“Before the I Do's”: Pre-marital & Dating experiences
The pre-marital past has a significant impact for couples after their wedding, according to a recent 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, answered 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 reported by Rhoades and Stanley came from the Relationship Development Study, which began with more than 1,000 unmarried people between the ages of 18-34 who were in a current relationship. Over the next five years, 418 of the individuals were married.
The study’s co-authors summarize their findings as:
1) What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Our past experiences, concerning love, sex, and children, are linked to our future marital quality.
2) Then some couples easily change through major relationship transitions, while others make conscious decisions about moving through them. The couples in the second category fare better.
3) However, choices about weddings seem to say something important about the quality of marriages.
What does the study say about the findings?
Firstly, certain past sexual experiences were shown to have negatively impacted a marriage. Only 23 % 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 prior to marriage. Women in particular, more premarital sexual partners were linked with lower marital satisfaction. The fewer premarital sexual partners, the higher women reported their marital quality.
Although the authors note that multiple premarital sexual encounters do not destroy a marriage, but can be a factor in future marital feelings of quality. The authors speculate why more romantic, sexual experiences could be linked with a lower quality of marriage happiness are 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.”
Premarital sex or having children before marriage and cohabitation both of which were linked with lower marital quality in the study. For those that cohabited with a person other than their future spouse, 35% reported high marital quality. But for those who did not cohabit, or who lived only with their spouse before marriage, 42 % reported high marital quality.
Marriages that began with hook-ups – a sexual encounter outside the bounds of a committed relationship – were also reported to have lower quality. The authors infer that this may be the case because impulsive behavior could both negatively impact a relationship and lead to more casual sexual experiences. They also 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 problem with a short term courting into marriage through a series of lightly taken decisions versus well thought out decisions to marry. Cohabitation, they indicate, tends to encourage “sliding” because various constraints, such as sharing finances, pets, friends, etc., can make it difficult to leave the relationship even if one is unsure of a lifelong commitment to this person.
Finally, how might the wedding ceremony impact the relationship? The study found that 28 % of those who did not have a formal wedding reported high marital quality versus 41 % of those who did.
“Wedding ceremonies formalize 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’s authors share their advice to couples hoping to marry: “Remember that what you do before you say ‘I do’ seems to have a notable impact on your marital future. So decide wisely.”
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