The long-term romantic aspirations of most young single U.S. adults and the message they probably get about premarital sex are at odds.
While research shows the vast majority of young people aspire to a successful marriage someday, single life is often painted as a time for sexual experimentation.
But a growing body of research shows that having multiple sexual partners before marriage is linked to lower marital relationship quality and higher divorce rates.
A new report from the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, released this week, ties earlier studies to a recent national survey of U.S. adults. They all indicate that sexually inexperienced people — those who have only had sex with their spouse — are more likely to have high-quality, sexually satisfying and enduring marriages.
“The people that we call the sexually inexperienced, who report that their one lifetime sexual partner is their spouse, have the highest sexual satisfaction, the highest relationship satisfaction, the best stability and the highest level of emotional closeness between spouses,” said report co-author Jason S. Carroll, associate director of the Wheatley Institute.
“The Myth of Sexual Experience: Why Sexually Inexperienced Dating Couples Actually Go On to Have Stronger Marriages” said the 10% to 20% of married adults who fell into the “sexually inexperienced” category when they wed were twice as likely to say they were very satisfied in their marriage. They are three times as likely to say they were not considering divorce, compared to those who had a lot of sexual experience before they married.
“If a person’s goal is a successful, lifelong marriage, sexual inexperience seems to be the strongest path toward that. At the very least, it’s not harming anyone,” Carroll told the Deseret News.
The effect was stronger in terms of stability, but held across all the measures of satisfaction they used, said lead report author Brian J. Willoughby, professor in the School of Family Life at BYU and a Wheatley fellow. “The group that had only been with their current spouse looked better on every outcome — emotional connection, satisfaction, stability, etc.”
While there were slight differences depending on how many sexual partners one had had, the trend held, he said.
The research suggests “the average person is putting themselves at risk,” said Willoughby. “We’re not trying to say that everyone is doomed in their relationship. But there’s a clearly consistent picture: Sexual experience is creating a risk for future relationships. It’s a risk factor for a long-term relationship that runs counter to cultural expectation.”
Mixed message, risky results
Aspiration to marry remains high, though the share of Americans who marry has been in decline. A team at Bowling Green State University reported in 2022 that 95% of teens ages 15 to 19 believe they will tie the knot at some point.
Carroll said cultural notions suggest that having sex before marriage is not only normal but helpful. The variations go something like this: What happens during the young adult years doesn’t impact later marriage and family life. Or sow your oats before you settle down. You’re missing out if you don’t test your sexual chemistry in a relationship before you commit. Shop around and know your options.
“All of those not only give the notion that your patterns during the single years are harmless,” Carroll said, “but they might lead one to believe that being sexually inexperienced when you enter marriage might put you at risk for not having good sexual chemistry, for not having selected a good partner.”
Instead, he said, when people have had multiple sexual partners in dating years, marital stability is significantly lower.
The research can’t say exactly why the findings hold, but Carroll suspects a lot of factors might be at play, including the risk of making comparisons and the idea that there are alternatives to your spouse that could undermine the marriage. Previous sexual encounters also carry risk of entanglements that can interfere with a successful marriage.
“I don’t know if a pattern of nonmonogamy, so to speak, is a good way to prepare for a relationship of monogamy,” Carroll said. “Definitely if people are practicing sexual restraint, their dating and courtship process will focus on other areas: the relationship, assessment of communication, of shared values and goals, partnership strengths and virtues, those other types of things that in some ways allow the sexual part to be a capstone to the relationship, rather than starting very early and being kind of a cornerstone.”
The new survey included 3,750 individuals in committed couple relationships, asking about previous sexual activity and the quality of their marriage. The researchers controlled for the impact of religiosity, biological sex and relationship length, among other things, to ensure the results were not simply a bias based on who was polled.
The researchers thought they’d find differences based on casual versus committed premarital sex, Willoughby said. They expected that casual sex would lead to more negative outcomes. Nope. Nor did they find differences based on age categories.
They also noted what they called a “startling lack of difference” based on gender: Findings were similar for men and women.
The report finds:
- Today’s sexual dating culture puts “almost half of the population at significantly higher risk for instability in their future marriage.” The report said nearly half of both men and women in the United States had five or more sexual partners before they wed.
That puts them in a sexual experience group with “significantly lower marital stability” than those who had only their spouse as a sexual partner.
- In marriages where the men and women only had sex with their spouse, almost 45% reported high relationship stability, compared to those with five to nine sexual partners over their lifetime and just 14% of those with even more lifetime sexual partners.
- For every additional lifetime sexual partner, the likelihood of being “highly satisfied” in marriage decreased by 4%. It fell by 6.5% for the marriage being “highly stable” and by 4% in terms of an individual being highly satisfied with the marital sex. The comparisons were to those who had only had sex with their spouse.
- Nearly 4 in 5 married people who were sexually inexperienced before their wedding “report the highest level of emotional closeness in their marriages, more than 20% higher than individuals who have had multiple lifetime sexual partners before marriage.”
- The report did find a small share of very sexually experienced individuals — those with more than 10 partners — who still flourished in eventual marriage. Carroll said those individuals looked like they changed their trajectory, “adopting a strong commitment and fidelity approach to their relationship.”
That was important to note, he said, because people can’t change their past sexual behaviors, but they can change their current attitudes and behaviors in ways that could foster a successful marriage.
What’s behind the link?
Other researchers have previously noted a link between premarital sex and marital strife.
Nicholas H. Wolfinger, a professor of consumer and family studies and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, has studied the association between premarital sex and divorce for years, finding it raises the risk.
His 2016 study using data from the National Survey of Family Growth showed that women who don’t have premarital sex have just a 5% chance of divorce in the first five years of marriage, compared to those with two or more sex partners before marriage. Their risk is 20% to 25% in those first five years.
In a blog post this year for the Institute for Family Studies co-written with Jesse Smith, a doctoral candidate in demography and sociology at Penn State University, Wolfinger said they’d controlled for more than 20 variables that might account for the relationship between premarital sex and divorce — everything from family background to demographics, personal attributes to sexual attitudes and behaviors.
“Do any of them matter?” they wrote. “The answer is a clear no. Without controls, people with premarital partners are 161% more likely to dissolve their marriages compared to people who tie the knot as virgins. In other words, premarital sex increases the chances of divorce between twofold and threefold.”
They said there still might be a confounding factor, but they hadn’t found it.
Besides Willoughby and Carroll, the Wheatley report’s other authors are Carson Dover, a graduate student in the marriage, family and human development program at BYU, and Jessica T. Sullivan, who recently earned a degree there in psychology.