Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do Women With More Premarital Partners Get Divorced Less?

An unexpected discovery about the number of sexual partners and divorce.

Key points

  • A study found that women who had more than 10 sexual partners prior to marriage showed an increase in divorce rates.
  • The same study found that women who had only two partners had the highest rate of divorce.
  • The wider acceptance of premarital sex today has made it more likely that its impact on marriage instability would decline.
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

What we assume to be true reflects an embedded set of conditioned attitudes. And those attitudes often reflect prevailing values and expectations more than real people’s behavior or trends within changing social and cultural circumstances. The findings of a new study highlight an example of this: The results contrast with an “established” fact—that women who have more sexual partners prior to marriage necessarily experience an increased likelihood that they will eventually divorce.

As our society evolves, our intimate relationships evolve as well. This requires learning more about what really supports lasting, positive partnerships, what really brings about their dissolution, and how that information may show itself in changing research data.

This new research from the University of Utah provides insight into recent social and behavioral shifts. Although the study found that women who had more than 10 sexual partners prior to marriage did show an increase in divorce rates, people who had only two partners do, too. Both groups had higher rates of divorce, but the lowest rate was found among those with between three and nine premarital partners.

The research was published by the Institute for Family Studies and summarized in a report from the University of Utah. According to lead author Nicholas H. Wolfinger:

“In short: if you're going to have comparisons to your [future] husband, it's best to have more than one.”

Wolfinger adds that sexual behavior has changed significantly throughout recent decades. That's a no-brainer, but many may be unaware of just how true it is. For example, I’ve written previously about the increasing number of unconventional romantic-sexual couplings; and about how divorce or separation can be good for your health.

Wolfinger also points out that the wider acceptance of premarital sex has made it more likely that its impact on marriage instability would decline:

"All of the fanfare associated with hooking up is evidence that some young people have become comfortable with the idea of sex outside of serious relationships.”

Previous studies found that women getting married today have more sexual experience prior to marriage than their counterparts had in previous decades. For example, 21% of women were likely to marry as virgins in the 1970s, compared with just 5% in the last decade.

The highest 5-year divorce rate in the research—33% during the 2000s—was associated with women having more than 10 sexual partners, and perhaps that’s not unexpected. But Wolfinger points out that the bigger surprise is that prior to recent years, women who had only two partners prior to marriage actually had the highest rate of divorce. (The study didn’t assess the number of men’s premarital sexual partners or link that number to divorce rates, but this should be studied as well.)

The upshot of the current research is that we’re in the midst of a social transformation toward greater openness about what kinds of relationships men and women find fulfilling, and what kinds of experiences prior to (or instead of) marriage enable positive, intimate, and mutual partnerships to grow—and last.

© 2016 Douglas LaBier

More from Douglas LaBier Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today