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Delaying sex could lead to healthier marriages, particularly in the quality of a couple's communication, new research out of Brigham Young University suggests.
"There's more to a relationship than sex, but we did find that those who waited longer were happier with the sexual aspect of their relationship," said family scientist Dean Busby, lead author of the study to be published Tuesday in the American Psychology Association's Journal of Family Psychology. "I think it's because they've learned to talk and have the skills to work with issues that come up."
But Busby acknowledged his research methodology does not support a conclusive claim that waiting to have sex helps ensure marital harmony. The associations were strong enough, however, to pass muster with the APA's peer-review standards.
The BYU findings are based on an analysis of answers provided by married couples who took a 276-question online survey between 2006 and 2009. The questionnaire took between 30 and 60 minutes to complete.
"We are not making claims that if you have sex early there's no hope for your relationship. It seems to set up the relationship to be more focused on the physical side of things and other things get underplayed," Busby said.
University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, who was not involved with this research, read the study and offered commentary in a BYU release.
"Couples who hit the honeymoon too early that is, prioritize sex promptly at the outset of a relationship often find their relationships underdeveloped when it comes to the qualities that make relationships stable and spouses reliable and trustworthy," said Regnerus, author of the forthcoming Premarital Sex in America.
Scholars of relationships are sometimes divided between two camps. One advances a "sexual compatibility model," which holds that sex is critical to forming relationships; the "sexual restraint model" holds that sex in the early stages of a relationship can be detrimental.
In supporting the latter view, the study is in line with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches abstinence before marriage and owns BYU. Busby said the church exerted no influence on his findings.
"We went at it open-minded," Busby, a professor in BYU's School of Family Life. "They don't tell me what to study and what not to study. I've worked at three other universities, and I've seen no difference in terms of what to study."
His co-authors are BYU colleagues Jason Carroll and Brian Willoughby.
Establishing causal relationships generally requires randomized samples and a longitudinal view, which tracks subjects over time. In contrast, the BYU study subjects were partly self-selected by those who chose to take the survey. Randomly assigning research subjects to specific treatment groups, as scientists often do in biomedical research, is not an option for the BYU team.
"You can't have a randomized trial where you say, 'You guys have sex, and you guys don't," Busby said.
For years, Busby and his colleagues have run an online relationship evaluation survey through the BYU-supported Marriage Study Consortium found at http://www.relate-institute.org.
They added questions about sexual timing in 2006 and since then about 20,000 couples have responded. The team selected responses from 2,035 couples in an attempt to get a sample that demographically reflected American marriages.
About 94 percent had attended college and nearly two-thirds held a college degree. The average age was 36. More than half found out about the survey from a course instructor or a relationship counselor. Most identified themselves as members of a religious faith, but only 6 percent indicated they were Mormon.
Mirroring national norms, 16 percent of sampled couples did not have sex until after they married, while the majority had sex within two months of starting to date.
None of the couples were divorced, although half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. Busby said mixing divorced and married couples in the sample would be like "comparing apples and oranges."
The scholars studied the respondents' perceptions of the quality of their relationships in four areas. The correlations were unmistakable and across the board, they concluded.
"It is clear that the longer a couple waited to become sexually involved the better their sexual quality, relationship communication, relationship satisfaction, and perceived relationship stability was in marriage, even when controlling for a variety of other variables such as the number of sexual partners, education, religiosity, and relationship length," they wrote.
Sexual timingand marriage
BYU family scholars' analysis of responses to an online survey showed couples who waited until marriage enjoyed better long-term prospects compared with those who started having sex in the early part of their relationship:
Relationship stability • 22 percent higher
Relationship satisfaction • 20 percent higher
Sexual quality of the relationship • 15 percent better
Communication • 12 percent better.
For other couples, those that became sexually involved later in the relationship but before marriage, the benefits were about half as much.