"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.
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 and 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 the 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.
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 categorised as either having:
And those who waited until after they married:
Compared with those in the early-sex group, those who waited until marriage:
"Curiously, almost 40 per cent 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."
Adapted from LiveScience.com.