What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. That’s especially true when it comes to premarital experiences and future marital quality among young adults.

The relationship sequence these days goes something like—sex, cohabitation, and sometimes children before marriage. With 80 percent of young adults reporting that marriage is an important part of their plans, Drs. Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley wanted to examine whether premarital experiences, both with others and a future spouse, affect marital happiness and stability down the line. (Before “I Do”: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?)

For five years, Rhoades and Stanley examined this issue. They looked at 418 married people, the history of their spouses’ relationships, their prior romantic experience, and the quality of their marriages. Their data revealed three major findings.

What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Past experiences, especially when it comes to love, sex and children, are linked to future marital quality.

Sex with many different partners may be risky for those who hope for a high-quality future marriage. Research conducted by Finer in 2007 indicates about 90 percent of Americans have sex before marriage. Rhoades and Stanley found that the number of sexual partners one has before marriage directly impacts future marital quality. Those with 10 or more partners experienced the lowest marital quality.

“Starting the relationship by having sex may make a person feel constrained to the relationship sooner because the emphasis is on the physical relationship, which trumps getting to know each other,” says Dr. Rhoades. “I often refer to this as DUI: dating under the influence.”

Some couples slide through major relationship transitions while others make intentional decisions about moving through them.

Decisions matter.

For example, many couples believe they should confirm they’re right for each other by living together first. However, research shows that living together before committing to marriage can negatively affect marital quality because cohabitation may make it harder for a couple to break up.

Cohabiting couples buy furniture, adopt pets, and sign leases together. These are all constraints that may keep people in a relationship even when they’re not sure they want to stay. Rhoades and Stanley found that couples who slide through relationship transitions have poorer marital quality than those who make intentional decisions about major milestones. Making time to talk clearly about potential transitions may contribute to better marriages.

Choices about weddings also seem to say something important about the quality of marriages. 

Most of the individuals who married over the course of the study (89 percent) had a formal wedding. Those couples reported higher marital quality than those who didn’t have a formal wedding. It could be that making a clear, deliberate commitment to one option strengthens a person’s tendency to follow through on it.

Clearly, the relationship sequencing of the past no longer guides most young adults today. To help ensure high marital quality in the future, it is crucial that young adults recognize a few things. They need to understand the importance of their past, avoid sliding through major relationship milestones, and maintain important friendships and family connections. These can all enhance a couple’s relationship and lead to a more fulfilling marriage.

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