Premarital sex and greater risk of divorce

By Glenn T. Stanton | May 26, 2011

Does premarital sex have practical consequences for future marital happiness?

It’s a question many young people ponder. Even those raised in a belief system that teaches premarital sex is wrong often wonder what practical difference it makes to engage in sex before marriage, beyond the risk of unmarried pregnancy or contracting an infection.

One answer lies in the data that has emerged consistently for decades: premarital sexual activity seems to be associated with a significant elevated risk of divorce.

Since most people entering marriage want it to last, this is not a small consideration for teens and young adults. Here’s a quick look at the findings of a few leading population-based studies exploring this issue.

Kahn and London (1991)

Data from the National Survey of Family Growth in the United States indicates that “women who are sexually active prior to marriage faced considerably higher risk of marital disruption than women who were virgin brides.” These scholars explain that even when controlling for various differentials between virginal and non-virginal groups, such as socio-economics, family background, attitudes and values, “non-virgins still face a much higher risk of divorce than virgins.”1 

Laumann, Gagnon, Michael and Michaels (1994)

The massive and highly respected National Health and Social Life Survey, conducted at the University of Chicago, was the first serious, fully reputable study of sexual behaviour in America. It found a marked connection between premarital sex and elevated risk of divorce. The authors explain:

  • “For both genders, we find that virgins have dramatically more stable first marriages...”2
  • “The finding confirms the results reported by Kahn and London...those who are virgins at marriage have much lower rates of separation and divorce.”3
  • “Those who marry as non-virgins are also more likely – all other things being equal – to be unfaithful over the remainder of their life compared with those spouses who do marry as virgins.”4

This higher prevalence of marital infidelity among non-virgins is assumed to be an important factor in their higher likelihood of divorce, while “those who are virgins at marriage are those who go to greater lengths to avoid divorce.”5 Essentially, non-virgins typically appear to do more to harm their marriages while virgins do more to strengthen them.

Heaton (2002)

In a study looking at factors impacting increased marital stability, Tim Heaton, a sociologist at Brigham Young University, examined how premarital sexual experience, premarital child-bearing, cohabitation and marrying someone of a different religious faith were all associated with greater risk of divorce. Heaton concludes, “Dissolution rates are substantially higher among those who initiate sexual activity before marriage.” He asserts that divorce is more likely among the sexually active and cohabiters because they have established their life together on “relatively unstable sexual relationships.”6

Teachman (2003)

Sociologist Jay Teachman examined how both premarital sex and cohabitation affect risk of divorce among women. He found that “[i]t remains the case, however, that women with more than one intimate relationship prior to marriage have an elevated risk of marital disruption.”7

Clark and Crompton (2006)

In a Canadian context, Warren Clark and Susan Crompton did a study for Statistics Canada examining factors that contribute to the breakdown of first and second marriages. The authors note, “Living common-law is also strongly associated with a first marital breakdown. In fact, the risk is 50 per cent higher among people who lived with their partner before the wedding than among those who did not.” They suggest the reason is that “the tradition of marriage is less important to people who have participated in non-traditional conjugal relationships.”8 

Paik (2011)

This newest study, conducted by Anthony Paik at the University of Iowa, looks specifically at first sexual experience in adolescence. Paik explains that his “research shows that adolescent sexuality/premarital sex is associated with marital dissolution” and that a significant factor is whether the sexual experience in later adolescence was welcomed by the girl. He continues, “Adolescent sexual debut that is not completely wanted is both directly and indirectly linked to marital dissolution,” and this is the case in the vast majority of adolescent sexual experiences for girls.9 Seldom do these girls report not being pressured or forced into sex.

Paik also discovered that females who first had sex in their teens had roughly double the risk of divorce later in life, compared with women who had their first unmarried sexual experience in their adult years.

He further found that teen girls whose first sexual experience was with the young man they would eventually marry did not have particularly elevated risk of divorce. However, very few of the girls who lose their virginity in their teens only have sex with their future husband. The overwhelming majority of non-virginal adolescent girls – nearly all – have sex with multiple partners before marriage, thus increasing their later risk of divorce.10

Conclusion

Science is confirming what our grandmothers and pastors knew all along. Having sex with someone who isn’t our spouse can have a real, measurable and harmful impact upon later relationships.

When we give ourselves away – and sex is fully giving ourselves away physically, emotionally and spiritually – to someone outside the commitment and protection of marriage, it breaks down an important part of us, making our future relationships more unhealthy and difficult to sustain.

Young adults have a right to know about this sort of empirical information because of its very real potential impact on their later, most important relationships.

  • 1. Joan R. Kahn and Kathryn A. London, “Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and Family 53 (1991): 845-855.
  • 2. Edward O. Laumann, et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 503.
  • 3. Laumann, 1994, p. 503-505.
  • 4. Laumann, 1994, p. 505.
  • 5. Laumann, 1994, p. 505.
  • 6. Tim B. Heaton, “Factors Contributing to Increasing Marital Stability in the United States,” Journal of Family Issues 23 (2002): 392-409, p. 401, 407.
  • 7. Jay Teachman, “Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution Among Women,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (2003): 444-455, p. 454.
  • 8. Warren Clark and Susan Crompton, “Till death do us part? The risk of first and second marriage dissolution,” Canadian Social Trends 81 (Summer 2006): 23-33, p. 24.
  • 9. Anthony Paik, “Adolescent Sexuality and Risk of Marital Dissolution,” Journal of Marriage and Family 73 (2011): 472-485, p. 483, 484.
  • 10. Paik, 2011, p. 479.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.


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