Thursday, April 26, 2012


"Nobody gets married any more!"

-Alicia Silverstone, Blast From The Past

moving in
Something my ex-fiancee brought up was a concern about "sexual compatibility," which she said would be challenged by my No Sex Before Marriage rule.  How could we know?  Its generally understood that sex after marriage is lousy and you have to have a trial run to make sure you can get along well together.  After all, with the high divorce rate in the west, its better to hedge your bets and make sure you can work it out first, right?

Overall, 70-90% of adolescents now have sex by age 18 and most dating couples have sex within the first month of dating. Its generally understood that this is just how you move the relationship along.  You have a date, go to holding hands and kissing, and then to sex, then eventually you consider maybe making things more permanent.  Its not uncommon in movies to have couples engaging in wild sex for a period before they say "wow, I think I'm falling in love with you" as if this is perfectly normal.

Living together used to be a social stigma, called "living in sin" by some.  It was considered immoral and a sign that you were not a very good person.  The term "make an honest woman of her" came from the fact that she had to lie about what you and her were doing behind closed doors.  Which indicates that things were going on that society didn't care to admit to, so it was more common than 50s TV shows suggest.

According to the 2010 US Census, there are 99.6 million unmarried people over age 18 in the U.S., or almost 44% of the adult population.  Unmarried households were 45% of all U.S. households.  And the principle is that you try things out first and see how it works, then maybe at some point you get married.  If you ask the average person, they'd nod sagely and agree: you're better off doing this.

And It seems like every single comedian on the face of the planet, every TV show, every movie, every book all tell the same story: sex before marriage was great, sex outside marriage is great, sex in marriage is boring, repetitive, lame, and downhill.  The same woman, every single day, for the rest of your life?  The horror!

But is this perception of sex, marriage, and compatibility even valid?  Is what everyone knows about sex true?  Not according to recent studies.

Comedian Mark Gross has a hilarious bit he does about the concept of "sexual compatibility."  He points out that we're all compatible in an engineering sense, we all "fit."  Its not like some of us have unique parts that only work with a small portion of the population.  And he's right.  I do understand what this term is supposed to mean, but its largely nonsense.  If you cannot adapt, grow, sacrifice, and learn in this area, how exactly is the rest of your marriage supposed to work?

I don't know where this concept came along first, but like most modern presumptions of sexuality and morality I suspect it came from the sixties, pushed by Kinsey and his allies, and is of dubious validity.  

And the concept of "sexual compatibility" presumes a static nature of humanity: this is how you and I are and will never change.  That's absolute nonsense.  Like everything in your life, things change as you get older, circumstances alter, illness or disaster strikes, and so on.  Every parent with kids can tell you that the wild "break the furniture" times before little Suzy and Bobby came along end with that first baby.  Even if you had the energy you don't have the privacy or the feeling of liberty. 

But when it comes to sex before and after marriage and living together being great for marriages and relationships, well, that's where things really start to become problematic.  Like all statistics these can be a bit misleading, but here's some raw data to consider first:
  • Couples who do marry after living together are 50% more likely to divorce than those who did not.
  • Only 12 percent of couples who have begun their relationship with cohabitation end up with a marriage lasting 10 years or more.
  •  Divorce rates for those who cohabit more than once are more than twice as high as for women who cohabited only with their eventual husbands
  • The likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had cohabited first
Now the problem with raw numbers is that they don't show everything.  For example, the divorce rate overall in America is around 50%, but that hides something: most of those divorces are multiple offenders.  If you add up all the weddings and divide by divorces you get around 50%, but the problem is some of those are people who were married and divorced 3, 5, 8 times.  Elizabeth Taylor alone skews the data. So that doesn't mean your individual marriage has a 50% chance of failing, it means the raw data overall gives you that number.

If you clean out the repeat offenders, the number is still far too high (around 30%) but not nearly as dreadful as it first seems.  But the truth is, the idea that living together will help you find a better, more "compatible" mate you can make a life with does not really hold up well to examination.  At best you're no better off staying married and the numbers seem to suggest you're actually worse off.  Obviously that doesn't mean you're doomed to divorce if you live together first or blessed with certainty if you don't but it does counter the common knowledge about shacking up.

And if you think about it, there's some logic to that.   If you approach a relationship as a series of ever-greater steps along the path that you can abandon if things don't work out as you hoped, then leaving a marriage when its not all you hoped or expected it to be is perfectly reasonable and consistent.

And when it comes to sex, well you can either take the word of married couples, or look at a recent study that claims sex is better in marriage than before it.  The study is by a professor at Brigham Young University and Dr Coyne at Psychology Today cautions that the study might not be especially accurate based on asking Mormons, but I suppose that would mean you either can't trust Mormons or that they're unable to represent average people.

The thing is, it makes sense that your sex would get better with someone you're married to. While that first thrill of a new person can be powerful, despite how its displayed on TV, sex is clumsy and not all that elegant, and what you learn about a spouse over time can serve you very well as opposed to hoping you get it right, feeling self conscious, not knowing exactly what and how they want things, and that performance pressure guys can often feel.

If you're married you get good at it with each other, instead of just being exciting.  I don't doubt that the excitement is powerful and welcome to return to but experience and skill are pretty good too, and more enduring.

Overall, marriage is about commitment, not excitement.  Its about sacrifice, not self fulfillment or personal pleasure.  Its about what you give to make a life together, not about what you get out of someone else.

And that's where the problems with common perception of marriage mostly come from: the idea that marriage is one more step to personal happiness and comfort.  That you marry because the other person makes you feel good or happy - and when that ends, well so does the marriage.  Living together as a trial run on marriage only reinforces that principle: will this make me pleased?  Sex before marriage is about personal happiness too, its about what you can get from each other more than what you give - sex in a lasting marriage is more about what you give to create together, or it ought to be.

If your first concern is how fulfilled you'll be, how happy you'll be, or what you'll get out of marriage, do us and yourself a favor and don't.

*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.


Eric said...

As one of the 12% of couples who began cohabitating and has been married for more than 10 years, I'd say the following:

Sexual compatibility is a valid issue. Some women (and some men) enjoy sex more than others. Some are more enthusiastic about it. And couples who really enjoy having sex with eachoter and do it often are less likely to cheat than those who don't.

While I think that in most long lasting marriages, the sex does get better over time, I don't think that tells the whole story. You can go from eating Saltine crackers to Ritz crackers "over time" and say it is better. But the guy who started out eating pork chops and progressed to a steady diet of rib-eye has got you beat. Back in my dating days there was a girl I considered marrying material who I passed over becasue it became clear that Ritz with cheese was the best I was ever going to hope for. It wasn't just that she was inexperienced with sex, she was genuinely unenthusiastic about it (which surprised me because she was an enthusiastic kisser and fooling-around-er), no matter how much I tried to make the experience good for her. Maybe if I'd never been with women who did enjoy sex it would never have occured to me that this was an issue, but I had, and it did, and my life is better for it now.

Could I have married that girl and lived with that? Probably. But it would always have been a complaint of mine about our marriage, and it would have made being faithful that much more difficult.

Cohabitation is sort of a different issue, in that it encompasses a much broader scope of behaviors. My wife and I knew we wanted to get married when we began living together, we had each told the other we were ready to commit to this relationship for life, we just weren't ready to deal with the formalities of it at the time, especially in terms of needing to plan a wedding that we both felt was basically a ceremony for the benefit of our families (something we eventually decided not to do). It wasn't a "trial run" so much as a waiting period.
I think we benefited from it, but the way we went about it is not how I see most young couples doing it today.

But sex is a huge part of a normal healthy marriage. Most of the marriages I have seen where people cheat, they cheat because of a disatisfaction with their sex life at home, because of a partner who makes them beg for sex and then does it begrudgingly and without affection or enthusiasm. And many of these spouses knew this before they got married and went through with it anyway, thinking it would get better after they made the commitment... just imagine how diaspointing it would be to find this out on your wedding night.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I was hesitant to post this one because the case is based on statistics and opinion and I've never been married, so my opinion is largely speculative about it. However, I don't have any sex now whatsoever, so its hard for me to have too much sympathy for someone who grouses that they aren't getting enough.

Erica said...


Having been in a sexless marriage, where I had to beg and plead and grovel to have any scraps of affection tossed down to me from on high, there's a universe of difference between being unwillingly in a sexless relationship and not having sex because you're not in a relationship.

The difference is hope. If you're single and celibate there's always the possibility you'll find a wonderful partner and be blissfully happy. In a sexless marriage, especially with a partner who makes it clear they have zero care for your feelings and will not consider change, you're facing the rest of your married life as a loney wasteland, and it's not like you can get affection elsewhere, because you're married.

It's one thing to be celibate due to your own choice, it's another entirely when the person who you're supposed to be intimately bonded with is forcing you to be.

It's like the punishment of Tantalus, it wouldn't be so terrible if it weren't *just* out of reach.

Christopher R Taylor said...

Well that would be the difference between "not getting as much as I demand" and "not getting any affection at all." As I wrote in the piece, you have to be willing to sacrifice, change, adapt and give to your spouse - and that works both ways. If you aren't, then you shouldn't be married to begin with, it seems to me.