Incubation of erythrocytes with the sulfhydryl reagent N-ethyl- maleimide (NEM) results in altered spectrin self-association and formation of dimers on the membrane. Skeletons isolated from these cells exhibit marked skeletal instability. In addition, NEM treatment induces increased thermal sensitivity of both cells and purified spectrin. These effects were not produced in aerobically incubated glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficient cells and were therefore presumably not due to depletion of intracellular reduced glutathione. These effects were produced by another permeant sulfhydryl reagent, monobromobimane, but not by its membrane-impermeant derivative. We conclude that spectrin sulfhydryl groups play an important role in spectrin self-association and thermal stability.