As a new year kicks into gear, many of us are looking ahead to all of the great possibilities that await us, especially if getting married or engaged is in the cards for the year ahead. But, as all of the great historians will tell you, it’s important to know how we got to where we are today. And that includes a look back at your relationship history—no matter how cringe-worthy it is.
Recently, the Institute of Family Studies (an organization with a mission “to strengthen marriage and family life”) explored a really interesting question on its blog: “Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?” The short answer is, well, a little.
For this study, Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, looked at almost 30 years of data of participants in the General Social Survey (a study of American society by the University of Chicago). Overall, 64 percent of respondents said they had “very happy” marriages.
When Wolfinger broke down those stats based on the number of sex partners respondents had before they got married, things got interesting—and a little murky. For example, Americans who were virgins when they got married were most likely to report being in a “very happy” marriage; by gender, that broke down to 65 percent of women and 71 percent of men. That percentage of women content with their relationship changed as the number of partners went up, but not as you’d expect: While 52 percent of women who had 6 to 10 sexual partners before they got married said they were very happy, 59 percent of women who had 11 to 20 partners also rated their marital happiness pretty high.
In other words, instead of marital happiness decreasing as the number of a person’s exes increased, the percentage of people happy in their marriages actually grew, too.
“In sum,” Wolfinger writes, “the surprisingly large number of Americans reporting one lifetime sex partner have the happiest marriages. Past one partner, it doesn’t make as much of a difference. The overall disparity isn’t huge, but neither is it trivial.”
In 2016, Wolfinger published similar findings using a different set of data regarding the link between premarital sex and marital stability. He found that while women who’d hooked up with 10 or more people before marriage were among the ones most likely to divorce, he also discovered women with three to nine partners were less likely to split up than women with only two partners.
“Overall, American women are far more likely to have had multiple premarital sex partners in recent years,” Wolfinger explained in a statement at the time. “As premarital sex became more acceptable, it’s reasonable to anticipate that its negative effects on marital stability waned. In general, Americans became 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.”
At the end of the day, though, does your sexual history really matter when you’ve found the one you want to spend the rest of your life with—and they feel the same? As Wolfinger concludes in his latest post: “Premarital sexual experience affects marital happiness, but perhaps the more important story in these data is that almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans are happy in their marriages.”
Now there's a conclusion we can celebrate.