Is it advisable to enter into sexual intimacy hastily if you want a long-lasting, quality relationship? Does living together lead to successful marriages?
A Cornell University study on the effects of early sexual activity on the future of the relationship has been published recently in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The researchers of the article "The Tempo of Sexual Activity and Later Relationship Quality" reviewed data from nearly 600 married and cohabiting couples and found that rapid sexual involvement together with cohabitation affect the quality of long-term relationships.
I contacted the lead author of the article, Professor Sharon Sassler of the Department of Policy Analysis & Management at Cornell University, New York about the findings.
What was the aim of the review?The aim of this study was to find out whether the speed of entry into sexual relationships among couples is associated with relationship quality since previous studies have suggested this.
Cornell University - Professor Sharon Sassler
After reading the results of earlier research, we assumed that rapid sexual involvement would affect the matching process and relationship quality, especially if sexual dependencies replaced emotional compatibility as a primary basis for cohabitation and marriage.What were the overall findings of your research?Overall, our empirical results suggest that couples moved rapidly into sexual relationships and more than one third reported having sex within 1 month of the start of their relationships.What are women’s views on the speed of entry into sexual activity?We found that for women the speed of entry into sexual relationships was negatively associated with marital quality and that slowing things down may improve women’s views of overall relationship quality, particularly if commitment and intimacy are also improved.
We also found that early sexual activity, may have greater symbolic value as an indicator of relationship commitment for women, regardless of whether the relationship is ‘‘right’’ for them - implied by the fact that women may be more sensitive to the quality of their relationship than men are. What about men?From the men’s perspective, the speed of entry into sexual activity was largely unrelated to the quality of the relationship.So you are saying that men basically don't really care when the sex happens, as long as it happens?Yes, I suppose you could put it like that :) So does early sexual activity in relationships eventually lead to poor quality marriages?The association between relationship tempo and relationship quality is largely driven by entry into cohabitation. That is, early sexual activity was linked to subsequent cohabitation and less satisfying marriages.So early sexual engagement has a less detrimental effect on marriage than cohabitation?The research review found that it's not necessarily the tempo to sexual involvement, per se, but yes, the rapid movement into shared living, which mediates the effect of rapid sex on most measures.
File photo: Laughing couple
So does this research suggest that there should be no sex or cohabitation before marriage?No, that is not what the research wishes to suggest at all since the vast majority of young American adults do have sex or cohabit. This is a review of previous research about how long studies have said Americans wait to have sex. We haven’t found much evidence that entry into sexual relations has sped up in recent years - but other factors (such as cohabitation) have.So is the main question of your research the effects of cohabitation on long term relationships?Yes, we are trying to situate our research in the body of work that is exploring what effect cohabitation may have on marriage. We're not promoting abstinence or virginity pledges - just looking at potential contributing factors to stronger or weaker relationship quality. Yes.What does research say about cohabitation?Much of my research of late has focused on cohabitation, and we really do not know that much about how rapidly couples end up moving in together, or if that is occurring more rapidly than it used to in the past, as cohabitation becomes more normative. But relationships may be harder to get out of once couples are living together -- and many couples, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds (less education, jobs that pay less, from disrupted families who may not have the resources to subsidize their children's independent living) seem to move in with new romantic/sexual partners quite quickly.
It could be that deciding to live together quickly doesn't leave couples enough time to figure out if they are on the same page regarding values, goals, the future. In my qualitative interviews, respondents who are cohabiting seem to confirm this by telling me that they have often not discussed the future before moving in, because it is just "too soon to do that."So from the research can you assume that once couples are living together they may feel obliged to take the next step and get married?No. The empirical evidence indicates that the duration of cohabiting unions is increasing, and the proportion of those that cohabit that go on to marry that partner has also declined over time.
That is interesting – living together may be making couples rethink?Yes, it seems that it is time to reassess the belief that cohabitation is a "stepping stone" to marriage. While some couples may feel pressure -- whether from their own internal clocks or parental pressure - to wed if they are living together, many also express the strong desire to have various things in place before they do so - completed education, a stable job or career, money saved in the bank.Concerns with "readiness" can therefore enable couples to delay tying the knot, particularly as the prerogative of proposals still remains largely a male responsibility. So it isn’t the case of couples feeling obliged to get married because of cohabitation?Some research, by Scott Stanley and colleagues, has suggested that cohabiting couples may "slide" into marriage and that men who do so are less dedicated and committed to their partners. But as the role of cohabitation changes, and fewer proceed into marriage, social pressure to get married may also decline.My qualitative research suggests that men and women who are wary of marriage have ways to avoid taking that step. For the men, they can put off asking; for the women, expressing ambivalence about marriage is a key way to avoid forcing the issue, since men are not inclined to ask a woman they are not sure will say yes to their proposal.