In an age so defined by consumer choice and product reviews, it has become intuitive to embrace the “try before you buy” motto in most areas of life. For some decisions, however, those rules simply do not work. A growing body of research suggests that romantic relationships should not be approached in the same way as buying a new car or choosing a cellphone provider.
It is often assumed in our post-sexual-revolution society that you should not commit romantically to a person unless you are sure they are “compatible,” especially sexually compatible. This idea is now firmly entrenched, particularly for young adults. As Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, tweeted recently, “Most of my students think cohabitation is a good way to prepare for marriage. They are shocked after reading the science on this.”
Writing recently at the Institute for Family Studies, Jason Carroll and Brian Willoughby summarize that science. Their survey of new and existing data on the effect of “sexual experience” on eventual marriages revealed a consistent pattern: “Sexual experience” harms the prospects for a lasting, fulfilling union, something that most young people still say they want.
According to one series of studies using national datasets like the General Social Survey, “the lowest divorce rates in early marriage are found among married couples who have only had sex with each other.” In particular,
[W]omen who wait until they are married to have sex have only a 5% chance of divorce in the first five years of marriage, whereas women who report two or more sex partners prior to marriage have between a 25% to 35% chance of divorce.
Plummeting divorce rates are not the only good thing that comes from couples waiting. In their new survey of the available data, Carroll and Willoughby looked at over 3,700 adults across the country. They found that the “sexually inexperienced,” defined as those who have had only one partner, reported the highest overall levels of relationship satisfaction, relationship stability, and sexual satisfaction. The researchers also found that it makes little difference whether, for the rest, prior experiences involved “committed partners” or just having “casual” sex. Both had negative effects on future marriages.
Another new study by the Institute for Family Studies confirmed that cohabitation by itself is associated with higher risk of divorce among couples who go on to get married. Exploring the reasons for this, Wilcox and Alysse ElHage of the IFS suggest that cohabitation causes partners to “adopt a less committed view of marriage” from the beginning, and that “this low-commitment mentality makes them more vulnerable to marital dissolution when times get tough.”
The authors of the study conclude that young people should not “believe the hype that living together before marriage will improve your odds.” In fact, they add, “[t]here is virtually no evidence” for this very common and prevalent idea.
One objection to this overwhelming evidence is the claim that people who have only been with their spouses are satisfied because they “don’t know what they’re missing.” First, I doubt the researchers would agree given our sex-saturated pop culture and media that tells us constantly there is always something better out there. However, even if we grant this assumption, how is it better to be experienced and miserable than inexperienced and fulfilled? After all, as we learn from the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3, we can end up regretting knowledge.
It is also important to note that statistics are not destiny for individuals. The authors of two of these studies remark that “the risks of sexual experimentation before marriage can be overcome when one adopts beliefs and behaviors that foster enduring marriages.” Even more importantly, God redeems broken stories. As countless moments in Scripture attest, broken sexual stories are no exception.
What the abundant research does show is that contrary to all the digs at evangelical “purity culture” over the years, God’s way of doing things actually works. This should not surprise us. C.S. Lewis wrote, “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine.” This makes Him preeminently qualified to tell us how that engine functions best.
Of course, there is no guarantee of a perfect marriage or a fulfilling sex life. Still, intentionally pursuing God’s design for a permanent, exclusive, and (Lord-willing) fruitful one-flesh union gives couples the best possible chance to achieve both. “Try before you buy,” while perhaps sound shopping advice, simply doesn’t apply to love.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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