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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

“Before I Do”: Premarital experiences affect the present

Pre-marital behavior has a significant impact for couples after their wedding, according to a new report published by the National Marriage Project entitled, “Before I Do: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?”

Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley, the study’s co-authors, sought answers to the questions, “Do our premarital experiences, both with others and our future spouse, affect our marital happiness and stability down the line? Do our prior romantic entanglements harm our chances of marital bliss? And once we find ‘the one,’ do the choices we make and experiences we have together as a couple before and on the big day influence our ability to have a successful marriage?”

The data analyzed by Rhoades and Stanley came from the Relationship Development Study, which originated with more than 1,000 unmarried people between the ages of 18-34 who were in a relationship. Over the next five years, 418 of the individuals got married. “Before I Do” was based on information provided by these individuals.

The study’s co-authors summarize their findings as:

1) What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, so to speak. Our past experiences, especially when it comes to love, sex, and children, are linked to our future marital quality.

2) Some couples slide through major relationship transitions, while others make intentional decisions about moving through them. The couples in the latter category fare better.

3) Choices about weddings seem to say something important about the quality of marriages.

What does the study say about these findings?

Firstly, past sexual experiences were shown to negatively impact a marriage. Only 23 percent of those participating in the study had had sex only with their the person they eventually married, but these respondents reported higher marital quality than those who had other partners before marriage. For women in particular, more premarital sexual partners were linked with lower marital satisfaction, and conversely, the fewer premarital sexual partners, the higher women reported their marital quality.

The authors note that multiple premarital sexual encounters do not doom a marriage, but can be a factor in future marital quality. The authors speculate as to why more romantic, sexual experiences could be linked with a lower quality marriage, contrary to popular opinion: “People who have had many relationships prior to their current one can compare a present partner to their prior partners in many areas—like conflict management, dating style, physical attractiveness, sexual skills, communication ability, and so on. Marriage involves leaving behind other options, which may be harder to do with a lot of experience.”

Related to premarital sex are having children before marriage and cohabitation – both of which were linked with lower marital quality in the study. For those who cohabited with a person other than their future spouse, 35 percent reported high marital quality. But for those who did not cohabit, or who lived only with their spouse before marriage, 42 percent reported high marital quality.

Marriages that began with hooking-up – a sexual encounter outside the context of a committed relationship – were also reported to have lower quality. The authors write that this may be the case because impulsive or insecure behavior could both negatively impact a relationship and lead to more casual sexual experiences. But they further hypothesize: “Certainly many relationships that begin with hook-ups do not end in marriage, but of those that do, some will likely have couples who were primarily drawn together because of sexual attraction before they could assess one another on other important aspects of compatibility. The context of hooking up may mean getting together under hazy circumstances, after something that ‘just happened’ one night, and then sliding into a longer relationship.”

Secondly, and related to the first finding, the researchers note the difficulties of sliding into marriage through a series of lightly taken decisions versus intentionally deciding to marry. Cohabitation, they write, tends to encourage “sliding” because various constraints, such as sharing finances, pets, friends, etc., can make it difficult to opt out of the relationship even if one is unsure of a lifelong commitment to this person.

The authors suggest other ways of “testing” a relationship, such as, “plan a trip together, meet each other’s parents, observe your boyfriend/girlfriend in many different settings, or seek other people’s opinions” rather than living together before marriage.

Finally, how might a wedding ceremony impact marital bliss? The study found that 28 percent of those who did not have a formal wedding reported high marital quality versus 41 percent of those who did.

“Wedding ceremonies ritualize the foundation of commitment,” said the study’s authors. “Small or large, wedding ceremonies also reflect and enhance the community context of marriages.”

The study also revealed a link between higher marital quality and the more guests at one’s wedding. This remained the case even after controlling for personal income, religiousness, frequency of attendance at religious services, race/ethnicity and years of education. Those with 150 or more guests reported the highest marital quality.

The study’s authors summarize their advice to Americans hoping to marry, after sifting through the results of their data: “Remember that what you do before you say ‘I do’ seems to have a notable impact on your marital future. So decide wisely.”

About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.