WEDNESDAY, Dec. 29, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Having sex early in a relationship may lead to less satisfying marriages because couples can fail to develop important skills to communicate well and resolve conflicts, new research suggests.
The study, done at Brigham Young University in Utah, found that married couples who had delayed sex while they were dating were more likely to communicate, enjoy sex and see their marriage as stable than those who had sex early on. They also were generally more satisfied with their marriages.
Why would rushing into intimacy impede marital happiness? According to study co-author Dean M. Busby, people who quickly become intimate may end up marrying even if they're incompatible because they become "entangled" in a relationship that becomes difficult to end.
"The take-home message is that sex is a powerful experience," said Busby. "It really bonds us to one another and so it may be important before we go down that road to take the time to see if you can talk to this other person -- see if you have similar personalities and similar directions in life -- to see whether or not this is a relationship that can last."
About 85 percent of Americans report having had premarital sex, according to research cited in the study. Also according to the research, there is a widespread belief that it is important for dating couples to see if they have "sexual chemistry," because it is key to a good marriage.
Trying to find out if the timing of sex in a relationship had a lasting impact on the eventual marriages, the study divided 2,035 participants into three groups: those who had sex within a month of meeting (776), those who had sex after a month but within two years (923), and those who waited until they were married (336) to have sex.
The longer sex was delayed, the more participants in the study reported better quality of sex, communication, relationship satisfaction and perceived relationship stability. Waiting until marriage to have sex had the strongest correlations with positive outcomes.
The study was controlled to eliminate the influence of factors that could impact the timing of sexual intimacy, such as religion, education, relationship length and the number of previous sexual partners.
The study authors cited "relationship inertia," a theory from earlier research, as a reason poorly matched couples stay together. As time goes on, partners feel "constrained" by the complexities of the situation when they may have more wisely parted company, the research noted.
"You get on this escalator and begin sliding into a relationship, rather than deciding in a thoughtful way to become more involved," said Busby. "People say, 'I've invested four or five years in this relationship' or 'We bought a house together,'" he added, noting that "the relationship becomes too complicated to leave."
Busby cautioned against concluding that premarital sex necessarily leads to a bad marriage, however.
"Just because someone has sex early in a relationship doesn't mean the marriage is doomed," he said. "We're not saying that."
Busby also said the study group was more white and educated than a random sample of Americans would be, so more research is needed to draw stronger conclusions.
But the study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, suggests that an early focus on sex may lead to "more brittle marriages."
"You can have great sex with someone you have an incompatible personality with," Busby pointed out. "Sex is important, but it is not the only important thing in marriage."
The study drew praise from another expert on interpersonal relationships.
"The impulse to assess sexual chemistry early in a romantic relationship, if not before, is a popular one," said Mark Regnerus, author of the book Premarital Sex in America, due out in 2011. "It just doesn't work as well as advertised."
A sexual relationship between two people "is best learned, rather than simply graded," said Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin.
"A good marriage -- including the sex -- is something that's built. It doesn't come prefabricated," he said.
And spouses with lots of sexual memories of other partners may find the bar for satisfaction high, said Regnerus. In contrast, people with fewer sexual memories may not expect as much.
"They are as good at sex as they believe themselves to be," he said.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy offers tips for marriage preparation.