Past Relationships May Lower Marital Quality

August 22, 2014

What happens in VegasI’ll be away for a much needed vacation the the fam next week. Regular posting will resume after Labor Day. Enjoy these last days of summer!

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia has just issued Before I Do, a report on how premarital experiences influence marital quality later. It reveals some interesting findings about previous sexual experiences and relationships.

The researchers looked at 2008 data from the Relationship Development Study, including more than 400 recently married individuals. Their conclusion:

“What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, so to speak. Our past experiences, especially when it comes to love, sex, and children, are linked to our future marital quality.”

Relevant Findings

1. The more sexual partners a woman had before marriage, the less happy she reported her marriage to be.

“In our sample, only 23 percent of the individuals who got married over the course of the study had had sex solely with the person they married. That minority of men and women reported higher marital quality than those who had had sex with other partners prior to marriage.

This doesn’t mean that sex before marriage will doom a marriage, but sex with many different partners may be risky if you’re looking for a high-quality marriage.”

Men did not report significantly lower marital quality as their number of sexual partners increased. The study did not ask about marital quality based on the spouse’s number of sexual partners.

The median number of sexual partners in the study was 5, and the mean was 9. That implies some extreme outliers in the sample, which mirrors the general population.

Why do previous serious or sexual relationships reduce marital quality?

More experience may increase one’s awareness of alternative partners. 

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.

More breakup experiences may lead to cynicism about relationships.

2. Getting together by hooking up predicted lower marital quality.

One third of the married subjects began their relationships by hooking up. They reported lower marital quality than those who answered no.

In general, couples who wait to have sex later in their relationship report higher levels of marital quality.


Some people who are already more likely to struggle in romantic relationships—such as people who are impulsive or insecure—are also more likely to have casual sex.

Those in our study who reported that their relationship began by hooking up also tended to report having more sexual partners.

Relationships that begin with a hook-up may be relationships whose partners were drawn together by sexual attraction, and therefore did not fully assess compatibility.

3. Having sex with someone else while dating lowered marital quality.

4. Having lived with someone other than a future spouse lowered marital quality.

5. Cohabiting without explicit marriage plans led to lower quality marriages.

6. Those who had large formal weddings reported higher marital quality.

All cultures have rituals that add force to major decisions about the pathway ahead. We tend to ritualize experiences that are important.

Couples who decide rather than slide are saying “our relationship is important, so let’s think about what we’re doing here.” Making time to talk clearly about potential transitions may contribute to better marriages.


Higher Quality Marriages (Top 40%)
Began w/ hookup36%42%
Cohab w > non-spouse35%42%
Cohab w/o marriage plans31%43%
Had formal wedding41%28%

7. General Socio-demographic Predictors

The following are associated with significantly higher marital quality:

  1. Having graduated from high school with a diploma.
  2. Having graduated college with a bachelor’s degree.
  3. Having lived with one’s biological parents together at age 14.
  4. Marrying later. (Mean age was 28).
  5. Higher income. (Median income was 20-30K).


What happens in Vegas—everything you do before settling down in marriage—may not stay there. The ghosts of prior romances can haunt new ones. Those who have had more romantic experiences—for example, more sexual or cohabiting partners—are more likely to have lower-quality marriages than those with a less complicated romantic history.

Are you surprised by anything in this report?

Have you wondered how your premarital experiences might affect your ability to sustain a marriage?

How much importance do you place on the premarital experiences of your partner? Let’s discuss.

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