether dating, cohabiting or married. Married women showed the smallest increase in drinking, a result meriting further investigation, the researchers wrote.
In another study of 741 young adult couples, Wiersma identified four types of drinking partnerships among young adult heterosexual couples. The vast majority of the couples had congruent drinking behaviors; that is, the males and females drank about the same amount and with the same frequency. The majority, 417 couples, reported being both light and infrequent drinkers, while 147 couples frequently drank moderately to heavily.
The remaining couples had discrepant drinking behaviors. In 90 couples, the males drank more heavily and more frequently than the females. In another 37 couples, the females were the heavy and frequent drinkers.
“There are important implications for young adult individuals who drink discrepantly within their romantic relationships,” Wiersma said.
For example, intimate partner violence: Whether the man or the woman is the heavy, frequent drinker, the more discrepancy in drinking behaviors, the greater the level of conflict and violence in the relationship.
The researchers emphasized that the majority of couples they studied did not report experiencing intimate partner violence. Just 26 percent of young men and 26 percent of young women reported initiating violence against their current partner, and the violence was more often minor. In the Add Health studies, minor violence includes threats, pushing, shoving and throwing things that could result in a strain, bruise or light cut. Severe violence includes slapping, kicking and forced sexual relations. These forms of violence are not the same as “intimate terrorism,” which is less common and is predominantly perpetrated by men.
So far, Wiersma’s research has involved large data sets that have told her intriguing things about the romantic relationships of adolescents and young adults. Much of what’s been learned from examining the Add Health data makes sense, but she says, “no one has looked at the mechanisms involved with an eye to developing prevention programs.”
For example, why did the data show so many women initiating violence in their relationships with husbands who drink heavily and frequently? It’s possible that the wives’ violence is a defensive response to husbands acting aggressively or using verbal or psychological abuse, she suggested. Right now she can’t say for sure, because the necessary data wasn’t collected in the Add Health surveys.
Wiersma would like to conduct qualitative research to hear from the participants first-hand. Another possibility is using diaries to identify the sequence of events and aggressive processes that occur in couples’ interactions, results that could inform prevention research.
Additionally, the Add Health database only offers data on hetero-sexual couples. While understanding heterosexual relationships is complicated, and there is still plenty to learn, Wiersma would like to know more about the experiences of same-sex couples. In the absence of an existing pool of data, she would have to collect her own data on drinking and drug use of gay couples.
Portions of Wiersma’s research were supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Photos by Russell Cothren