Pre-marital sex: Cause or symptom of later relationship difficulties?

By JubileeCentre 12 Jun 2011

by John Hayward

A University of Iowa study has found that women who make their sexual debut as young teens are more likely to divorce, especially if 'the first time' was unwanted, or if she had mixed feelings about it. The analysis found that 31 percent of women who had sex for the first time as teens divorced within five years, and 47 percent divorced within 10 years. The divorce rate for women who delayed sex until adulthood was far lower: 15 percent at five years, and 27 percent at 10 years.

This adds an important extra dimension to the Jubilee Centre's own research, Cohabitation: An Alternative to Marriage?, published at the start of this week, showing that cohabitating parents are at greater risk of separation and divorce. The child’s earliest years are a time of disproportionate risk of separation. So, by the time the child is five years old the separation rate for couples who were cohabiting when their first child was born is more than six times the rate for couples who were married. By the time the child is 16, the separation rate for cohabiting couples is still over four times as high:


Proportion of parents separated at given time after birth of first child

As Anthony Paik, the author of the Iowa study notes, there are a couple of potential explanations for the link between earlier sexual activity and divorce: 'One possibility is a selection explanation, that the women who had sex as adolescents were predisposed to divorce. The attitudes that made them feel OK about having sex as teens may have also influenced the outcome of their marriage. The other possibility is a causal explanation –- that the early sexual experience led to the development of behaviors or beliefs that promote divorce.'

So too the data from the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study used in our study cannot clarify whether the increased rate of divorce for couples who have previously lived with a separate partner is caused by that cohabitation or simply reflects the same factors that led to the end of the first relationship (such as a lack of skills to deal with conflict). Similarly, it cannot be stated whether prior cohabitation with the same partner predisposes a marriage to divorce in itself, or spousebuzz_com just divorcedwhether it merely reflects the attitude that relationships can and do separate and a reduced commitment to making relationships last, meaning the idea of divorce is also entertained more readily.




Cohabitations of convenience?

Jubilee Centre researcher Dr Guy Brandon says it is also unclear, 'whether couples are dating for less time than they used to before moving in together, or whether they are dating for the same length of time but then cohabiting instead of marrying. Seeing cohabitation solely as a replacement for marriage appears to be too simplistic.'

'Duration of a relationship alone is not a reliable indicator of commitment intentions. Other factors, such as joint bank accounts and home ownership, are needed to assess this – but the evidence in this regard suggests that the majority are not taking such steps of commitment.'

Dr Brandon suggests that 'Factors such as busyness and distance apart may mean that, instead of dating, couples choose to cohabit sooner as a matter of convenience.'

Although cohabitation has been the most common form of first live-in relationship since the early 1980s, around 55 percent of cohabitations lead to marriage and marriage remains by far the most common family form of choice overall. Thus, there are almost 4½ times as many married couples in the UK as there are cohabiting couples and we would therefore expect marriage to remain the most popular form of couple and family relationship.

Policy Implications

This has significant policy implications, not least in terms of the future cost of family breakdown and social care for those not living in supportive family units.

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that the cost of providing long-term care for older people could double or treble by 2050. Separate figures from the Department for Work and Pensions estimate that total age-related public spending on health, pensions and social care will increase from 16.5 percent of GDP in 2010 to around 20.6 percent by 2050.

In addition, the Relationships Foundation’s annual index of the cost of family failure has shown that the total cost of family breakdown to the UK in 2010-11 was £41.74 billion – this is £1,364 for every taxpayer. Meanwhile, a separate study by the Centre for Social Justice has highlighted that 'Of every £7 spent on family breakdown amongst young families [i.e. where the child is between 0 and 5], £1 is spent on divorce, £4 is spent on unmarried dual registered parents who separate, and £2 is spent on sole registered parents.'

As CARE's chief executive Nola Leach observes, 'At a time when cohabitation rates are on the increase the Jubilee Centre’s report is a timely reminder, backed up by good research, that marriage not only remains peoples' ideal but is in fact the most stable form of relationship.'

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