What premarital sex has to do with divorce — and other takeaways from marriage research

A new study says premarital sex is linked to divorce. What other factors predict marriage trouble?

Having premarital sex makes divorce more likely, as a number of studies have found. But researchers are still trying to understand why that is, and a forthcoming study challenges some of the most common assumptions.

The new research discounts many of the factors that have been suggested as explaining the relationship between premarital sex and divorce, such as religiosity or different values. It instead suggests that premarital sex itself might be a link, not factors shared by those who engage in it, according to Jesse Smith, a family and religion researcher at Pennsylvania State University, and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah.

“We were able to throw all these things at the relationship between premarital sex and divorce and not explain any of it,” said Wolfinger. While there might be differences they haven’t measured or that can’t be measured, he noted that sometimes people simply don’t like a finding or disagree ideologically and declare that “it must be something else.”

In “Re-Examining the Link Between Premarital Sex and Divorce,” they used measures of adolescent beliefs and values, parental communication with children about sex, and approximate number of premarital sexual partners, among other data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. For years, that study followed students who were in seventh through 12th grade when they first provided information. A fair amount of data was collected from their parents, too.

Smith and Wolfinger call the relationship between premarital sex and divorce “highly significant and robust.”

They found the highest link to divorce among those with six or more premarital partners, then next highest among those with one or two premarital partners. Having three to five partners was far less linked to divorce, which puzzled them.

While they can’t explain that difference, Smith thinks emotional baggage might account for the risk for those with one or two premarital partners, since they may dwell on the “one that got away.” With three to five partners — numbers that are fairly common among those who have premarital sex — he could envision “sort of a sense of having played the field, so they kind of learn what they don’t want or what not to do. That’s the best explanation I can think of for that.”

Smith, who is working toward doctorates in demography and sociology, became interested in the impact of premarital sex on divorce because, while both are areas of concern, not much was known about the connection, though it was well-established.

Risk factors for divorce

A slew of other studies have identified factors that increase the likelihood of divorce. Among them:

  • Youthful marriage. This is the single biggest predictor of divorce. People who marry in their teens and early 20s are more apt to divorce than those who marry later.
  • Less than a four-year degree. For one thing, these days, people who don’t graduate from college are less likely to marry at all than in the past — and in comparison to those with a degree, Wolfinger said. Those without a degree are more apt than graduates to divorce, too. He said college in theory teaches communication and problem-solving skills that make graduates better able to work through the challenges marriage might bring.
  • Parents who divorced. While this link is long-known, Wolfinger said researchers have found the association between getting divorced yourself and having parents who did has weakened over time, perhaps because divorce is not as stigmatized as it used to be.
  • Racial differences. In America, Black people have the highest divorce rate. Asians have the lowest.
  • Having a first-born daughter. Families whose first-born is a daughter are more likely to divorce than families with a first-born son, a difference that appears only after the girl is 12. Some experts theorize the difference is because of tension between fathers and daughters that doesn’t exist between mothers and sons or mothers and daughters, said Wolfinger, who has written extensively about divorce. Others believe parents argue more over how to raise girls.
  • A genetic component. Genetics may increase likelihood of divorce.
  • Location. “People are more likely to get divorced in regions where there are more partner options,” Wolfinger said. Divorce rates are highest in the West and lowest in the Northeast. The South and the Midwest fall in the middle of the pack in terms of divorce rates. Similarly, divorce is more common in urban than rural communities. 
  • Combat deployment
  • Money problems.

There’s a difference, too, between why people consider divorce and what they consider their “final straw,” according to a 2013 longitudinal study published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology. The researchers interviewed couples taking marriage preparation classes through their religious institutions and followed them for years, interviewing those who divorced. The top reasons given for divorce were lack of commitment, infidelity and conflict or arguing. 

The top final straws were infidelity, domestic violence and substance abuse.

That research team also noted that women were more apt to “say it’s done” than men in those circumstances.

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A 2012 study by Brigham Young University researchers studied folks in the process of divorcing who were in a required parenting class as part of the divorce process in Minnesota. Couples said they’d grown apart and couldn’t talk to each other anymore, according to a report on divorce for the Institute for Family Studies by longtime family researcher Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver.

A research fellow at the Institute who often contributes to its blog, Stanley wrote that “people who were the least likely to entertain putting the brakes on a divorce reported growing apart, differences in tastes and money problems. In an interesting twist ... abuse and fidelity were not reasons for divorcing that were associated with how much interest someone had in potentially reconciling the marriage.”

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Stanley also reported on what may be emerging as a primary driver of divorce: disagreement about having kids.

That’s a growing issue in America. Pew Research Center recently reported that a growing share of U.S. adults don’t expect to have kids — most of them because they “just don’t want to.” A striking number of parents similarly say they don’t want to have more.

Keeping it together

Stanley in 2015 offered advice on avoiding divorce. It includes making sure that you do your part to strengthen your marriage. Talk through issues. Read a good book on marriage and try some of the suggestions. Prioritize fun and friendship regardless of how hectic life is. Think about doing a relationship education workshop together, as well as getting professional help if it’s needed, among other things.

The American Psychological Association adds that couples need to “fight nice” and remember to make each other feel cared for and appreciated. Men, especially, need such reassurance. Taking risks, working on the relationship, and talking about more than household maintenance and surface topics are all important, too. 

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