How can a couple’s experience prior to marriage affect their relationship satisfaction later on in life?
In a report for the National Marriage Project, Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley found that a couples’ pre-cohabitation relationship history can play a big role in how well they get along later in their marriage. Generally, surveys examining relationship stability and the quality of long-term relationships have not looked further back than the date when the partners moved in together.
“We know from research what makes people break up early on in relationships and that tends to be negative things like not communicating well, arguing too much,” said Rhoades, who is a Research Associate Professor and Associate Clinical Professor for the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver. “We know those things predict divorce. What we know less about is what helps people maintain healthy relationships over time.”
By looking at 418 Americans who married over the course of a five-year Relationship Development Survey, Rhoades and Stanley uncovered some interesting findings that are relevant to anyone hoping to build and maintain a healthy relationship.
One of the most surprising, and possibly counterintuitive, findings was that more relationship experience can actually be a predictor of lower marital quality.
Rhoades said that some indicators of relationship history, such as number of sexual partners prior to marriage, predicted lower marital quality later on in life.
“If you were hiring an architect to build a new home, you’d want an architect with more experience,” Rhoades said. “But in relationships, it looks like the opposite is true.”
Couples also reported lower levels of marital quality if their relationships started as a hook up, as did couples who moved in together before having a plan for marriage.
“I think what we might be seeing in both of those findings is that some couples get stuck in their relationship early on and then have a hard time getting out of it,” Rhoades said.
“… With living together, this research suggests that when some couples move in together without a clear plan for marriage, they wind up getting married when they otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe the constraints of living together propel them into staying together and getting married when they weren’t the best match. Or maybe they’ve signed a lease and that can make it harder to break up even if you don’t necessarily see a bright future.”
Other factors that predicted lower marriage quality included history of aggression. Rhoades said a staggering 53 percent of participants in the survey reported they had experienced some kind of physical aggression in their relationship while they were dating.
Participants who reported that they were less committed than they were to the relationship also reported lower levels of marital quality.
Rhoades said a huge takeaway from the study was that what happens to a person before they get married when they are in their 20s matters later on in life.
“I think that goes against some of the messages that we get in our culture today that your 20s are a time of exploration and you might as well have as many partners and experiences as you like and none of th at is going to matter once you find the person you want to marry,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades added that the study highlighted how important it is for couples to make careful, well thought out decisions when it comes to their relationship.
“People will do better in relationships if they make clear decisions and mutual decisions as they go along,” she said. “… Anything that builds constraints or makes you more stuck in a relationship should really be things that people are careful when making decisions about. Weigh your options and then decide whether or not you’re ready to take that next step in a relationship.”
Check back next week for an interview with Dr. Rhoades about the study’s findings.