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Jennifer Christofferson, Carolyn Barry, Ph.D., Larry Nelson, Ph.D., Rachel L. Grover, Ph.D.

The Role of Identity as a Moderator in the Relation between Social Withdrawal Subtypes and Emerging Adults’ Romantic Relationship Characteristics

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Personality traits are extremely important in the growth and development of an individual.  Traits of particular interest are social withdrawal subtypes (i.e., avoidant, unsociable, shy). In particular, the subtype of shyness has been the topic of research in numerous studies and has been demonstrated to be associated with many negative developmental outcomes (Caspi & Silva, 1995; Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988; Rubin & Asendorpf, 1993a).  For instance, research has been found linking social withdrawal subtypes with poorer romantic relationship outcomes (i.e. satisfaction and duration) as compared to their sociable peers (Nelson et al., 2008). Most research in the area of these subtypes has been conducted with infants and young adolescents. However, there is literature that indicates that temperament influences personality into the 30s (Terracciano, McCrae, & Costa, 2009). Thus, it is necessary to examine the subtypes and psychosocial adjustment in later periods of life, such as emerging adulthood.    

Arnett (2000) contends emerging adulthood to be a new, distinct stage in the life course, for 18 to 29 year olds. It is necessary to consider what tasks are required of emerging adults to achieve in order to ensure a successful transition.  One such task is becoming involved in romantic relationships.  Another task is the development and solidification of one’s identity through both exploration and eventual commitment. However, due to the lack of stability in this time period, it follows that many things may disrupt these processes. 

Given the instability and increasing variety of social contexts for emerging adults in this time period, it is not surprising that shy emerging adults have reported poorer romantic relationship outcomes (i.e., satisfaction and duration) as compared to their sociable peers (Nelson et al., 2008). Similarly, it has been found that if one is not able to develop a strong sense of identity, it may present issues within romantic relationships (Erikson, 1968; Zimmer-Gembeck & Petherick, 2006). In the current study, we examined emerging adults' identity (exploration and commitment) as moderators between the relations of social withdrawal types and romantic relationship characteristics (duration and quality). 

Undergraduates (N=792) from five universities completed these questionnaires online: Social Preference Scale (SPS; Coplan, Prakash, O’Neil, & Armer, 2004), Ego Identity Process Questionnaire (Balistreri & Busch-Rossnagel, 1995), Social Provisions Questionnaire (Carbery & Buhrmester, 1998), and one item on current romantic relationship duration. It was hypothesized that there would be a relation between social withdrawal subtypes and romantic relationship outcomes (satisfaction and duration). Further, based on evidence that identity exploration and commitment are important prior to the formation of romantic relationships (Erikson, 1968; Zimmer-Gembeck & Petherick, 2006), it was argued that the relation would be moderated by identity.

Results of the study indicated a relation between social withdrawal subtypes and romantic relationship outcomes. It was found that avoidant and shy subtypes were negatively related to romantic relationship satisfaction. The linkages between relationship quality and social withdrawal type add to the existing literature indicating how outcomes in emerging adulthood are different for socially withdrawn individuals. It was found that identity commitment was related positive to romantic relationship duration. The hypothesis of identity as a moderator was not supported, however, linkages were found between identity and social withdrawal subtypes, as well as identity and romantic relationship subtypes. Therefore, identity was found to play some role in the relation. The current study provides evidence for the distinct and unique pathways of socially withdrawn individuals during emerging adulthood as compared to their nonsocially withdrawn peers. More research needs to be conducted in this area, however, this study was a stepping-stone to future examination of identity and its role in this relation.

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