Relationship Status: It's Complicated

I recently learned that Facebook has had the “complicated relationship status” option ever since it first came to life as a ‘social-networking website’ for Harvard students.

It’s not surprising that the idea of a complicated relationship status would resonate especially well with college students — after all, it’s challenging to navigate romantic and sexual tension when you’re still trying to figure out who you are and what you want from life. 

Research in developmental psychology suggests that this challenge extends beyond college, and is a dominant theme across the entirety of our emerging adulthood (ages 19-29, if you want to get more specific). According to the General Social Survey conducted by NORC at University of Chicago in 2018, 51% of people in their 20s reported that they were not in a steady relationship. This is 11% higher when compared to 30 years ago!

We all know what it means to be ‘single’, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the gray areas in relationships either through friends or pop culture:  On & off ones where two people repeatedly break up and come back together, toxic ones where romantic partners can’t seem to let go of unhealthy patterns, or those dreaded situationships where a relationship status is never clearly defined even after the first couple of dates. 

I looked more closely into how different branches of psychology explain the complicated nature of romantic relationships, especially during emerging adulthood. It all comes down to the question of: why is it so difficult to start and maintain a healthy, committed relationship in your 20s? 

According to developmental systems theory, emerging adults are motivated by two major — yet apparently contradictory — developmental needs: interdependence needs and independence needs.

1) Interdependence needs: Following puberty, adolescents and emerging adults start craving sexual gratification and emotional intimacy with potential partners. It is especially during our 20s that we dive deeper into exploring these needs, and ask questions to figure out how to best fulfill them: 

  1. What level of intimacy do I feel comfortable with? and… Does my partner meet my intimacy needs?

  2. How do I like to spend my time with a romantic partner?

  3. What am I into sexually? 

2) Independence needs: On the flip side, we have needs for autonomy, where we constantly try to establish our independence to figure out who we are outside of our family and friends. In order to differentiate ourselves from those around us, we ask questions such as:

  1. What are my life goals?

  2. Where do I want to live? and… When do I want to settle down?

  3. What do I like to do in my alone time? 

As 20-something-year-olds navigating romantic relationships in the 21st century, we are always trying to find that perfect middle ground between interdependence and independence. It just so happens that Western society places great emphasis on fulfilling both of these needs at once.

At Marriage Pact, we try our best to build a space for introspection—such that it’s easier to know who you are, what you want, and how those goals might fit with someone else’s.