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.
LOPEZ: What’s the most practical takeaway from the study?
STANLEY: 1) Go slow, and think about what you really want and make decisions about important steps in relationships – individually, and then together, once you’ve committed.
2) A lot of people would do well to talk with their partner about past experiences and how they may affect one’s life. To be clear, we do not mean to dredge up details and spill everything that ever happened. But for a couple where the relationship is really turning into something (and beyond that point), it could be valuable to talk about what imprint past experiences have made, and how that affects how one reacts or handles events in the present.
For example, “I sometimes react strongly to anything that seems like rejection from you because of some of what happened in my past. When I do, it’s not because of you but because of what got triggered, but I know it affects both of us.”
We realize that having that type of talk takes emotional safety and a level of skill many people do not have, so we also tend to believe that many people could benefit from learning some strategies for talking about things that matter.
LOPEZ: Should couples who are already living the norm sequence do something different — especially if they are married, and have these premarital indicators in their past?
STANLEY: There is no time like the present to start making decisions to protect what you’ve committed to with your spouse. Commitment isn’t just something one does on the wedding day but something that involves daily and weekly decisions about what you can do that is best for your marriage.
LOPEZ: Is this “sliding vs. deciding” distinction the report makes a generational problem?
STANLEY: Two ways to take your question and an answer to both: 1) Is it new, as in different from past generations? And, 2) Is it widespread in industrialized nations? Yes, to both, I think. There is a loss of scripts for how people do love and develop toward marriage. The loss of expectations framed in cultural scripts makes a lot more room for sliding and puts a lot more pressure on the importance of deciding. [More here on sliding vs. deciding.]
As my colleague Galena Rhoades likes to put it, metaphorically: There are fewer guardrails now on the highway of life when it comes to love, marriage, and starting families. There is one further complexity here. While we believe that sliding is now pervasive and comes with risk, there likely is some important subgroup (who knows how large) that is not merely experiencing the fact that there is less structure, but they are very aware of this and embrace it.
Perhaps it is as if they have decided that this less-structured setup we now have is truly preferable, and believe it will benefit them. We don’t know of research that’s tried to isolate this group, but a larger number, we’d guess, are just taking the landscape the way it comes.
LOPEZ: Is “Generation YOLO” (You Only Live Once) a wholly bad thing? Is there anything the wisdom of the ages can learn from their ongoing experience? Is this, in part, the goal of the report?
STANLEY: Well, it could cut both ways. You could be more careful given that you only live once. In general, however, because this attitude most often involves the loss of a sense of a long-term time horizon, people are going to be more prone to experience things in the short term that undermine what they may develop as their lifelong dreams and goals. Vegas.
LOPEZ: Whatever does having more guests at your wedding have to do with anything other than high price tags?
STANLEY: This is really a totally new finding, and it bears replication in other samples.
The finding does fit great theory, however.
We recognize that it could be explained by a variety of factors, including things we do not measure. We did control for personal income and education and other factors but we were unable to control for parents’ wealth or help with weddings. Certainly, some of this is selection.
Having said that: Through all of recorded history, people have engaged in special rituals (with witnesses being critical to the process) to mark their commitments and the intention to follow through. It’s not hard to believe that there is a reason for this human proclivity, and that the reason may also affect weddings and marriages. There is a lot of research showing that people strive to maintain consistency with their public pronouncement and subsequent behavior (consistency theory and also the literature on cognitive dissonance).
The stronger and more public a choice, the more likely one will carry out what one started.
So, it’s not really a stretch to believe that the number of witnesses may matter. I would hasten to suggest that this part of a potential explanation does not mean necessarily dropping a lot more money on a wedding. That expectation already keeps a lot of people who want to marry from marrying. But having people who matter to you come to an event where you are promising something big in your life — likely a pretty powerful thing.
LOPEZ: Should families and churches and communities be working to make it easier to have a cheaper big wedding?
STANLEY: For some time now, I’ve felt that religious groups should make a way for those who cannot afford a wedding and reception to have decent ones, without having to find a fortune to make it happen. Make it a ministry. Make it possible for those without means, or with very low incomes, to have a nice wedding, invite friends and family, have a party in the fellowship hall (or whatever a group calls it), and celebrate marriage. I buy the idea (e.g., from research such as that by sociologist Kathy Edin) that there is some percentage of couples out there who would like to be married who just can’t see how to get there because of their lack of financial means. I have heard of a church or two doing this, but I cannot point to a movement. Would love to see one started.
LOPEZ: If one lesson could be learned from your report, what would you hope it might be?
STANLEY: People could afford to think more about what they really want, think about what will help them get there, and make decisions about their love — and sex — lives rather than just letting things happen. Too many people give up a lot of options before they have made a choice.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.