Does more relationship experience lead to better relationship success?

Published in the Journal of Marriage and Family
Published in the Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage expert Brad Wilcox tweeted this article from the Institute for Family Studies.

It says:

In most areas of life, having more experience is good. Want to be great in your chosen field? Sustained experience is essential. Want to be great at a sport? There’s no substitute for practice. And anyone who runs a business can tell you that their best employees are those who have been in the job long enough to have learned how to handle the normal well and the unexpected with wisdom.

While more experience is often beneficial in life, the story looks different when it comes to some types of experience before marriage. For example, in our Before “I Do” report, we surveyed a national longitudinal sample of young adults about their love lives prior to marriage to examine factors associated with future marital quality. We found that having more sexual and cohabiting partners before marriage is associated with lower relationship quality once married. In particular, having only ever lived with or had sex with one’s spouse was associated with higher marital quality. Our findings are consistent with other studies showing that cohabiting with more partners before marriage is associated with greater likelihood of divorce1 and that a higher number of sexual partners before marriage is associated with lower marital quality and greater likelihood of divorce.2 As we noted, what happens in Vegas may not always stay in Vegas. But why?

There are many reasons why having more romantic partners before marriage may put one at higher risk of difficulties in marriage. One of the most important explanations comes under the heading of what some call selection effects. For many people, an elevated risk of difficulties in marriage was present before they had their first relationship experience. Background characteristics such as parental divorce, low education, and economic disadvantage are associated both with having more sexual and cohabiting partners and also with lower marital quality and/or divorce.3So it may not be that having more sexual or cohabiting partners causes further risk because a lot of risk was already in motion. Selection is a big part of how relationships unfold, but is it the whole story? We believe that, in addition to selection, behavior matters and has plausible connections to marital outcomes. We are going to explain four reasons why having more relationship experience before tying the knot might make it harder to succeed in marriage.

Here are the 4 reasons:

  1. More Awareness of Alternatives
  2. Changed Expectations: The Perfect Sexual Lover (in Your Mind)
  3. More Experience Breaking It Off
  4. Babies

I have to quote the one that I’ve personally encountered in my mentoring – number three: more experience breaking it off. I’ve seen this commitmentphobia in two women who had “wild” periods in their past who had broken up with cohabitating boyfriends.

It says:

Cohabitation has characteristics that seem paradoxical. Living with a partner makes it harder to break up than dating, all other things being equal, and often now comes at a time in relationship development where people have not really chosen each other for the future.8 And yet, cohabiting couples frequently break up, and they are more likely than any other time in history not to end up marrying.9

These days, cohabitation has become more a part of the dating scene than a lead-up to marriage. Let’s call the phenomenon cohabidating. In this context, some people are getting a lot of experience at leaving serious relationships (or surviving being left). Just as with our prior point, that does not sound bad in one way—at least insofar as people are breaking off relationships that had no future. But it’s also true that people tend to get good at things they have a lot of experience doing. People can get good at moving out and moving on.

How does that impact marriage? Some people probably so deeply learn that they can survive leaving a relationship when they are unhappy with it that they leave reasonably good marriages that would have given them and their children the best outcomes in life. They bail too quickly.

Obviously, many others leave very poor or even dangerous marriages only after a lot of agonizing and effort. We’re not suggesting divorce is ever easy or that it is not sometimes the best course. But in a day and age when people get so much experience moving out and moving on, we think many may learn to do so too rapidly, and to their detriment.

If you want to get good at relationships, experience may not be the answer. Reading good studies like this, and making decisions that line up with the research is much wiser. As always, never follow your heart. Always follow rational arguments and evidence, and keep connected to a good panel of advisors who have had long-term relationships success. That’s the best way to avoid disaster.

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