By / Aug 21

Generations of children have teased their classmates by taunting them with the K-I-S-S-I-N-G song:

[Name of boy] and [Name of girl]
sitting in a tree,
First comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes baby
in a baby carriage!

For most of American history, that was the expected sequence for long-term romantic relationships: courtship led to marriage, which led to sex, cohabitation, and children. Today, the pattern has reversed: sex leads to courtship, which leads to cohabitation, with children and/or marriage coming at the end.

What is the effect of this changing pattern on the quality of marriages? A new report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia attempts to answer that question. Two researchers from the University of Denver, Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley, analyzed new data from married couples in the Relationship Development Study and examined the history of the spouses’ relationship, looked at their prior romantic experiences, and asked them about the quality of their marriages.

The researchers discovered three broad findings:

1. Past experiences—especially when it comes to love, sex, and children—are linked to future marital quality (“Marriage quality” was based on responses to four items” relationship happiness, thoughts about dissolution, frequency of confiding in each other, and a general question about how well things are going between the partners).

2. Some couples slide through major relationship transitions, while others make intentional decisions about moving through them. The couples in the latter category fare better.

3. Choices about weddings appear to be related to later quality of marriage.

Some of the highlights and key takeaways from the study include:

Prior Romantic Relationships

•  In the study’s sample, the average respondent reported having five sexual partners before marriage; only 23 percent of the individuals who got married over the course of the study had had sex solely with the person they married.

• Men and women reported who only had sex with the person they married reported higher marital quality than those who had had sex with other partners prior to marriage.

• The more sexual partners a woman had had before marriage, the less happy she reported her marriage to be. This association was not statistically significant for men.

• The study also found that having cohabited with multiple partners is a risk factor for divorce and that second marriages are more prone to divorce than first marriage.

• As a whole, these findings demonstrate that having more relationships prior to marriage is related to lower marital quality.

• In the study’s sample, 16 percent of the newly married individuals had children from prior relationships and 16 percent reported that their partners had children from prior relationships. The study found that for women, but not for men, having had a child in a prior relationship was associated, on average, with lower marital quality. Both men and women experienced lower marital quality if they had children from previous relationships, but the difference was larger and statistically significant for women.

Experiences Before Marriage

• One-third (32 percent) of individuals in the study’s sample reported that their relationship with their eventual spouse began as a hook-up (no definition for that term was given).

• In general, couples who wait to have sex later in their relationship report higher levels of marital quality. Those in the study who reported that their relationship began by hooking up tended to report having more sexual partners.

• Those who lived with their eventual spouse before having a mutual and clear commitment to marry reported lower levels of marital quality than those who waited until after planning marriage or getting married to move in together.

• Research participants were asked directly if they “slid” into premarital cohabitation or made a decision about it. The more strongly respondents categorized the move as a decision rather than a slide, the greater their marital quality later on. 

• Among couples in the study’s sample, having a child together or being pregnant before marriage was associated with lower ratings of marital quality, but only for those with a college degree.

Weddings, Ceremony, and Community

• Most of the individuals who married over the course of the study, 89 percent in all, reported having had a formal wedding. Those who did reported higher marital quality than those who did not.

• Having more guests at their wedding was also associated with higher marital quality. Controlling for income and education (as well as race/ethnicity and religious differences) did not eliminate a strong association.

• The researchers speculate that making a clear, deliberate decision to commit to one option and reject alternative options strengthens a person’s tendency to follow through on the commitment. Wedding ceremonies ritualize the foundation of commitment.