University of Wisconsin–Madison
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The social contexts of adolescent romantic relationships

Adolescence is a crucial developmental period when individuals increasingly exert their independence from their family, form close relationships with non-family peers, and often enter into their first romantic relationships. Early intimate relationships influence a number of interpersonal processes that are integral to psychological and social development, such as autonomy, individuation, relatedness, identity formation, and the capacity for intimacy. These early romantic relationships are the primary context for developing sexual identity and learning to express sexuality. The relationships also have a lasting effect throughout adulthood, setting the stage for future relationships and family formation behaviors. The behaviors adolescents engage in within these intimate relationships are of great concern to social scientists, particularly behaviors associated with negative outcomes like sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. Engagement in these risky behaviors is associated with a constellation of contributing factors and among them are the partners’ own normative beliefs about sexual behaviors. Among the many influences on an adolescent’s views about sexual behaviors are peer groups, which are important for the development and policing of behavioral norms. In addition, the greater social environment, such as neighborhoods and schools, are also thought to facilitate the development and policing of adolescents’ attitudes towards sex and engagement in risky behaviors. In theory, norms are spread through social interactions, implying that the social networks of young people play a very central role in propagating beliefs about sexual behaviors. Because adolescents are free to choose partners from outside the spatial and social boundaries of neighborhoods, schools, and peer groups, we believe that romantic relationship formation, like friendship formation, can be viewed as a vehicle for transporting norms outside of these typical boundaries. To deepen the understanding of romantic adolescent social interaction, we produce a descriptive analysis of the embeddedness of adolescent relationships, that is, whether or not partners live in the same neighborhood, attend the same school, or share common friends. We also investigate whether concentrated disadvantage in the school or neighborhood is associated with relationship embeddedness.


Children, Children General, Family & Partnering, Family & Partnering General, Place, Place General


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