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3 Hidden but Important Relationship Experiences

1. Time-bounded dating.

Key points

  • When people meet in a place one or both do not live permanently, their time together is bounded by the place and time in which the spark ignites.
  • In long-term crushes, people find themselves in a prolonged state of longing for a close friend, but a relationship never comes to be.
  • Consensual nonmonogamy sometimes serves as a temporary solution for people who were otherwise monogamous.

When we rehash our relationship histories with friends or new partners, there's a tendency to hit the high points. We talk about the few serious relationships we've had and maybe a particularly memorable romance that was fleeting but intense.

The fits and starts of dating life may not seem worth mentioning—but when we dig a little deeper, we often find that some meaningful relationship experiences happen on the fringes of our romantic lives. In our recent study about young adults’ romantic histories, we found hints of these hidden relationship experiences and how they shaped romantic development for the people we talked to.

Relationship History Interviews

This work is based on a study I conducted with Dr. Caroline Sanner using in-depth qualitative interviews about young adults’ relationship histories. When we described the study to participants, we asked them to tell us about every single person they could remember having a romantic or sexual experience with. We specifically asked them not to hold anyone in reserve or consider some people “not official” enough to be included.

The outcome was a study including 35 people reporting on 259 romantic and sexual partners. The types of unions below surprised us enough to publish alongside more common experiences like casual dating, committed partnership, and marriage.

Time-Bounded Dating

Sometimes people hit it off with someone during a week-long vacation, a semester abroad, or at a destination wedding. There is an immediate sexual and emotional spark, and the couple follows that connection where it leads. These unions are rarely found in studies of relationships, not because they aren’t meaningful but because they don’t last very long.

When people meet in a place where one or both people do not live permanently, their time together is bounded by the place and time the spark ignites. The people in our study who talked about time-bounded relationships said they knew things would end, and there was an open understanding between partners that they would not continue the relationship once the summer, semester, or weekend was over.

When there was no expectation for a future relationship, the romance tended to be that much more enjoyable. People liked feeling connected with someone compatible without the complexities of assessing long-term prospects with each other. The only downside was leaving someone great behind.

Long-Term Crushes

Crushes are typically brief, either because they lead to a relationship or they fade into the background of our memories. However, sometimes crushes linger over months and years, shaping how we see ourselves and our value as potential romantic partners.

Participants who talked about long-term crushes almost always experienced them during adolescence. (Think Joey and Dawson from "Dawson’s Creek.") In these situations, the participant found themselves in a prolonged state of longing for a close friend, but a relationship never came to be.

More often than not, the person on the other end of the crush offered some kind of reinforcement of the crush. They flirted, kissed, and complimented the person, but were not willing to form a relationship that they acknowledged publicly. Long-term crushes could be very painful, but they taught participants a lot about themselves, what they wanted in a relationship, and what they deserve from future partners.

Consensual Nonmonogamy

Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) is when all partners in a relationship give consent to seek romantic or sexual relationships with other people. There is a growing but small body of research that shows individuals and couples choose CNM for a variety of reasons. Although many couples choose CNM as a lifestyle, we found that it sometimes served as a temporary solution for people who were otherwise monogamous.

When partners were going to be geographically separated for a long period of time or they were facing health challenges that limited their ability to engage in sex, couples sometimes opened their relationships to other partners temporarily. Although this posed new challenges, it was one way couples could work together to creatively solve problems they were facing. It worked very well for some and caused significant problems for others. Learning how CNM was integrated into otherwise monogamous relationships was an especially interesting insight in the study.

Takeaways

The most important lesson we learned from analyzing relationship histories is that all romantic and sexual experiences have the potential to help us grow and learn about ourselves. It is not just the committed long-term relationships that shape our love lives going forward. The other experiences we have along the way carry their own important lessons that we can benefit from if we stop to take stock of what they meant to us then and now.

Facebook image: LenaLavr/Shutterstock

References

Jamison, T. B., & Sanner, C. M. (2021) Relationship form and function: Exploring meaning-making in young adults’ romantic histories. Personal Relationships, 28(4), 840-859. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12400

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