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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Research has long documented that sex is important to a marriage—both the quantity and the quality. Consequently, scholars continue to be interested in what makes for sexual frequency and satisfaction within marriage. In a new study, Emma Altgelt and Andrea Meltzer of Florida State University seek to understand how premarital factors might impact both the frequency and quality of sex in the early years of a first, heterosexual marriage.
The researchers open, “Western mores regarding dating and marriage have changed over time—most notably, individuals in the U.S. are increasingly delaying marriage (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).” This later marriage means that couples are experiencing things that previously only married couples experienced—extended courtships or time together before marriage, cohabitation, and even parenting. It is possible, they believe, that such factors impact both sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction in the early years of the marriage—which then may contribute to the couple’s overall satisfaction with the marriage. Altgelt and Meltzer speculate that those who are together longer before marrying, those who cohabit, or those who have children together, may be “sliding” vs. “deciding” to enter marriage. Given that, the researchers speculate that such behaviors may lead to reduced sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction early in the marriage, but also that such differences may even out over time.
The researchers conducted analyses on survey results from 226 individuals in Dallas County, Texas. At the first survey, the couples were in their first marriage, had been married less than four months, were at least 18 years old, and spoke Enligsh. At the initial survey and doing follow-up surveys every six months for four years, these couples answered questions pertaining to frequency of sex, sexual satisfaction, length of courtship, premarital cohabitation, and premarital children. They also answered questions about a number of covariates, such as “age, education, parental divorce, employment status, neuroticism, depression, chronic stress, marital satisfaction, marital conflict, and perceived marital problems.”
The results mostly supported the researchers’ hypotheses. When it came to frequency of sex, “couples with longer (versus shorter) courtships engaged in less frequent sex at the start of their marriages, though they also experienced less steep declines over time. Moreover, couples who did (versus did not) cohabit prior to marriage engaged in less frequent sex at the start of marriage and continued to engage in less frequent sex over time. Premarital children were not significantly associated with couples’ frequency of sex trajectories.”
Interestingly, couples with longer courtships actually had more frequent sex four years into marriage than couples with shorter courtships. Couples who had cohabited prior to marriage, however, at four years into the marriage experienced roughly half the sex that non-cohabiting-couples experienced. Interestingly, and perplexingly to the researchers, couples with premarital children engaged in similar rates of sex at the beginning of their marriage, but had more sex four years into the marriage than couples without premarital children.
When it came to sexual satisfaction, the outcomes were again most bleak for those couples who had cohabited before marriage. They reported being less sexually satisfied at the beginning of their marriages than did non-cohabiting couples, and they remained so four years later. In contrast, those who experienced longer courtships had less steep declines than those who experienced shorter courtships, and those with premarital children did not see significant changes in their sexual satisfaction trajectories compared to those without premarital children.
In closing, the researchers summarize that although courtship duration played a more significant role at the beginning of the relationship, rates of sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction eventually evened out over time for couples who had experienced both shorter and longer courtships. (The researchers did, however, highlight that this did not take into account any couples who divorced in these years, perhaps in part because of reduced sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction.) They also pointed out the seeming anomaly that couples who had premarital children seemed to enjoy greater sexual frequency four years into the marriage than those who did not.
But for cohabiting couples, the outcomes remained bleak: “Couples who did (versus did not) cohabit prior to marriage engaged in less frequent sex initially and continued to engage in less frequent sex over time; both couple members who did (versus did not) cohabit likewise reported lower levels of initial sexual satisfaction that remained relatively lower over time.” The researchers speculated that this may be due in part to the “sliding vs. deciding” phenomenon—couples who cohabit often end up doing so almost accidentally, or for economic or other practical reasons, and may not be choosing the right mate.
Whatever the reasons, the implications are clear: Cohabitation is not good for early marital sex.
(Emma E. Altgelt and Andrea L. Meltzer, “Associations Between Premarital Factors and First-Married, Heterosexual Newlywed Couples’ Frequency of Sex and Sexual Satisfaction Trajectories,” The Journal of Sex Research , doi: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1695722.)