Falling head over heels in love means, to many couples, having sex as soon as possible. The rush of infatuation leads people to take the next steps in their relationship without looking objectively at the odds of the relationship succeeding. Before they know it, they’re making plans to move in together. Unfortunately, many of these hurried unions lead to disappointment as the relationships falls apart before it’s even had time to take shape. The breakup takes its emotional, if not financial, toll on both partners. Ever hopeful that the next time will be better, however, many people find themselves almost instantly in a new and similarly passionate relationship. Chaotic and impulsive these series of entries and exits into relationships, called “churning,” take their toll. Relationships that form under these circumstances, should they lead to marriage, are more likely to suffer in terms of quality.
Close relationship researchers have known for years that couples who cohabitate before marriage (and are not engaged) are more likely to divorce or, if they remain together, experience poor marital quality. The “cohabitation effect,” as it’s called, occurs because many people who live together before getting engaged slide into marriage through a process of inertia. Rather than going through the process of critically evaluating whether the relationship is right for them, they make the decision to marry out of factors such as convenience, economics, or—the sex.
Cornell University policy researcher Sharon Sassler and her research team recently decided to study relationship “tempo.” Based on the hypothesis that churning leads people to enter less than satisfactory relationships, they investigated the connection between the timing of when couples first had sex to their later perceptions of relationship quality. In an online study of nearly 600 married and cohabitating couples in which the female partner was less than 45 years old, Sassler and colleagues examined measures of relationship quality, sexual satisfaction, communication, and conflict. Respondents indicated relationship tempo by saying how long the couple waited, after they started dating, to have sex. Controlling for a number of important other variables (age, number of prior marriages, children, education, income, and financial strain), the researchers then compared the relationship quality of couples who waited less than a month, 1-6 months, and 6 months or more.
Because the study was a cross-sectional one, meaning that people were not followed over time, this meant that it was impossible to determine whether people destined to have worse relationships jumped into sex sooner than those who would go on to be satisfied with their partners. I’ll skip over the gory details of the extensive analyses and controls that the researchers imposed, but rest assured that they did everything they could to tease apart their findings.
In general, the findings supported the hypothesis that having sex early (defined here as within a month of dating) was related to poorer relationship outcomes for men and women. These four additional findings flesh out that overall conclusion and point to some sex differences as well:
1. Couples tend to move quickly into sexual relationships.
Over one-third reported having sex within one month after they started dating. This percentage was slightly higher than that observed in previous studies. The researchers weren’t sure if this finding reflected something unusual about the sample or that people just aren’t very good at estimating how long it takes for relationship to progress to sexual intimacy.
2. The slower the sex, the better the relationship.
For women, but not men, the longer the delay between dating and sex, the better the perception of the current relationship quality. Slowing things down for women, but not men, meant paying attention to other factors that would ultimately improve the relationship such as commitment and emotional intimacy.
3. Early sexual activity symbolized relationship commitment.
Again for women, but not men, having sex early in the scheme of things signified to them that their partner was committed to the relationship. For men, having sex early in the dating period didn’t actually have that same meaning.
4. Entry into cohabitation accounted for the negative effect of relationship tempo on quality.
Couples who had sex early in the game were more likely to decide to live together and, in turn, had less satisfying relationships. For women, but not men, the factor most related to early sexual involvement was later sexual satisfaction. Having sex early in a relationship, followed by cohabitation, sets the stage for women to be less satisfied with the sex they’re having now.
These findings suggest that premarital sex, especially early in the dating relationship, has different impact on the later satisfaction of women than men. Men and women don’t seem to differ in what they want out of a sexual relationship, at least according to other research. However, they do seem to attach different meanings to sex as an indicator of commitment.
Without moralizing on whether premarital sex is bad or good for a relationship, the authors point out that practically speaking, premarital sex actually is bad for a relationship. It’s not so much the sex, however, but the cohabitation itself that it leads to which then leads the couple to slide, unthinkingly, into wedlock (or continued cohabitation). When couples are led by sexual desire, financial need, or an unexpected pregnancy to get married, they are less likely to stop and examine whether they share similar life values, goals, compatibility, and emotional intimacy. It’s that process of assessing whether they’ll make it for the long haul that ultimately will impact their relationship quality, especially for the women. Since women are generally the ones to initiate divorce proceedings, it means that their satisfaction in the relationship is especially crucial to its long-term viability.
If you’re in a long-term relationship now, you may wonder whether these findings are coming too late to help you. However, there are valuable lessons for you. If your relationship got off to a quick start, this doesn’t mean that you’re fated to be unhappy later down the road though you might be at higher risk than you might otherwise be. Being able to spot the signs of relationship difficulty could help you stop problems before they become unmanageable. You can take advantage of active listening to improve the way you communicate, which is one of the primary ways to build emotional bonds.
What about if you’re a “churner,” and not yet in a long-term committed relationship? The upshot is clear: Take your time, examine your motivations for intimacy, and figure out whether you and your partner share a similar vision for your life and your relationship. If you and your partner take this brief intimacy quiz, you can also get an idea of whether this is going to be a good match.
Perhaps the main take-home message of the Sassler et al study is that it’s not the time that’s the factor, but what happens in the time, between dating and sexual intimacy. When the flames of passion die down, it’s the emotional quality of the relationship that will keep it going for the long haul. Establishing the emotional bonds between you and your partner will be the key for relationship’s ability to endure over time.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012
Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012). The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship quality. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 74(4), 708-725.