HIV prevention efforts have given limited attention to the relational schemas and scripts of adult heterosexual women. These broader schemas and scripts of romantic and other sexual liaisons, partner selection, relationship dynamics, and power negotiations may help to better understand facilitators and barriers to HIV risk-reduction practices.
We conducted exploratory qualitative interviews with 60 HIV-uninfected heterosexual African-American women from rural counties in North Carolina and Alabama, and Hispanic women from an urban county in southern Florida. Data were collected for relationship expectations; relationship experiences, and relationship power and decision-making. Interview transcripts underwent computer-assisted thematic analysis.
Participants had a median age of 34 years (range 18–59), 34% were married or living as married, 39% earned an annual income of $12,000 or less, 12% held less than a high school education, and 54% were employed. Among the Hispanic women, 95% were foreign born. We identified two overarching relationship themes: contradictions between relationship expectations and desires and life circumstances that negated such ideals, and relationship challenges. Within the contradictions theme, we discovered six subthemes: a good man is hard to find; sex can be currency used to secure desired outcomes; compromises and allowances for cheating, irresponsible, and disrespectful behavior; redefining dating; sex just happens; needing relationship validation. The challenges theme centered on two subthemes: uncertainties and miscommunication, and relationship power negotiation. Gender differences in relationship intentions and desires as well as communication styles, the importance of emotional and financial support, and the potential for relationships to provide disappointment were present in all subthemes. In examining HIV risk perceptions, participants largely held that risk for HIV-infection and the need to take precautions were problems of women who differed from them (i.e., abuse drugs, are promiscuous, exchange sex).
Underlying women’s relational schemas was a belief that relationship priorities differed for men and women. Consequently, expectations and allowances for partner infidelity and negligent behaviors were incorporated into their scripts. Moreover, scripts endorsed women’s use of sex as currency in relationship formation and endurance, and did not emphasize HIV risk. Both couple- and gender-specific group-level interventions are needed to deconstruct (breakdown) and reconstruct (rewrite) relationship scripts.