- Two recent studies call into question the wisdom of testing sexual chemistry early in dating. Tweet This
- Why couples may benefit from delaying sexual involvement: intentional partner selection and sexual symbolism. Tweet This
Is it better to assess sexual compatibility early in dating or to delay having sex? Does “true love wait” or should you “test drive” a relationship before saying I do? These are important questions to ask since most single adults report that they desire to one day have a successful, lifelong marriage-and while dating, many couples move rapidly into sexual relationships. In fact, as noted in Figure 1, recent studies have found that between 30 and 40% of dating and married couples report having sex within one month of the start of their relationship, and the numbers are even higher for currently cohabiting couples.
Slow But Sure: Does the Timing of Sex During Dating Matter?
Source: Adapted from Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012). The Tempo of Sexual Activity and Later Relationship Quality. Journal of ily, 74, 708-725. Note: Data are from the Marital and Relationship Survey. See Figure 1 in Sassler et al. (2012) for full details of these analyses.
Are these dating patterns compatible with the desire to have a loving and lasting marriage later? Let’s take a look at what research tells us about these questions.
The current dating culture often emphasizes that two people should test their “sexual chemistry” before committing to each other. This type of compatibility is frequently mentioned as an essential characteristic for people to seek out in romantic relationships, particularly ones that could lead to marriage. Couples who do not test their sexual chemistry prior to the commitments of exclusivity, engagement, and marriage are often seen as putting themselves at risk of getting into a relationship that will not satisfy them in the future-thus increasing their probability of later marital dissatisfaction and divorce.
My colleagues and I published the first study a few years ago in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology. This study involved a national sample of 2,035 married individuals who participated in the popular online couple assessment survey called “RELATE.” We found that the longer a dating couple waits to have sex, the better their relationship is after marriage. In fact, couples who wait until marriage to have sex report higher relationship satisfaction (20% higher), better communication patterns (12% better), less consideration of divorce (22% lower), and better sexual quality (15% better) than those who started having sex early in their dating (see Figure 2). For couples in between-those that became sexually involved later in their dating, but prior to marriage-the benefits were about half as strong.
Source: Adapted from Busby, Carroll, and Willoughby (2010)patibility or restraint? The effects of sexual timing on ily Psychology, 24, 766 – 774. Note: Figure depicts mean scores reported by spouses in three sexual timing groups on relationship satisfaction, perceived relationship stability, sexual quality, and communication. To compare these three groups, the authors conducted a Multivariate Analysis of Covariance controlling for religiosity, relationship length, education, and the number of sexual partners. The results from the MANCOVA indicated that Sexual Timing Group and Gender had a significant effect on the dependent variables while holding the control variables constant. The means displayed here demonstrate that the Sexual Timing Group that participants belonged to had the strongest association with Perceived Relationship Stability and Satisfaction as all three groups were significantly different from each other. In other words, the longer participants waited to be sexual, the more stable and satisfying their relationships were once they were married. Gender had a relatively small influence on the dependent variables. For the other dependent variables, the participants who waited to be sexual until after marriage had significantly higher levels of communication and sexual quality compared to the other two sexual timing groups. See Table 3 in Busby et al. (2010) for full details of these analyses.