If you are on the proverbial market, as you rack up phone swipes, first dates, and—likely—new sexual partners, you might start to ask yourself, Is all this dating going to make me happier with whomever I end up with?
In other words, are you actually getting any closer to finding “the one”? Or are you simply stuck on a hedonic treadmill of potential lovers, doomed like some sort of sexual Sisyphus to be perpetually close to finding your soul mate, only to realize—far, far too late—that they are deal-breakingly disappointing?
Well, sociology has some unfortunate news!
Over at the Institute for Family Studies, Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah, has found that Americans who have only ever slept with their spouses are most likely to report being in a “very happy” marriage. Meanwhile, the lowest odds of marital happiness—about 13 percentage points lower than the one-partner women—belong to women who have had six to 10 sexual partners in their lives. For men, there’s still a dip in marital satisfaction after one partner, but it’s never as low as it gets for women, as Wolfinger’s graph shows:
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, when it comes to sex, less experience is better, at least for the marriage,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies (and an Atlantic contributor). In an earlier analysis, Wolfinger found that women with zero or one previous sex partners before marriage were also least likely to divorce, while those with 10 or more were most likely. These divorce-proof brides are an exclusive crew: By the 2010s, he writes, just 5 percent of new brides were virgins. And just 6 percent of their marriages dissolved within five years, compared with 20 percent for most people.
In this latest study, women who have had one partner instead of two are about 5 percentage points happier in their marriages, about on a par, Wolfinger says, with the boost that possessing a four-year degree, attending religious services, or having an income over $78,000 a year has for a happy marriage. (In his analysis, he controlled for education, income, and age at marriage.)
This analysis merely suggests that sleeping with fewer people is correlated with marital happiness; it doesn’t say one thing predicts the other. Even people who have slept with the entire Polyphonic Spree could go on to live in blissful matrimony. Moreover, this analysis is not peer-reviewed; it’s just a blog post. And Wolfinger acknowledges that, because of a quirk in how the survey was worded, some of the people reporting one partner might have meant “one partner besides my spouse.”
Still, researchers I spoke with speculated about a few reasons that sexually inexperienced marriages seem so solid.
First, Wolfinger says religiousness doesn’t explain the difference between the happy virgins and the less-happy everyone else. But it could be something more subtle: People who avoid sex before marriage might simply value marriage more highly, so they feel more satisfied by it. Contrary to what pop culture might have you believe, Americans are overall a pretty chaste people. The median American woman born in the 1980s, Wolfinger writes, has had only three sexual partners in her lifetime, and the median man six. So if you have even less sexual experience than that, your significant other might be your dream man simply by virtue of being your spouse.
“Those who have never had sex with anyone but their spouse may be the kind of people who value commitment highly,” said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist. “They have never been interested in sex without commitment, and once married, they may be more committed to their spouses, and therefore happier.”
At the same time, Cherlin points out, it’s important to remember that the analysis was done based on retrospective reports by older adults. “If we looked at young adults who are just marrying today, the results could be different,” he said.
The second theory is one I like to call “Not Knowing What You’re Missing.” If you were a virgin (or close to it) before marriage, you might not have had that many relationships to compare your current one with. You don’t get wistful about the hunk who got away, the one whose biggest hobbies were vegan cooking and reading novels with strong female protagonists. You are happy with whomever you ended up with, love handles and all. Maybe it’s no wonder, as Wolfinger writes, that divorce rates are higher when there are more single people in a given geographic area.
It could be that, Wilcox told me, “having more partners prior to marriage makes you critically evaluate your spouse in light of previous partners, both sexually and otherwise.”
Third, Wolfinger says, this trend “could reflect personality types that are less conducive to having a happy marriage.” To put that more gently, some people just aren’t the marrying kind. And they might be the types of people who play the field a lot before marriage.
Or, as the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen puts it, “you could have a lot of sexual partners not because you’re good at sex, but because you’re bad at relationships.”
Cohen also pointed out that it’s impossible to disentangle the promiscuous chicken and the unhappy egg here. Wolfinger’s analysis, he said, could simply be capturing people who are in unhappy marriages, so they’re cheating. Their two sexual partners aren’t necessarily past college girlfriends; they could be current mistresses.
Finally, there are all sorts of other, hidden possibilities that might exonerate people who sow their wild oats. For example, people who live in communities without very many marriageable partners might end up going through lots of sexual relationships and failing to find one that sticks. Other people, meanwhile, might be forced to have sex when they don’t wish to.
Also, women who have had previous sexual relationships might be more likely to have had children from those relationships, and according to Wolfinger and others, bringing a child from a previous relationship into a new marriage can be uniquely stressful. These kinds of marriages, they say, tend to have disproportionately high divorce rates.
In other words, as Cohen put it to me, Wolfinger’s numbers might be correct, but it’s hard to draw straightforward conclusions from them.
Of course, all these data points might also start to imply that a happy marriage is life’s ultimate goal for everyone, which it might not be. Perhaps all the premarital sex you had was satisfying enough to make up for even the dreariest of unions. Maybe for you, it’s all about the journey, not the destination, bro.
Either way, it doesn’t seem like all the prenuptial bonking is hurting marriages writ large. In Wolfinger’s study, most people—64 percent—reported having a “very happy” marriage, meaning that for the most part, we still live happily ever after.
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