The Waiting Game

The pros and cons of sex before marriage

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Saturday, September 01, 2012

“Sex, money and power are three of the most common causes of arguments in relationships. So I guess if you delay the sex until after marriage, then it could be fair to say that you may not have as many issues in your marriage,”says family therapist David Kavanagh. His comments are backed up by a recent study, led by Dean Busby from Brigham Young University in Utah, which lent some support to the idea that the longer a couple delays sex before marriage, the better chance the marriage has of surviving.

Busby and his team of researchers surveyed more than two thousand couples ranging in age from nineteen to seventy-one years and found that communication, sexual quality, perceived stability and relationship satisfaction were better for those couples who had waited until after marriage to consummate their relationship. The bottom line, then, would seem to be that in order to give marriage the best chance of survival, it’s best to make each other wait.

The academics who pioneered the study did so because of a lack of empirical data on how the timing of sex between a couple impacts on the longevity of a marriage. “What was out there was really more about adolescent sexual debut as well as research exploring how old adolescents were when they had their first sexual experiences,” says Busby, “We found nothing within the last two decades that really considered the influence of sexual timing on the current couple relationship.” The findings have drawn a certain amount of comment from  liberal and conservative groups alike.

The study itself, though, doesn’t quite go all the way, and questions as to why delaying sex might impact on the longevity of a marriage remain unanswered by the study. “Some conservative people accept the findings without question because it reflects their values,” says Busby, “while some more liberal people, in terms of sexual behaviors, won’t accept any of the findings no matter what is said. Many people in the middle are saying things like, ‘Yeah, there have been times where I should have been smarter in the decisions I made about sex.’ We also get a number of people who insist that sexual compatibility is the most important issue in a relationship. They say things such as, ‘There is no way I’m going to marry someone if I don’t know whether we are sexually compatible.’ Of course it would be a mistake for any of us to marry someone that we were not sexually attracted to, but what does sexual compatibility mean and how important is it?”

One of the significant findings of the study, which came as a surprise to the research team, was the fact that sexual timing has a stronger influence on relationship stability than on relationship satisfaction. “It appears that when a couple is sexual early, this might plant a seed of distrust or concern about commitment that can interfere with trust,” Busby says. Couples who also have sex very early on in a relationship may do so to the detriment of other aspects of their union. “When sexual behaviors are involved very early in the relationship, they become very powerful and maybe even dominate the relationship experience, so that communication and other basic relationship skills do not develop as well,” he notes.

Yet what are the chances that we could see a societal change back to the days when relationships were often only consummated after marriage? Family therapist David Kavanagh believes a move to less sex before marriage is highly unlikely: “I would say that I have met approximately only one percent of couples who are prepared to say that they are waiting for marriage before sex. I would think that we are a long way off a reversion to this form of relationship as the societal pressures to live together and the loosening of religious affiliations makes a huge impact on peoples’ lives today.”

Kavanagh says that, despite the benefits of delaying sex highlighted in this study, a liberalized view of the role sex plays in relationships has developed in society. “When parents tell children aged eighteen or younger that it is okay for their boyfriend or girlfriend to stay over, the lesson is surely that sex is more recreational than commitment-forming. Unless parents adopt a radically different view in the near future, I don’t see this changing,” he adds.

The last word, then, should go to married father of two Sean Morgan. When asked whether or not couples should consciously limit sex in their relationship before walking down the aisle, he replied: “That’s what happens after you get married.”

Brian O’Connell is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster based in Ireland.

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