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How your premarital experiences can affect your future marriage

Published: Monday, Aug. 18 2014 10:05 p.m. MDT

The study finds that couples who have larger wedding parties are more likely to report high-quality marriages

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Your prospects for a happy marriage may be tied to people other than your soon-to-be spouse. For example, the more people who come to your wedding, the better it bodes for your marital bliss. But the more serious premarital relationships you had before, the less likely you are to be happily married later.

A new report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, “Before ‘I Do’: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults,” highlights those and other findings on how decisions and experiences before marriage can help or hurt future marriage quality.

Individuals who had more sexual partners or more experience cohabitating are not as likely to have high-quality marriages compared with those who had less, said Galena K. Rhoades, study co-author and research associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. She said experience may provide benefit in some realms, like employment, but not in the case of marital quality.

The study does not prove cause, emphasized Rhoades and her co-author, Scott Stanley, research professor, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and senior fellow for both the National Marriage Project and the Institute for Family Studies. The results, they said, “may reflect the fact that certain types of people are more likely to engage in certain behaviors.”

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The findings

Among the report's highlights:

  • The researchers noted that past experience — notably sex, romantic ties and children — is linked to future marital quality and can impact it negatively.
  • Couples who “slide” rather than “decide” their way through life-changing transitions like having sex, living together and becoming pregnant are less likely to report high-quality marriages.
  • The wedding itself is linked to marital quality. Couples who invite a lot of family and friends to their nuptials tend to have happier marriages than those who don’t.

The researchers analyzed data from the national Relationship Development Study, tracking more than 1,000 Americans 18 to 34 who were not married but were in a relationship in 2007 and 2008. They followed them for five years, through 11 waves of data collection, then looked closely at 418 who married. The study was controlled for race and ethnicity, years of education, personal income and how religious subjects were.

The report notes a changed sequence of events when it comes to marriage. Courtship once led to marriage, sex and having children, but today as many as 90 percent of couples reportedly have premarital sex, and close to 40 percent of babies are born to unmarried parents. Couples are also more likely to live together before marriage.

The individual relationship histories of two people who will later marry is important, helping shape how satisfying their married life together will be, the study found.

Sexual experience

Men and women who had other sexual partners before marrying each other reported less marital satisfaction than those who slept only with each other. In addition, marital satisfaction was higher for women who had fewer sexual partners, and marital dissatisfaction was greater in proportion to the number of partners.

Having been married previously also corresponded to lower marital quality.

The average respondent had five sexual partners before marriage. Only 23 percent of those who got married had had sex only with the future spouse.

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