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What You Do Before You Say ‘I Do’ Matters For Marriage Happiness

A new study shows that the more relationships you’ve had prior to marriage, the less likely you’ll have a good marriage.

I know it’s not cool to acknowledge it but basically all of us want to get married some day. The percentage of people who don’t ever want to get married remains in the single digits, even as cultural support for marriage is eroding. Marriage is, by and large, great for people, so it’s a good thing to aspire to. It’s not just good for those who are married but the children that their sexual unions produce. Happy marriages make for happy and healthy men and women. And children do best in families led by their happily married parents. Simple as that.

So it’s kind of odd how much of the advice we get from popular media about sex and dating is, well, bad. “21 Mind Blowing Sex Moves You’ve Never Tried Before” drones the single lady-targeted Cosmpolitan magazine cover that also features the “Best Birth Control Tips Ever” and “Crazy Sex Confessions.” More or less the same headlines repeat every lonely month. Supposedly more female-empowering sites such as Jezebel assert that Casual Sex is Good For You If That’s Your Thing and offer advice on how to catalogue your conquests, whether your list is “as small as three [or] as many as 640.” In that essay, we’re warned away from the sex-tracking app nookist, which advertises that “by keeping track of your sexual history, you begin to put your sexual health into perspective – giving you the ability to assess your sexual behavior and make changes in your life.” It almost makes cataloguing copious sexual exploits into a hackable online database sound like a fool-proof idea, no?

But speaking of giving you the ability to assess your sexual behavior and make changes in your life, a new study shows that the more relationships you’ve had prior to marriage, the less likely you’ll have a good marriage. This seems somewhat obvious, but it’s so contrary to popular culture and practice these days that even the study’s authors say the finding is “counterintuitive.”

A new study shows that the more relationships you’ve had prior to marriage, the less likely you’ll have a good marriage.

“In most areas, more experience is better. You’re a better job candidate with more experience, not less. When it comes to relationship experience, though, we found that having more experience before getting married was associated with lower marital quality,” said Galena K. Rhoades, research associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. She’s a co-author of the study “Before ‘I Do’: What Do Premarital Experiences Have To Do With Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?,” from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. The report has all sorts of interesting findings, including that large weddings and conscious decision-making in relationships are also factors in happy marriages.

Shacking Continues To Be A Risk Factor

Previous marriages and previously having lived with a partner were both identified as risk factors for less-happy marriages, the authors said. We know so much about how living together is a risk factor for all sorts of unhappiness that I seriously have to restrain myself from shouting at my female friends who tell me they’re moving in or have moved in with their boyfriends. I mean, even if there were no moral problem with it, it’s just bad strategy if you want a happy life. Also, true story, I know a dude who years ago assured all of us that he was only moving in with his girlfriend — a lovely, intelligent, dream of a woman — as a last step before marriage. And that it would happen “soon, real soon.” She finally left him a few months ago after realizing he had a different definition of “soon” — one that might be closer to “never.”

She finally left him a few months ago after realizing he had a different definition of “soon” — one that might be closer to “never.”

Anywho, the nearly one-quarter of people in the study who had sex solely with the person they married reported high marital quality, higher than those who had sex with other partners prior to marriage. And the more sexual partners a woman had before marriage, the less happy she reported her marriage to be. Well that’s not what we’ve been told by the Cosmo-Jezebel alliance. The study’s authors speculate on why this might be.

One reason that more experience could lead to lower marital quality is that more experience may increase one’s awareness of alternative partners. A strong sense of alternatives is believed to make it harder to maintain commitment to, and satisfaction with, what one already has. People who have had many relationships prior to their current one can compare a present partner to their prior partners in many areas—like conflict management, dating style, physical attractiveness, sexual skills, communication ability, and so on. Marriage involves leaving behind other options, which may be harder to do with a lot of experience.

It’s at this point that we might want to discuss the study and how it controlled for factors that may help people make better or worse decisions related to marital happiness.

Rhoades and co-author Scott M. Stanley analyzed data from the Relationship Development Study, a national study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. More than 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 were recruited into the study between 2007 and 2008. At the time, they were unmarried but in a relationship. Some 418 marriages came out of this group and were analyzed in 11 waves of data collection. The authors controlled for various factors, such as race and ethnicity, years of education, income and religiosity.

Make Some Conscious Decisions Already, Will Ya?

One of the more interesting cohorts in this study were the one-third (one-third!) who said that the relationship that led to their marriage began with a hook-up. This wasn’t defined, so we don’t know if every one of them can thank Grey Goose for their eventual nuptials, but we can all appreciate the serendipity of how people end up together. Even as we chuckle over how that story will be conveyed to the couple’s eventual children. (By the way, for a great vodka-leading-to-marriage story, I encourage you to read this interview of Vic Matus, who married my former housemate.)

But the hook-up thing, which was a factor in lower marital quality, also matches with other less formalized arrangements that are becoming common among younger generations. If you can make out with someone thanks to the lowered inhibitions you guzzled down at the bar, you don’t have to make a formal request to ask her out or to plan a date. Similarly, many respondents reported shacking prior to marriage. And those who lived with their eventual spouse before making a commitment to marry reported lower marital quality than those who waited to move in together until they were engaged or married.

The study actually had people rate how much of living together was a conscious decision vs. something that just sort of happened. And the more it was a decision, the happier the eventual marriage was. This might be because of higher levels of commitment present at the time of moving in or because it reflects better communication skills, a key to marital contentment, the authors said.

The same sort of conscious decision making effect could be seen in differences in pre-marital counseling. While only 32 percent of those who did not have premarital preparation reported high marital quality, that jumped to 57 percent of those who did take part in premarital preparation. Less sliding, more deciding might not be a Millennial motto but it should be.

“We believe that one important obstacle to marital happiness is that many people now slide through major relationship transitions – like having sex, moving in together, getting engaged or having a child – that have potentially life-altering consequences,” said Stanley, research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, as well as a senior fellow for both the National Marriage Project and for the Institute for Family Studies.

When you’re trying to figure out which yogurt to buy, you’re not thinking of what you can do for the yogurt, you know?

All the options make it hard to man-up or woman-up and make some decisions because we’re so terrified of missing out on the next best thing. But the whole truly counterintuitive point of a happy marriage is that you’re not supposed to be thinking about what your spouse can do for you so much as what you can do for your spouse. That’s why this whole commercialized approach to spouse-picking is wrong. When you’re trying to figure out which yogurt to buy, you’re doing a lot of comparison shopping, but you’re not thinking of what you can do for the yogurt, you know?

We all want marriage, more or less, but we couldn’t be doing a worse job of trying to attain it. We want to find the perfect spouse, even though he or she doesn’t exist and finding a perfect spouse isn’t what marriage is about. What’s worse, we demand that someone forgive us our many faults even while we’re mentally comparing our potential spouse with other people or figments of our imagination. We should stop with that and really work at doing what it takes to get married and stay happily married.

Apparently Big Weddings Have An Upside

I may have had a big wedding but I mostly found it a headache. Once my husband and I decided to tie the knot, I just wanted to elope. Or get married in the middle of a Sunday church service and then meet for tacos in the park. But everyone pressured me into participation in the formal wedding-industrial complex. Nearly eight years later, I’m still a bit sore about that. And yet they may have been on to something.

Having a formal wedding with a big guest list turns out to be associated with higher marital quality, even after controlling for income and education. As the guest list grew, so did marital happiness.

Who knows why this might be, but having a big network of support and encouragement is helpful to marriage, obviously.

Don’t Worry If You Have 28 Previous Sexual Partners

Even if you have not made the healthiest or most prudential sexual choices prior to now, don’t flip out or despair. Just because some factors are related to marital happiness doesn’t mean you can’t have a happy marriage. Just focus on making better decisions from this point forward. Be conscious and deliberate about them. Stop letting life happen to you and start thinking about what you want and how to get there. And, finally, remember that your big extended family is a blessing and that rituals occur throughout the world for very good reason.

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