Is Waiting to Have Sex a Fairy-Tale?

August 17th, 2011

My wedding day in front of a Cinderella mural in downtown Mesa, Arizona

With sex continuing to be very common among dating couples, the idea of waiting to have sex until marriage has in some ways become unpopular. In fact, according to a study by University of Texas researchers Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, “Premarital Sex in America,” about two-thirds of young adults (ages 18-23) are in some kind of romantic relationships, and of those, only about 5% are not having sex. (I guess waiting to have sex is almost a fairy tale!)

However, recent research suggests that saving sex until marriage can actually increase overall relationship satisfaction. Professors Dean Busby, Jason Carroll, and Brian Willoughby from Brigham Young University conducted a study using information from the RELATE assessment to find out if there are benefits to delaying sex in the relationship. In the questionnaire there is the question, “When did you become sexual in this relationship?”

From analyzing the information provided by respondents, they found that those who waited for sex until marriage compared to those who had sex early on in the relationship had the following benefits:

  • Relationship stability was 22% higher
  • Relationship satisfaction was 20% higher
  • Sexual quality of the relationship was 15% better
  • Communication was 12% better

Similarly, in the Regnerus and Uecker study, the researchers found that initiating sex early on in the relationship was associated with lower quality relationships and less satisfaction among dating couples. They also found that dating couples who were having sex surprisingly did not often talk much about sex with each other.

Dr. Busby said, “There’s more to a relationship than sex, but we find that those who waited longer were happier with the sexual aspect of their relationship. I think it’s because they’ve learned to talk and have the skills to work with issues that come up.”

Mark Regnerus read the study done by Busby and his colleagues and shared his opinion on the study. “Couples who hit the honeymoon too early—that is, prioritize sex promptly at the outset of a relationship—often find their relationship underdeveloped when it comes to the qualities that make relationships stable and spouses reliable and trustworthy.”

I think this was so in my own relationship with my husband. My husband and I were a part of that small, fairly-tale minority that decided to wait until marriage to have sex. Because we chose to wait, there was a lot of time to work on other aspects of our relationship like communication and enjoying quality time together. We even took a preparation for marriage class that helped teach us better communication skills and in particular how to communicate to each other about sex. I feel like because we learned these skills early on, our relationship grew stronger.

Since religious beliefs often influence couple’s decisions to delay or wait until marriage, Busby controlled for religious involvement in their findings. He said that waiting helps improve satisfaction, stability, and communication in a relationship regardless of religious involvement.

Sex is a powerful force and early initiation can lead people to feel like their relationship is better than it really is. It can give false signals.

Research is always about probabilities, of course; it doesn’t tell what will happen for everyone or any single person. So this research doesn’t tell people who decide to have sex early in a relationship or prior to marriage that their relationship will be doomed. But I think it is some important information that should be taken into account when deciding to take the next step.

And more importantly, couples will do well to figure out how compatible and committed they are without sex in order to maximize their chances for a strong and healthy relationship in the end. And in the end, maybe they can create a real fairy-tale.