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.”
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.
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.
“It’s not that when you say ‘I do’ all the other options disappear from life or mind, but you have decided that this is the one. The key factor is how you manage your sense of alternatives and how good you think those alternatives are,” Stanley said.
He and Rhoades speculate that having had more partners provides fodder for comparison and reminds one there are other choices. Plus, someone with a greater history of relationships also has experienced breakups — and may have developed skills not only to cope with them, but to facilitate them.
Children from previous relationships also sometimes complicate future marriage, the research found.
“In general, couples who wait to have sex later in their relationship report higher levels of marital quality,” the study said. “There are many possible explanations for this link. One is that some people who are already more likely to struggle in romantic relationships — such as people who are impulsive or insecure — are also more likely to have casual sex.”
It’s also possible, the study noted, that relationships that began as hook-ups may involve partners not as well matched on factors that promote happy marriages, such as shared values, interests and perspectives.
Talking things through and making deliberate decisions helps couples over the long term in ways that drifting along does not.
“Decisions matter,” the study said. “At times of important transitions, the process of making a decision sets up couples to make stronger commitments with better follow-through as they live them out. This is undoubtedly why all cultures have rituals that add force to major decisions about the pathway ahead. We tend to ritualize experiences that are important. Couples who decide rather than slide are saying, ‘our relationship is important, so let’s think about what we’re doing here.’ Making time to talk clearly about potential transitions may contribute to better marriages.”
Couples who slide without deciding where the relationship is heading may find it harder to get out later when they’re sharing furniture and space and have signed leases, among other things. “In short, living together creates a kind of inertia that makes it difficult to change course,” the report said.
People may be “stuck with someone you might not have otherwise married,” Stanley said.
Cohabitating couples face the pressures of dating and the issues of married couples, effectively "sandwiching" them from both sides as they navigate everything from rent to relationship issues. It’s a lot to deal with, Rhoades said, and those "couples are more at risk for trouble.”
The study also found that people who had some form of marital preparation, such as relationship education, had higher marital quality. Rhoades said people need to talk about their relationships and make deliberate decisions, and that couples who live together should consider relationship education.
When it comes time to make some of those deliberate decisions, the report highlights three factors that "represent a grave problem that could become even worse down the road": different commitment levels, premarital infidelity and physical aggression. Each factor should “lead to serious consideration about a relationship’s future."
Big wedding, big reward
“This study finds that couples who have larger wedding parties are more likely to report high-quality marriages,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at University of Virginia, in a written statement.
“One possibility here is that couples with larger networks of friends and family may have more help and encouragement in navigating the challenges of married life. Note, however, this finding is not about spending lots of money on a wedding party; it’s about having a good number of friends and family in your corner.”
The researchers speculate that a well-attended public ceremony may reflect “a clear decision to commit to one’s marriage.” They wrote that “wedding ceremonies ritualize the foundation of commitment.”
They originally thought the association between guests and marital quality was about having good financial resources, but the association remained when they controlled for income and education. It is possible the very public nature of the commitment strengthens marital quality, they said.
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