“Before You Said ‘I Do,’ What Did You Do? A New Report on Premarital Experiences & Marital Quality”

“Living in sin,” i.e. fornicating, i.e. living together, i.e. cohabitating. Our secular culture has a bad habit of changing the subject by changing the terminology we use to describe the subject (Oh, and I almost forgot “hooking-up”). We don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, we don’t want to sound judgmental, and we want don’t want to be intolerant. So better to conceal what we say and do, than to reveal it.

A report was published last month from The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, entitled Before “I Do”: What Do Pre-Marital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults? The report observes how a new relationship sequence among 18 to 34 year-olds – “sex, cohabitation, and sometimes children preceding marriage – has become the norm in our society.”

loveAlthough the report’s findings aren’t fully in line with Catholic moral teaching – e.g., the authors speak of how it’s better for future marital quality to delay the onset of sex in a relationship, not simply to wait until marriage – they do often support or lend credence to that Catholic teaching in various ways.

The authors of the report – Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley – analyzed new data from the Relationship Study and came to three major conclusions:

  1. “What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, so to speak. Our past experiences, especially when it comes to love, sex, and children, are linked to our future marital quality.
  2. Some couples slide through major relationship transitions, while others make intentional decisions about moving through them.  The couples in the latter category fare better.
  3. Choices about weddings seem to say something important about the quality of marriages.”

The report’s first conclusion shows that the more romantic relationship experiences one has before marriage (especially of the “hooking-up” kind) leads to “lower marital quality”. The old adage about “sowing your wild oats” before you settle down simply isn’t true. The authors give several credible reasons for why more (romantic partners) is actually less (in terms of future marital happiness). It seems to me, however, that a chief reason for this is that none of these kinds of semi-permanent relationships enables either partner to develop moral virtue – particularly chastity and fidelity. You “play act” at marriage without really being married. That just won’t cut it.

The authors found that cohabitation – or at least cohabitation before making a commitment to marry – was linked to lower marital quality. They argue that living together creates a kind of “inertia” that makes it difficult to end the relationship should one or both desire to. Couples may then find themselves “slid[ing] into a marriage they would have otherwise avoided.”

The report’s second conclusion throws up “red flags” against this kind of sliding – where, instead of being “intentional” in making decisions about major relationship transitions, couples unthinkingly slide from one stage to the next. Thus, the authors’ mantra regarding significant relationship milestones is “decide rather than slide.”

The authors find that “moving in together and having a child together can be risky” for future marital quality. While Catholic sexual ethics would grant the risks as laid out by social science, it would also speak in morally normative language against both practices, i.e. fornication. But the Church would welcome the authors’ alternative to cohabitation as a way to get to know one’s future spouse: premarital education. Participating in such education was associated with higher marital quality.

The third conclusion of the report is perhaps the most interesting of all, and it can be interpreted as affirming Catholic teaching on the importance of ceremony and community, in this case, the wedding ritual. Couples in their study who reported having a “formal wedding” also had higher marital quality than those that didn’t. The authors reason that “having a public ceremony…symbolizes a clear decision to commit to one’s marriage”. And this “deliberate decision to commit to one option and reject alternative options strengthens a person’s tendency to follow through on the commitment. Wedding ceremonies ritualize the foundation of commitment.” That makes sense.

We also see at work here the ideas of virtue and character formation: By making morally good choices, I “stiffen my spine”, so to speak, in various areas such as chastity, fidelity, justice and so on.  As I do so, I in turn freely shape not only my actions as good – as chaste acts, as faithful acts, etc. – but I as a person become good. I become a faithful, chaste spouse, a just man or woman. But giving myself a good moral identity today, I lay a solid foundation for my future marriage. But the opposite is also true: By making morally poor choices, I give myself a bad moral identity – I handicap myself – for any future marital relationship I enter.

Surprisingly, with respect to their third conclusion, the authors report that among their participants, “having more guests at their wedding was associated with higher marital quality.” One reason being, it seems, that the more witnesses you have at your wedding increases your desire to be faithful to the public commitment you made.

The authors “bottom-line advice to Americans hoping to marry”? It’s this: “Remember that what you do before you say ‘I do’ seems to have a notable impact on your marital future. So decide wisely.”

Let’s “beef up” these sage words: Be a virtuous man or woman today in preparation for any marriage you may establish tomorrow.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
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