Ideals as Anchors for Relationship Experiences

Margaret Frye, Jenny Trinitapoli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Research on young-adult sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa typically conceptualizes sex as an individual-level risk behavior. We introduce a new approach that connects the conditions surrounding the initiation of sex with subsequent relationship well-being, examines relationships as sequences of interdependent events, and indexes relationship experiences to individually held ideals. New card-sort data from southern Malawi capture young women’s relationship experiences and their ideals in a sequential framework. Using optimal matching, we measure the distance between ideal and experienced relationship sequences to (1) assess the associations between ideological congruence and perceived relationship well-being, (2) compare this ideal-based approach to other experience-based alternatives, and (3) identify individual- and couple-level correlates of congruence between ideals and experiences in the romantic realm. We show that congruence between ideals and experiences conveys relationship well-being along four dimensions: expressions of love and support, robust communication habits, perceived biological safety, and perceived relationship stability. We further show that congruence is patterned by socioeconomic status and supported by shared ideals within romantic dyads. We argue that conceiving of ideals as anchors for how sexual experiences are manifest advances current understandings of romantic relationships, and we suggest that this approach has applications for other domains of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)496-525
Number of pages30
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 9 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Malawi
  • culture
  • ideals
  • relationships
  • sex


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