Delaying sex makes for a more satisfying and stable relationship later on, new research finds.
Couples who had sex the earliest — such as after the first date or within the first month of dating — had the worst relationship outcomes.
"What seems to happen is that if couples become sexual too early, this very rewarding area of the relationship overwhelms good decision-making and keeps couples in a relationship that might not be the best for them in the long-run," study researcher Dean Busby, of Brigham Young University's School of Family Life, told LiveScience.
Busby and his colleagues published their work Dec. 28 in the Journal of Family Psychology. The study was supported by research grants from the School of Family Life and the Family Studies Center at Brigham Young University, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church.
The intricate nature of sex
Past research on sex and its link to relationship quality has revealed two different paradigms. In one, sex is considered essential to a developing relationship since it allows partners to assess their sexual compatibility. Following this line of thinking, couples who marry before testing out their sexual chemistry are at risk of marital distress and failure later on.
The opposing view posits couples who delay or abstain from sexual intimacy during the early part of their relationships allow communication and other social processes to become the foundation of their attraction to each other. Essentially, early sex could be detrimental to a relationship, skewing it away from communication, commitment and the ability to handle adversity, this thinking suggests.
And past studies have shown the sex-relationship link is a complex one. For instance, a 2004 study of nearly 300 college students in dating relationships showed that when couples were highly committed, sex was more likely to be seen as a positive turning point in the relationship, increasing understanding, commitment, trust and a sense of security. However, when commitment and emotional expressions were low, the initiation of sex was significantly more likely seen as a negative event, evoking regret, uncertainty, discomfort, and prompting apologies.
Sex comes early nowadays
In the new study, Busby and his colleagues looked specifically at timing of sexual relations. They recruited 2,035 heterosexual individuals who had an average age of 36 and were in their first marriages. Participants reported when they first had sexual relations with their current spouse; they also answered communication questions, which evaluated how well they could express empathy and understanding toward their partners, how well they could send clear messages to their partners, and other questions. [10 Things Every Woman Should Know About a Man's Brain]
Other items on the questionnaire focused on relationship satisfaction and stability, with the latter gauged by three questions: how often they thought their relationship was in trouble; how often they thought of ending the relationship; and how often they had broken up and gotten back together.
Individuals were categorized as either having:
- Early sex (before dating or less than one month after they started dating).
- Late sex (between one month and two years of dating).
- And those who waited until after they married.
Relationships fared better and better the longer a person waited to have sex, up until marriage, with those hitting the sack before a month showing the worst outcomes.
Compared with those in the early sex group, those who waited until marriage:
- Rated relationship stability as 22 percent higher
- Rated relationship satisfaction as 20 percent higher
- Rated sexual quality as 15 percent better
- Rated communication as 12 percent better
"Curiously, almost 40 percent of couples are essentially sexual within the first or second time they go out, but we suspect that if you asked these same couples at this early stage of their relationship – 'Do you trust this person to watch your pet for a weekend many could not answer this in the affirmative' – meaning they are more comfortable letting people into their bodies than they are with them watching their cat," Busby said.
He added that those couples who wait to be sexual have time to figure out how trustworthy their partner is, how well they communicate, and whether they share the same values in life "before the powerful sexual bonding short-circuits their decision-making abilities."
Right now, the team is repeating the study on a larger sample in a longitudinal design – in which participants are followed over time. "We are particularly curious about people who report wanting to wait to be sexual but then they don't follow through on their beliefs, this may be a unique group with unique outcomes," Busby said.
You can follow LiveScience Managing Editor Jeanna Bryner on Twitter @jeannabryner.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.