- What factors explain the link between premarital sex and divorce risk? It’s complicated. Tweet This
- Premarital sex with one partner substantially increases the odds of divorce. Tweet This
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.
Counterintuitive Trends in the Link Between Premarital Sex and Marital Stability
By the 2010s, only 5 percent of new brides were virgins. At the other end of the distribution, the number of future wives who had ten or more sex partners increased from 2 percent in the 1970s to 14 percent in the 2000s, and then to 18 percent in the 2010s. Overall, American women are far more likely to have had multiple premarital sex partners in recent years (unfortunately, the NSFG doesn’t have full data on men’s premarital sexual behavior, and in any event they recall their own marital histories less reliably than do women).
As pree more acceptable, it’s reasonable to anticipate that its negative effects on e more accepting of nonmarital sex. Certainly fewer men entered marriage with the expectation of a virgin bride. All of the fanfare associated with hooking up is evidence that some young people have become comfortable with the idea of sex outside of serious relationships.
Be that as it may, this prediction is only partially borne out by the data shown in Figure 1. The following chart depicts the percentage of first marriages ending in divorce within five years of wedlock according to the decade the wedding took place and how many sex partners a woman had prior to marriage. 1 Consistent with prior research, those with fewer sex partners were less likely to divorce. However, there are considerable differences by marriage cohort. For all three cohorts, women who married as virgins had the lowest divorce rates by far. Eleven percent of virgin marriages (on the part of the woman, at least) in the 1980s dissolved within five years. This number fell to 8 percent in the 1990s, then fell again to 6 percent in the 2000s. For all three decades, the women with the second lowest five-year divorce rates are those who had only one partner prior to marriage. It’s reasonable to assume that these partners reflected women’s eventual husbands. Even so, premarital sex with one partner substantially increases the odds of divorce.