The link between premarital sex and divorce risk

American sexual behavior is much different than it used to be. Today, most Americans think premarital sex is okay, and will have three or more sexual partners before marrying.

What, if anything, does premarital sex have to do with marital stability?

This research brief shows that the relationship between divorce and the number of sexual partners women have prior to marriage is complex.

I explore this relationship using data from the three most recent waves of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) collected in 2002, 2006-2010, and 2011-2013. For women marrying since the start of the new millennium:

  • Women with 10 or more partners were the most likely to divorce, but this only became true in recent years;
  • Women with 3-9 partners were less likely to divorce than women with 2 partners; and,
  • Women with 0-1 partners were the least likely to divorce.

Earlier research found that having multiple sex partners prior to marriage could lead to less happy marriages, and often increased the odds of divorce. But sexual attitudes and behaviors continue to change in America, and some of the strongest predictors of divorce in years gone by no longer matter as much as they once did.

In my 2005 book Understanding the Divorce Cycle, I showed that the transmission of divorce between generations became weaker as divorce grew more common. Could the same thing have happened with sexual behavior? Somewhat surprisingly, the answer appears to be no.

Even more noteworthy has been the decline in the proportion of women who get married having had only one sex partner (in most cases, their future husbands). Forty-three percent of women had just one premarital sex partner in the 1970s. By the aughts, this was down to 21 percent.

Neither of these two trends changed much after the first decade of the twenty-first century. Following in the wake of the sexual revolution, the 1970s have been characterized as a decade of carnal exploration. But this doesn’t seem to have been the case for the vast majority of women who ultimately tied the knot in that decade: almost two-thirds of them had at most one sex partner prior to getting married.

Even in the 1980s, slightly over half of women had a maximum of one sex partner before walking down the aisle. Things looked very different at the start of the new millennium. Continue reading

Sources

News category: Comment and Analysis.

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