Introduction & Hypotheses
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Introduction & Hypotheses Self-silencing in romantic relationships is linked to both earlier transition to adolescent sexual intercourse and higher depressive symptomology (Harper & Welsh, 2007) and also to depression in young women (Jack & Dill, 1992).

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Introduction & Hypotheses

Self-silencing in romantic relationships is linked to both earlier transition to adolescent sexual intercourse and higher depressive symptomology (Harper & Welsh, 2007) and also to depression in young women (Jack & Dill, 1992).

Adolescent females who silence themselves in romantic relationships report less open communication about sex (Widman, et al., 2006).

Rejection sensitivity is a marker of attachment insecurity in adolescence, which has been positively linked to adolescent depression (Margolese, Markiewicz, & Doyle, 2005; Sund &Wichstrom, 2002).

Adolescents who are insecure in relationships and sensitive to rejection may engage in sexual activities to satisfy unmet needs for love and to avoid abandonment (Rodgers, 1996; Tracy et al., 2003). Anxiously attached females may be more likely to agree to unwanted sex to keep a partner, whereas anxiously attached males report less sexual confidence (Tracy et al., 2003).

We predict that the link between individual adolescent characteristics of rejection sensitivity and self-silencing and depression is moderated by the effects of sexual behavior in their romantic relationships. These effects may be stronger for females.


The Study of Tennessee Adolescent Romantic Relationships (STARR)

209 adolescent dating couples1

Middle: aged 14-17

Older: aged 17-21

Couples dating a minimum of 4 weeks

(range: 4 weeks – 5 years; median: 11 months)


Relationship Satisfaction scale from the Relationship Experiences Questionnaire (Levesque, 1993)

Males  = 0.70; Females  = .62

Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (Downey & Feldman, 1996)

Males  = 0.87; Females  = 0.87

Silencing the Self Scale (Jack & Dill, 1992)

Males  = 0.77; Females  = 0.77.

Sexual Behaviors Questionnaire (Welsh et al., 2005)

Mean couple report of intercourse frequency (past month) = 5. 48

Centers for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (Radloff, 1977)

Males  = 0.87; Females  = 0.87.

Analytic Strategy

Couple-level analyses were conducted using HLM to allow for nested data while also maintaining power by using the full sample. HLM provides:

1) an estimate in the component of variance in depressive symptoms attributed to individual-level differences and couple-level differences

2) information about the extent to which each variance component could be predicted by factors at that level

All couple factors were centered around the grand mean.

The length of time dating prior to first assessment was controlled in all models.


Baseline Model

Differences in Depressive Symptoms Between Couples

22% of variance in depressive symptoms is between couples.

64% of variance in depressive symptoms is within couples (plus error).

Partners who are higher in depressive symptoms tend to be together, and those who are lower in depressive symptoms tend to be together (t(207) = 26.47, p < .001).

Level 1 & 2 Models

Differences in Depressive Symptoms Between Couples Based on Couple Characteristics

Couples who reported a higher frequency of sexual intercourse also reported greater depressive symptoms (t(205) = -2.38, p < 0.05)

Differences in Depressive Symptoms Within Couples Based on Characteristics of Individuals

Controlling for between-couples effects

Higher depressive symptoms among:

Females (t(407) = -2.32, p < .05).

Younger adolescents (t(407) = -1.99, p < .05).

Higher self-silencing adolescents (t(407) = 3.27, p < .01)

More rejection sensitive adolescents (t(407) = 8.06, p < .001).

There were no interactions with gender for self-silencing or rejection sensitivity.

Interaction Model

Frequency of Sexual Intercourse as a Moderator of Self Silencing and Rejection Sensitivity

Sexual Intercourse is a significant moderator of Self-Silencing, such that highly self-silencing individuals who are in a couple with a higher frequency of intercourse report the most depressive symptoms (t(403) = 2.26, p < .05). See Figure 1.

Sexual Intercourse is a trend-level moderator of Rejection Sensitivity, following a similar pattern to Self-Silencing (t(403) = 1.67, p = .10).


Study of Tennessee Adolescent Romantic Relationships

Moderating Effects of Adolescent Sexual Behavior on Rejection Sensitivity, Self-silencing, and DepressionKatherine C. Little, Rachel Holmes, Deborah P. Welsh, & Nancy Darling


The authors gratefully acknowledge NICHD for funding this project (Grant # R01 HD39931, PI Deborah Welsh). We also extend our gratitude to the STARR lab graduate students, project coordinators, and undergraduate assistants, past and present.

Figure 1. Sexual Frequency X Self-Silencing Interaction Effect on Depressive Symptoms


  • Factors related to couples, not just individuals within couples, account for a large portion of variance in depressive symptoms in adolescents.

  • For adolescents who silence themselves, engaging in frequent sexual behavior, even with an established romantic partner, may be a risk factor for increasing depressive symptomatology. These may be the group of adolescents who wish to delay or avoid sexual intercourse, but they are unable to communicate their desires. Unhappy, but unable or unwilling to express themselves, these adolescents internalize their problems.

  • A similar pattern emerges for adolescents who are highly rejection sensitive, although the effect is only marginally significant. For these adolescents, rejection sensitivity is strongly associated with depressive symptoms, and frequency of intercourse only adds marginally to this.

  • Limitations & Future Directions

  • Limited by representativeness of sample (willing to participate, dating 4+ weeks, low depression scores)

  • Longitudinal analysis examining effects on T2 depression

  • Proposed cross-cultural study examining these factors and other characteristics of couples and individuals that may play a role in moderating the relationship between sexual behavior and depression.

1Couples were recruited from a previous study of 2201 high school students from 17 different high schools representing geographic (rural, urban, suburban) and economic diversity