Women, premarital sex and divorce: Study unpacks some surprises
Posted June 14, 2016
Women who are virgins when they marry are less likely to divorce within five years than those who have multiple partners before marriage. Next least likely to divorce are those who had one premarital partner.
After that, the numbers are not straightforward, according to a new analysis that delivers what sociologist Nicholas H. Wolfinger calls "counterintuitive" surprises. Wolfinger is a professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah and co-author of the book Soul Mates. His findings were published as a research brief for the Institute for Family Studies.
Acceptance of premarital relationships has grown over the decades and the number of women who were virgins when they married has dropped each decade since the 1970s — from 21 percent then to 5 percent in the 2010s. Religion seems to explain why women who marry as virgins have lower divorce rates, said Wolfinger.
"Today in America, virgin marriage appears to be solely the domain of the religious," he said, adding religious people are also less likely to divorce.
Women who had two sex partners prior to marriage have consistently had higher divorce rates within five years even than those with higher numbers of partners. People with two premarital partners are more likely to divorce than those with three to nine. Only recently has the divorce rate been highest among women with 10 or more premarital partners than among those who had two.
But the difference is so slight it's not statistically significant, Wolfinger said. "The big story is the finding with two partners, who have pretty much the highest consistent divorce rate. That's totally surprising."
He theorized it's the case of the one who got away. Presumably, the woman married one of her two premarital partners, but the other creates "an over-emphasized comparison. It's like in historical romance novels where the woman is agonizing between two suitors. That second one is a viable option."
Acceptance of premarital sex has not grown among the very religious, although Americans overall are more accepting.
After religion, race and family of origin had the most impact on the sexual partners/divorce relationship, Wolfinger said. Caucasian and black women were similar in terms of their sexual behaviors prior to marriage. Hispanics and "others" had "notably fewer" sex partners and also lower divorce rates than whites or blacks. Women who grew up with both parents had fewer partners and divorced less than those who did not grow up with both parents.
Wolfinger's analysis is based on the most recent trio of "waves" from the National Survey of Family Growth, using nationally representative data gathered in 2002, 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. He looked solely at women's premarital sex partners because "unfortunately, the NSFG doesn't have full data on men's premarital sexual behavior and in any event they recall their own marital histories less reliably than do women," he explained in the brief.
Since 2000, one-third of marriages involving women who had 10 or more premarital partners end in divorce within five years, the report said, but Wolfinger added a caveat. "This is the result most readers of this brief expected: A lot of partners mean a lot of baggage, which makes a stable marriage less tenable. It's also entirely likely that the correlation is spurious, the product of certain personal characteristics. For example, people who suffered childhood sexual abuse are more likely to have extensive sexual histories," he wrote. "Childhood abuse also increases the odds of a problematic marriage."
He added, "This is an extreme example. Most of the time, spuriousness probably has less measurable causes. Some people may just have a high level of sexual curiosity, an attribute that doesn't bode well for a stable marriage, at least since the start of the new millennium."
Why having 10 partners is more problematic than three to nine is not something Wolfinger's analysis explained, he said, and few of the women had that many premarital sex partners.
Other research has shown that premarital sex impacts marital quality.
"Our findings were quite in line with what (Wolfinger's) study found. The number of sexual partners someone had had before marriage was associated with marital quality and a higher number is associated with lower quality across the first two years," said Galena K. Rhoades, research associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. She and colleague Scott Stanley explored the impact of premarital experiences on marital quality in the report "Before I Do," published in 2014 by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
They defined marital quality across several measures, including happiness with the marriage, how often conflict or thoughts of divorce arose and how often the individual confides in his or her mate, Rhoades said. They noted that people tend to do better in marriage if they make decisions, rather than drifting. They called that "slide vs. decide."
People have a higher quality marriage and less divorce if they don't move in until they have made a formal commitment to be together, whether it's getting engaged or married, she said. People who drift along and introduce their partner to the kids who then get attached or who have sex early are more apt to find themselves entangled in long-term relationships that are not a good fit, she said.
If you're hiring an architect, a lot of experience is a good thing, according to Rhoades. More experience in relationships may not be: It means more experience with sex and being attracted to someone else, which "may not be that helpful in monogamous relationships. It also means more experience breaking up."
Rhoades noted that "associations are small. It is not the case that if one had 10 or more sexual partners, one is most certainly going to get a divorce. While risk is higher, there may be ways to mitigate that risk. It's not an absolute."
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