The surprising changes in beliefs and boundaries of marriage today
In my many years of studying, researching, writing, interviewing, and counseling in the pre- and postmarital realm, I had little hope I would see secular research come to agree with so many of my findings and convictions. But the proof just keeps showing up.
It is my firm belief that pre-marital experiences directly affect our marriages and that pre-marital sex harms the marriage of the married couple. In the recent past the typical sequence to marriage has morphed into something like this: dating, sex, cohabitation, maybe children, then marriage.
Sex and Cohabitation Before Marriage
Psychologist Galena Rhoades PhD and Scott Stanley, in an article titled “Before ‘I Do’: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?” now questions this contemporary view of how family life begins in our society. She believes that every serious relationship has certain milestones—such as the first kiss—that define where the relationship is headed. She reports that about 90% of couples are involved together sexually before marriage and that most couples live together before marriage.
But then she writes this: “Many of them have sex with multiple partners before finding the person they will eventually marry. Do premarital sexual relationships relate to later marital quality? Yes and no. It depends on who you are having sex with. Men and women who only slept with their (future) spouse prior to marriage reported higher marital quality than those who had other sexual partners as well. This doesn’t mean that sex before marriage will doom a marriage, but sex with many different partners may be risky if you’re looking for a high-quality marriage.”
Dr. Rhoades makes this eye-opening conclusion: “We generally think that having more experience is better [in life] but what we find for relationships is just the opposite.”
Multiple experiences with multiple sexual partners is now linked to marriages that are worse off. A long history of cohabitating may actually cause you to devalue your spouse.
Brad Wilcox, a director of the National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, wrote an article on how marrying in the early 20s and without cohabitating “seems merited.” He wrote, “Our analyses indicate that religious men and women who married in their twenties without cohabitating first have the lowest odds of divorce in America today.” Read that last sentence again, please.
What did the author of this study suspect as the cause of the success rate? “We suspect one advantage the religious singles in their twenties have over the secular peers is that they are more likely to have access to a pool of men and women who are ready to tie the knot and share their vision of a family-focused life.”
It has been believed and practiced for decades that a college education with a lot of dating, partying, fun, one-night stands, living together, and then finally career all came before settling down in a committed marriage relationship. The statistic of living together before marriage (70%) is frighteningly high. However, Professor Wilcox wrote, “But the conventional wisdom here is wrong: Americans who cohabit before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to break up.” In fact, he says that couples who do cohabitate have a 15% more likely chance of divorce than those who do not.
Milestones in dating and pre-marriage in a couple’s life mean something because decisions mean something. We can remember when our spouse first spoke the words, “I love you.” We can recall where we were when we became engaged. We either loved or endured premarital counseling, but it was another milestone, a decision we made for ourselves and our success in marriage.
Forty-Seven Years of Marriage
Over forty-seven years ago, my wife and I abstained sexually out of total love, commitment, and respect for one another. We kept for marriage what belongs only to marriage. We did not cohabitate because we knew that this one act reduces the chances of a healthy, lifelong marriage. We had a large wedding because we wanted others to celebrate with us, hold us accountable, and enter into our joy of oneness. We went on a two-week honeymoon, dropping out of life as we knew it to simply work on becoming one. We did not know one another intimately (sexually) prior to marriage, but we discovered the joy of purity meeting purity night after night.
It was not a college education, financial security, sexual experiences, or age that helped to create these milestones—it was love for God and a desire to obey His truth. We were married in our early twenties and continue to celebrate milestones in our marriage. We look forward to celebrating the milestone of half a century of marriage in the not-too-distant future.
What Does Faith Have to Do with Marriage Stability?
Young men and women with an active faith in God and His Word are long-term men and women who take saying “I do” seriously. They share similar moral beliefs and deeply held values. They possess a higher commitment to sexual fidelity. And those who regularly attend church have about a 40% less likely chance of divorcing.
Marrying when young often means that one carries less relationship baggage, primarily because there are fewer exes in one’s past. Maturity in a relationship is not measured in chronological age. Maturity is measured in one’s ability to think of his or her spouse or future spouse, not oneself, first.
Cohabitation is precarious, uncertain, and shaky because it undermines the quality of a marriage commitment. While marrying Corrine, you may find yourself thinking about your years with Heather and then compare your new wife’s sexual responses to Bekah’s. This obviously decreases the stability of your marriage foundation. Cohabitation is really just pretending to be married—with a wide-open back door. Without the bond of a legalized marriage, there is no need for commitment in sickness and in health; there are no vows spoken to one another or to God. There is no community of believers helping you to remain committed to each other.
And Then This
In a Wall Street Journal article dated Saturday, February 5, 2022, Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox wrote, “[In surveying] 50,000 women in the U.S. government’s National Survey of Family Growth, we found that there is a group of women for whom marriage before thirty is not risky: women who married directly, without ever cohabitating prior to marriage. In fact, women who married between twenty-two and thirty, without first living together, had some of the lowest rates of divorce in the National Survey of Family Growth.” Now that majorly contradicts the widespread conventional wisdom of “trying it to see if you like it.”
One of the reasons couples are marrying later today is a hope against hope that they will not encounter divorce. They are vying for a lower risk rate. But along the way as they give themselves freely to or cohabitate with various sexual partners, they are actually decreasing their chances of avoiding divorce once they are married. Research is now showing that to cohabitate prior to marriage and to experience multiple sexual partners reduces the likelihood of a happy marriage. The “pre-test” plan simply does not work.
God’s Word of Truth
The Word of God has revealed this truth for centuries. Social science is now only catching up to the truth written in the Bible about relationships and marriage. God’s Word is more current when it comes to marriage and pre-marriage than tomorrow’s academic study.
For example, did you know that sexual pleasure between husband and wife was God’s idea? Solomon wrote these inspired words: “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer–may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love” (Proverbs 5:18, 19).
Paul the Apostle wrote, “But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (I Corinthians 7:2-5).
God is not embarrassed by sexual intimacy. He is neither a prude nor naïve when it comes to His wonderful gift. He did, however, place very strict, safe, and loving boundaries around it. Paul also clearly warned us when he wrote, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (I Corinthians 6:12).
Sexual pleasure is God’s intent for marriage. Procreation is not the only purpose of sex, but sexual fulfillment within marriage is a process. It is a learned experience.
Married Sex Is Better Sex
Married couples have better sex for numerous reasons. They are committed to one another. They desire to please one another and give to the other rather than taking from the partner to meet their own needs. Intimacy is not filled with lust, but rather love. The married partners are monogamous. Sex within marriage is the safest sex. It is sex without worry, without thought of being caught, without fear of disobeying God’s command. Sex within marriage is the best sex because you know the desires of your life mate.
For all of these reasons and more we can conclude that God was right all along. His written Word and His commands were all for our good and our pleasure. Boundaries are an important part of life; the same is true of sexual boundaries.
May you discover and walk in this truth, then experience the pure joy of obedience and God’s precious gift.
About Steve Prokopchak
Steve serves on the DOVE International Apostolic Council and has been involved in the Christian counseling field for over thirty years. He earned a master of human services from Lincoln University. He is the author of several books, including Called Together, a premarital counseling workbook. He also travels throughout the world teaching and imparting to the lives of many, especially leaders. Read more about Steve or catch up on his blog.