Early adulthood can be rough. As much as we would like to think we have it all figured out, young adult living is full of instability. Why wouldn’t it be? Our frontal lobes, responsible for judgment and social behavior, among other things don’t develop fully until around the age of 25. So why in our early 20s should we be completely sure of ourselves?
It seems to be that many relationships between young adults reflect this rocky uncertainty. When I turned 20, I met someone and entered, more like endured, my first serious relationship. Things between us were great for the first six months until I discovered I had been cheated on. He was having ongoing sexual encounters with two different people. I was hurt, and my trust was broken. But he was so sorry! I couldn’t help but take him back; after a month he was “a different person” and I was “the only person the mattered”. We reconciled, we were happy. Then a week later he gave me chlamydia, which for those who don’t know, is completely curable. Obviously, he had been busy during our time apart.
Figuring out what we need, and what we will tolerate, from a romantic relationship is part of growing up. So naturally, we can sometimes find ourselves moving a little quickly after we fall head-over-heels in love with someone. We can also just as quickly break things off. But many young people are not able to let go fully of their first, or most prominent loves. What is it that drives us to break up, and then hook up with our exes? What drives us into “relationship churning?” Sociologist Sarah Halpern-Meekin and her team of researchers have uncovered the reasonings behind this dramatic love phenomenon.
What is Relationship Churning?
“Relationship churning” is a relatively new term used to describe the relationship instability of young adults in non-marital relationships. A 2012 study by Halpern-Meekin et al. defines churning as breaking up and getting back together (reconciliation) and/or having a sexual relationship with an ex. This term also embodies the fluid nature of young adults’ romantic relationships, in which there are periods of undefinedness.
Who’s Doing It?
Relationship churning is common among today’s youth. Halpern-Meekin et al.’s study found that 48% of young adults who have been in relationships over the past 2 years have experienced some form of relationship churning. While all of these adults experienced churning in the form of reconciliation, breaking up and then getting back together, over half of these same adults have also experienced churning. Example 2: sex with an ex.
So who’s most likely to churn? Although churning is common among all young adults regardless of gender, ethnicity seems to play a small part in one’s likelihood of reconciling with an ex. Statistically, reconciliations are the least common for Caucasian individuals, while those most likely to get back together after a breakup are black individuals. People who have been raised in a two-parent family setting are also less likely to reconcile, and stay broken up.
The longer the relationship, the more likely the breakup sex. People who have stayed together in long-term relationships are much less likely to break ties with their significant other during a breakup. This means increased churning, in the form of post-breakup sex. Do you share a living space with your partner? If you do, reconciliation after a break up might be inevitable, as couples who live together have the highest odds of churning.
We now know that churning is something most of us experience. But what leads us to be so forgiving of our partners after deciding to call it quits? An answer common to most churning situations is that we are often drawn to our partners for the pros of our relationship while forgetting about the cons that separated us. It is common for us to be enchanted by sexual chemistry and romance, and to overlook the issues that caused friction in the relationship. Hence, the breakup sex!
What’s the Harm?
There are risks that come with relationship churning. People who keep in contact with their exes are likely to still feel emotionally connected. This may cause one to continue to feel the emotional pain of the breakup and have difficulty moving forward to new, and potentially better, relationships.
Churning in the form of breakup sex can also potentially be a health risk. Condom use tends to drop over time as partners develop their relationship. It happens often that couples might eventually end up only using oral contraceptives like birth control pills. This oral-contraceptive-only habit may not change after a breakup, and when two people begin to seek other romantic options while they are apart. One or both ex-partners may end up having sex with other people. Ultimately, this can put both partners at risk of an STI. In Halpern-Meekin et al.’s study, 63% of those surveyed had sex with other people between their breakups and sex with their exes.
Churning is also linked to more serious issues, like abuse. Though churning and abuse do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, habitual relationship churners are twice as likely to be involved in physical abuse and verbal conflict. Halpern Meekin et al.’s 2013 study suggests that the instability of a churning relationship can arise from poor communication skills, leading to arguing and an incapability of handling stress as a couple. Breaking up and getting back together can also create feelings of regret or resentment, leading couples to become hostile to each other. This hostility can often escalate to extreme cases of violence.
Yes, many of us are guilty of getting back together with our exes for the wrong reasons. If your relationship is anything like my first one was, you might need to consider cutting some ties for good. But if you are in a relationship with someone you’ve split with previously, have no fear! There are many positive examples of relationship churning. As with every lover’s quarrel, all you need is honesty, vulnerability, and a willingness to understand your partner’s point of view. Your openness, not your hostility will get you past your rough patch with your partner.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any relationship churning stories of your own that you’d like to share? Psych2Go would like to know!
Wanna know more? Check out this video on how else you might be self sabotaging your relationships.
Halpern-Meekin, Sarah, et al. “Relationship Churning in Emerging
Adulthood.” Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2012, pp.
Halpern-Meekin, Sarah, et al. “Relationship Churning, Physical Violence, and
Verbal Abuse in Young Adult Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and
Family, vol. 75, no. 1, 2013, pp. 2–12., doi:10.1111/