Before 'I do': how the new relationship script can affect marital happiness

Carolyn Moynihan
21 August 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Josh is a happily married man in his late 30s with three children, but his first steps in the world of romantic relationships could have produced rather different results.

In his early 20s he left home for a job in another city and began a relationship with Jane, who was also working there. In a series of steps which are now the norm among young adults, they became intimate and moved in together. Eventually they bought property together, Josh thinking they would marry and have a family.

But Jane found the marriage decision difficult; she was fond of Josh but couldn't imagine herself building the rest of her life with him. Disappointed and sad, Josh finally realised they should go their separate ways. Most of his twenties had passed by and he was no closer to true love and a family of his own.

Actually, he was closer to that goal than he thought; thanks to his supportive family, he soon met the woman who became his wife and they were married in Big Fat Greek Wedding style.

Things have turned out very well for Josh and Jane, but according to a new report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the odds were that they would not be so good.

Before, 'I do', a study exploring the association between premarital experiences and post-marital quality among today's young adults, shows that, contrary to what many believe, what happens before marriage does matter later on. It also shows that Josh's big wedding with lots of family and friends gave his marriage an extra boost.

But first, the bad news.

What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas after all

Many young adults believe, and are encouraged by the media and celebrity world to believe, that they can spend their twenties experimenting and nothing will be lost. But, typically, something is.

Men and women in the new study who had sex with other partners before marriage reported lower marital happiness than those who had sex only with their future spouse. And the more sexual partners a woman had before marriage the less happy she reported her marriage to be - something less true for the men.

Yet, of the 418 (of 1000) young adults who married during the five years of the study, only 23 had previously had sex only with their spouse, and the average number of previous sexual partners was five. That suggests a significant handicap for today's marriages.

Josh's other mistake was to move in with Jane.

In the study, only 35 percent of those who had cohabited with someone other than their spouse reached the top 40 percent of the marital quality scale compared to 42 percent of those who cohabited only with their spouse. Multiple cohabiting relationships and a prior marriage were additional risk factors.

Why? Because marriage is one situation where "more experience" doesn't help a person. For one thing it increases awareness of alternative partners who may compare favourably with one's spouse in some ways. It also means more experience in breaking up, leading to a more cynical view of love and relationships.

Again, cohabiting couples are increasingly having children, and having a child from a previous relationship can add stress to a marriage, for women especially. In this study, only 25 percent of women who had a child from a prior relationship were in the top 40 percent of marital quality, compared with 43 percent of women who did not have a child from a prior relationship. The percentages for men were 31 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

The authors note: "All of these now-common premarital experiences seem to pose an interrelated set of risks to marriages down the road."

Sliding versus deciding

Discarding the traditional sequence of courtship, marriage, cohabitation, sex, then children has left people free to choose their own sequence. That sounds as though they would be more deliberate about it, but often they are not. The new study shows that couples tend to slide through their milestones.

One third of those who married said their relationship with their eventual spouse began as a hook-up - which presumably means without any prior friendship - and their marriages were less happy on average. Being drawn together primarily by sexual chemistry can be the first move in a long slide.

As couples in the study moved in together they were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, whether they slid or made a decision about it together. Those who rated their move as a decision had happier marriages later on. Those who moved in together without a mutual commitment to marriage first had lower marital quality down the line.

Why does deciding have better long-term effects than sliding? Well, says co-author Galena Rhoades , deciders might just be more thoughtful people, people who think about what they want in a romantic partner, in their sexual life, from living together, and in having children. As couples, they take the time to communicate with their partner about important decisions. They have more practice working together.

When partners slide, they tend to be less thoughtful, which could have negative consequences, like marrying a poor match. For example, couples who slide into cohabitation without formal plans to get married could continue on into marriages that wouldn't have happened otherwise. The problem with cohabitation is inertia. It is much harder for couples to put an end to their relationship when they live together. They buy furniture together, get used to the routine of living together, and split bills and rent. Research shows that these constraints could prevent them from breaking up.

Deciding, Rhoades adds, is about commitment, not only to each other but to the decision itself. Couples have traditionally been helped towards marital commitment by the public ritual of engagement. Picking up the engagement script therefore seems like a way for a cohabiting couple to stop the slide.

The Big Fat Greek Wedding script

As marriages are delayed, so their eventual scale and extravagance seems to grow. So when the study authors report that a big formal wedding correlates with happier marriages, are they endorsing a $40,000 extravaganza staged by Bridezilla and her Groom at the most exotic venue in town? No.

First of all, a formal wedding of any size seems to increase chances of a happy marriage, perhaps because it signals that the couple are really sure of each other and not tying the knot for some other reason. (College educated people, for instance, are more likely to feel obliged to marry if they have a child on the way -- because traditional norms still have some hold over the upper class - and the study indicates that their marital happiness tends to be much lower than among less educated couples who have a child before marriage.)

Having a public ceremony symbolises a clear decision to commit to one's marriage and ritualizes the foundation of commitment. It also highlights the social nature of marriage:

Small or large, wedding ceremonies also reflect and enhance the community context of marriages. Weddings, after all, are public celebrations involving family, close friends, and often a wider network of people around a couple. Emile Durkheim, the celebrated sociologist, is famous for arguing that community, and the rituals associated with collective life, give meaning, purpose, and stability to social life. The association between having a wedding and having a stronger, happier marriage could reflect two dynamics in this context. First, weddings may foster support for the new marriage from within a couple's network of friends and family. Second, those who hold a formal wedding are likely to have stronger social networks in the first place.

However, numbers also seem to count. Those in the study who had more family, relatives and friends at their wedding also had higher marital quality than those who had smaller numbers, even after taking into account the couple's (though not the parents') income and education. Nearly half (47 percent) of the young marrieds who had 150 or more guests at their wedding reported high marital quality compared with 31 percent of those with 50 or fewer guests, and 37 percent of those in between. The authors comment:

We think this finding has to do with making a public declaration of commitment and having community support. The more support a couple has, the better they are able to navigate the occasional choppy waters associated with marriage. Many couples would do well to consider ways to be more connected, as couples, with others in the community. Maintaining important friendships and family connections, making new friends together, and getting involved in the community may enhance a couple's relationship in multiple ways...

Important: your odds can change

No-one is doomed to an unhappy marriage, the authors stress. Even those with risk factors in their past can improve their odds of a good marriage by following these four tips:

The bottom line is this: "Remember that what you do before you say "I do" seems to have a notable impact on your marital future. So decide wisely."