Premarital sex and cohabitation, if limited to the future husband, do not increase the risk of divorce for women, according to new research by Jay Teachman, sociologist, at Western Washington University.

Teachman's research, published in the May edition of Journal of Marriage and Family, adds a new dimension to the long-held belief that premarital sex and cohabitation are strong predictors of divorce for women. His results are a good news/bad news scenario for modern marriages. In his study of women from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, the sociologist modified previous surveys by linking premarital sex and cohabitation, and by asking whether women had engaged in these behaviors only with the man they eventually married or with other partners.

Fewer than 18% of the women in the study had skipped premarital sex and cohabitation before marriage. Teachman believes that because the majority reported engaging in premarital sex and then cohabitation before marriage, this sequence has become an acceptable part of the path to marriage.

The commonly held beliefs that people who cohabit aren't committed to marriage, and that cohabiting somehow reduces people's commitment to marriage, are not supported by Teachman's study. His research shows that women who are committed to one relationship, who have both premarital sex and cohabit only with the man they eventually marry, have no higher incidence of divorce than women who abstain from premarital sex and cohabitation. For women in this category, premarital sex and cohabitation with their eventual husband are just two more steps in developing a committed, long-term relationship.

Alfred DeMaris, a sociologist at Bowling Green University, finds Teachman's results striking. "No other study," states DeMaris, "has simultaneously considered the association of both premarital sex and premarital cohabitation with marital dissolution. Women planning to live with their prospective marital partners can take comfort from the finding that if they have premarital sex and cohabit only with their future husband, it should have no effect on their future chance of divorce."

Along with this good news, both Teachman and DeMaris found some troubling results in the study. "Another striking finding," says DeMaris, "is that multiple premarital sex partners enhance women's risk of divorce, regardless of their cohabitation experiences." Teachman agrees and speculates that it is the minority of women who have had more than one partner that has led to previous studies showing a link between cohabitation and higher incidence of divorce.

Megan Sweeney, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees the same pattern in Teachman's research and agrees that for many people it appears that premarital sex with a future spouse has become a normal stage in the courtship process leading to marriage. Sweeney states, "It is interesting to note the number of women in Teachman's sample who experienced premarital sex with multiple partners, rather than just with their husbands. It is this experience of multiple sexual relationships that Teachman finds to be associated with an increased risk of divorce. The next task for social scientists," Sweeney continues, "is to better explain the association Teachman identifies between marital dissolution and having multiple intimate relationships before marriage."

The Journal of Marriage and Family is a quarterly publication of the National Council on Family Relations, 3989 Central Avenue NE, Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55421

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J. of Marriage and Family, May-2003 (May-2003)