Are couples who start having sex right away not as happy in the long run? A new study has found that heterosexual romantic partners who had sex within the first month of seeing each other reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction, communication, and commitment compared to partners who waited six months or longer to begin having sex.1 However, these effects held only for women, not men, meaning that timing of sexual activity was not related to how men felt about their relationships. The popular media has jumped on this study running headlines such as "How Leaping Into Bed Harms Relationships" and "Sex Before Marriage Adversely Impacts Relationships." These media reports go on to claim that early sex "stunts" relationship development and causes "unhappy" marriages. However, if you look at the actual data, it will become apparent that these reports are sensationalized and that it is far from clear whether early sex is truly "harmful" to our romantic lives.
For starters, keep in mind that this research is correlational in nature, which means that we cannot make any assumptions about cause and effect. Thus, even though there is a statistical association between timing of sex and relationship outcomes, it doesn't mean that those outcomes were caused by how long people waited to have sex. It could just be that people who have sex sooner are different in some way (e.g., in terms of personality) and perhaps those differences are responsible for producing the observed association. Thus, saying that timing of sex "causes" harm or negatively "impacts" relationships is just plain wrong and irresponsible because we cannot conclude that based upon these data.
Second, every single media report has ignored the fact that average levels of satisfaction, communication, and commitment were high for both men and women no matter when they started having sex. For instance, let's look at relationship satisfaction, which was rated on a scale ranging from 0 to 12 in this study. The midpoint for this scale is 6, which means that anything above that represents satisfaction and anything below that represents dissatisfaction. For women, those who had sex in the first month had a satisfaction score of 7.9, while those who waited six or more months had a score of 8.5. For men, the numbers were 8.2 and 8.5, respectively. Thus, average levels of satisfaction were high for all groups, so where is the "harm" and all of the "unhappy" couples? In my view, what we're dealing with here is a question of statistical significance versus practical significance. What I mean by this is that while the scores may be statistically different between groups, is that one-half point difference in relationship satisfaction all that meaningful in real life? That's debatable. Perhaps if the researchers showed that early sex was linked to a higher likelihood of divorce, we could make a case for relationship "harm." But if everyone is reasonably satisfied and committed and the differences are small between groups, it seems disingenuous to claim that early sex is really hurting people's relationships.
Last but not least, this study found that the association between early sex and relationship quality was largely accounted for by whether couples lived together prior to marriage. Let me explain: people who had sex sooner were more likely to cohabitate prior to getting married. Once the researchers took this factor into account, the association between early sex and relationship quality disappeared. Why is that? We know from a variety of studies that cohabitation is linked to having more marital difficulties.2 We don't know exactly why--it just is. But given that cohabitation seemed to be responsible for the association found in this research, it would appear safe to conclude that this study tells us more about the potential effects of cohabitation on relationship quality than it does about timing of sex.
So will jumping into bed sooner truly hurt your chances at a lifetime of happiness? There's nothing in this study to make me believe that's the case, so don't be swayed by the sensationalized headlines that suggest otherwise.
Check more of Dr. Lehmiller's articles on his blog, The Psychology of Sex.
1Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012). The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 708-725.
2Jose, A., Daniel O'Leary, K. K., & Moyer, A. (2010). Does premarital cohabitation predict subsequent marital stability and marital quality? A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 105-116.