The popular media depicts couples entering into sexual relationships very early on in the dating process, but is such behavior really typical? And how does it affect relationship quality? Attempting to answer such questions, researchers from Cornell and the University of Wisconsin discovered that among low- to middle-income subjects, the speed of entry into a sexual relationship was quite fast—many began having sex within a month of dating. But the researchers also discovered that this speed seems to be damaging to couples’ relationship satisfaction.

Sharon Sassler, Fenaba R. Addo, and Daniel T. Lichter speculate that becoming sexually involved early in a relationship may not be healthy and may in fact entangle couples who are not a good “match” before they have had the opportunity to become adequately acquainted. The researchers offer three hypotheses: First, “Relationships that progress more slowly into sexual involvement will be of higher quality—across many different dimensions—than relationships that proceed rapidly”; second, “Individuals who cohabited prior to marriage will report lower levels of relationship quality than individuals who married directly, even after accounting for time to sexual involvement”; and three, “Accounting for cohabitation will reduce the association of relationship tempo and relationship quality.”

The researchers gleaned their data from the Marital and Relationship Survey (MARS) of about 600 married and cohabiting couples. They used “tempo of sexual activity” (how quickly the couple became sexually involved), “union status” (married vs. cohabiting), and a number of control variables to measure relationship satisfaction, commitment to the relationship, intimacy/emotional support, sexual satisfaction, communication, and relationship conflict.

The results demonstrated that, depressingly, sexual activity began very early in most relationships: “ . . . transitions to sexual involvement took place within the first month for 36.5% of the men in our sample, and nearly one third of the women (32.9%). . . . The smallest proportion of men and women (about 28%) reported waiting more than 6 months before becoming sexually involved.” This early sexual activity does not bode well for such couples, however. The results “suggest that, at least for women, the postponement of sexual involvement is associated with higher levels of relationship quality.”

The researchers outline four main results of their study. First, they write, couples enter very quickly into a sexual relationship. Second, “the speed of entry into sexual relationships is negatively associated with marital quality, but only among women.” Third, women seem to view sexual involvement—even very early on—as symbolic of a greater relationship commitment, and men do not seem to hold such a view. Lastly, “the relationship between relationship tempo and relationship quality is largely driven by entry into cohabitation.” Couples’ decisions to engage in early sexual activity seemed to correspond with later decisions to cohabit—sometimes very early on in the relationship. The researchers say that whether this pattern indicates “‘sliding rather than deciding’ to cohabit and greater risk of mismatched partners awaits further research.”

This study further validates what common sense already asserts: Sexual involvement is a sign of commitment. When a couple becomes sexually active, they commit themselves to each other in a whole new way—sometimes without knowing each other well enough to know whether the relationship is a good idea in the first place.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America, Spring 2013, Vol. 27 Number 2. Study: Sharon Sassler, Fenaba R. Addo, and Daniel T. Lichter, “The Tempo of Sexual Activity and Later Relationship Quality,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 [August 2012]: 708-725.)

This article has been republished with permission from The Family in America, a publication of The Howard Center. The Howard Center is a MercatorNet partner site.  

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Howard Center’s quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research....