What Do Short-Term and Long-Term Relationships Look Like? Building the Relationship Coordination and Strategic Timing (ReCAST) Model

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Abstract

Close relationships research has examined committed couples (e.g., dating relationships, marriages) using intensive methods that plot relationship development over time. But a substantial proportion of people’s real-life sexual experiences take place (a) before committed relationships become “official” and (b) in short-term relationships; methods that document the time course of relationships have rarely been applied to these contexts. We adapted a classic relationship trajectory-plotting technique to generate the first empirical comparisons between the features of people’s real-life short-term and long-term relationships across their entire timespan. Five studies compared long-term and short-term relationships in terms of the timing of relationship milestones (e.g., flirting, first sexual intercourse) and the occurrence/intensity of important relationship experiences (e.g., romantic interest, strong sexual desire, attachment). As romantic interest was rising and partners were becoming acquainted, long-term and short-term relationships were indistinguishable. Eventually, romantic interest in short-term relationships plateaued and declined while romantic interest in long-term relationships continued to rise, ultimately reaching a higher peak. As relationships progressed, participants evidenced more features characteristic of the attachment-behavioral system (e.g., attachment, caregiving) in long-term than short-term relationships but similar levels of other features (e.g., sexual desire, self-promotion, intrasexual competition). These data inform a new synthesis of close relationships and evolutionary psychological perspectives called the Relationship Coordination and Strategic Timing (ReCAST) model. ReCAST depicts short-term and long-term relationships as partially overlapping trajectories (rather than relationships initiated with distinct strategies) that differ in their progression along a normative relationship development sequence.

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