Choices have consequences. It’s obvious. And yet, how do we live?
In a new study from the National Marriage Project, “Before ‘I Do’: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?,” researchers Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley look at how choices made before marriage affect life after vows.
If you’ve had sex only with the person you’re married to, for example, it makes a difference. This is common sense, of course: fewer complications. Research buttresses the facts. We don’t tend to talk about these things — these premarital factors that contribute to the life and health of a marriage — because it is often assumed that it implies behavioral judgments about the most personal of issues. There’s also the obvious question: If your past is your past and it’s relevant to your future, does that doom most marriages? Not at all. But being honest and more intentional about decisions during the single and married life can make a difference in the quality and life of marriage.
Stanley, a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, talks to NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the encouraging news in the study and how it might help support a renewed marriage culture.
LOPEZ: Your report describes the current American “relationship sequence” as “sex, cohabitation, and sometimes children preceding marriage” — pointing to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as a cultural icon of this norm. So would you turn back the clock?
STANLEY: That’s not even an option. What is: young adults’ being more aware and more decisional about what they do in their romantic relationships. We believe that people are very often sliding through experiences that amount to life-altering transitions that can affect — and limit — future options, including the goal most people hold to have lifelong love in marriage.
LOPEZ: “Sex with many different partners may be risky if you’re looking for a high-quality marriage.” Shouldn’t what’s in your past be in your past? What are the important data here? Is there something, too, we should realize when we pretend that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”?
STANLEY: Let me start by saying: Nothing we are studying here dooms people. We are talking about relative risks and outcomes. Some people will experience most of the risk behaviors and turn out fine and others will do none or hardly any of them and struggle. Life is like that. But on balance, what these and other findings do suggest is that, when it comes to one’s love life, what happens in Vegas all too often does not say there.
LOPEZ: Why do you keep going back to Vegas in the report?
STANLEY: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” has caught on big-time because it’s something people fondly want. We latched onto this because it really is a popular metaphor, and the notion has captured the attention of many in some way. Of course, it’s likely not really true about anything, including just going to Vegas with a wad of cash.
Interesting side point: As I recall, the Vegas ad campaign before that one was highly family oriented. They were trying to convince people that Vegas was a great family destination. This was awhile ago now. But I remember the switch very clearly. It was rather an abrupt departure.
LOPEZ: The write-up on your study notes that about 80 percent of today’s young adults say that marriage is an important part of their life plans. That’s good news, right?
STANLEY: Yes. I think this is good news, unequivocally. However, with increasing age at marriage and changes in societal expectations and beliefs, people have a lot more time now than they used to have to have many involvements. This has become normative but those normative experiences may undermine, for some, the goal of achieving lasting love in marriage.
LOPEZ: What is the most alarming news in your report?
STANLEY: As you likely saw, for both males and females, eventual marital quality was higher (on average) if people only ever had sex with the person they married. The sociologist Jay Teachman had shown something similar in a study published in 2003, on the odds of divorce, using data from a period even earlier than that. But when it comes to looking at the number of sexual partners (beyond this “only ever” variable), we found that having more sexual partners was associated with lower average marital quality for women but not for men. The number of sexual partners was just not associated with marital quality for the men in our study, once you go beyond the “only ever” finding.
LOPEZ: Is this finding on men — is that bad news, could it encourage promiscuity among men?
STANLEY: Well, most young men are not reading research in the news and basing their sexual lives on the findings. And I believe such findings flow from the realities of human biology and the differences between men and women and the natural consequences of sex for each.
I do think the other research finding could have a bigger cultural effect — people realizing that you are really better off if you don’t have multiple sex partners and save yourself for the one — even if many will still not wait for marriage. At least that finding cautions people that even the first person you have sex with — unless you are really thinking and moving carefully — may not be “the one,” and people may wisely go slower and, at times, hold off, because they recognize they may not be with the one they will marry.