“There are plenty more fish in the sea” – a saying that many of us may have heard, particularly when coming out of a relationship. But a new study finds that the more fish we catch, the less likely we are to end up in a happy marriage.
“In most areas, more experience is better. You’re a better job candidate with more experience, not less,” says study co-author Galena K. Rhoades, a research associate professor at the University of Denver, CO.
“When it comes to relationship experience, though, we found that having more experience before getting married was associated with lower marital quality.”
The study from Rhoades and her colleague Scott M. Stanley, a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, was conducted as part of the National Marriage Project – an initiative currently based at the University of Virginia, set up to assess and improve marriage health in America.
To reach their findings, Rhoades and Stanley assessed data from an ongoing national study called the Relationship Development Study. Between 2007 and 2008, the study recruited more than 1,000 Americans aged 18-34 who were in a relationship but unmarried.
During the 5 years of follow-up, 418 of the participants got married. The authors then assessed the marriages of these individuals, looking at the relationship history of each partner and their past romantic experiences. They then asked them about the quality of their marriage.
The authors note that they controlled for participants’ race and ethnicity, personal income, years of education, religion and their attendance at religious services.
Rhoades and Stanley found that on average, the subjects who engaged in more relationships prior to getting married reported lower quality marriages, compared with those who had fewer past partners.
The authors say this challenges the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” theory – the idea that what happens at a younger age – prior to marriage – does not affect life in the future. They add:
“Actually, what people do before marriage appears to matter. Specifically, how they conduct their romantic lives before they tie the knot is linked to their odds of having happy marriages.”
But why does relationship history appear to have this effect on marriage?
More partners means more experience, which the researchers say may be a reason for this finding. They note that having greater relationship experience means a person is more likely to compare a current partner to past ones in a number of areas, including sexual skills, physical attractiveness and communication abilities.
“Marriage involves leaving behind other options, which may be harder to do with a lot of experience,” say the authors.
Those who engage in more relationships also have more experience breaking up, which the authors say can induce more negative feelings toward love and relationships.
Furthermore, an individual may have certain personality traits – such as being hard to get along with – that have caused them to have more relationships and lead them to have a lower quality marriage.
Rhoades and Stanley also found that women who had children in a previous relationship were more likely to have lower marriage quality.
“Although there are mixed findings on the impact of having children on marital happiness, there is no question that raising children from prior relationships can add stress to a marriage,” say the authors.
It is not only past relationship history that can influence marriage quality, however.
The authors found that individuals who “slide” into important relationship transitions – such as having sex, living together, getting engaged and having children – rather than properly discussing them are more likely to have lower quality marriages.
“Another way to think about ‘sliding versus deciding’ is in terms of rituals,” explains Stanley. “We tend to ritualize experiences that are important. At times of important transitions, the process of making a decision sets up couples to make stronger commitments with better follow-through as they live them out.”
But it is not all bad news. When it comes to the wedding ceremony – which the authors say is the biggest ritual in many relationships – having lots of guests may increase the chance of a happy marriage.
Of participants who had 150 guests or more, 47% reported high marital quality, compared with 37% who had fewer than 149 guests and 31% who had fewer than 50 guests. This result remained after controlling for participants’ income and education.
Commenting on this finding, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, says:
“In what might be called the ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ factor, this study finds that couples who have larger wedding parties are more likely to report high-quality marriages. One possibility here is that couples with larger networks of friends and family may have more help and encouragement in navigating the challenges of married life.”
He notes, however, that this finding is not about the amount of money spent on a wedding, but more about having a lot of friends and family at the ceremony to offer support.
Despite their findings, Rhoades and Stanley note than nobody is “doomed” for an unhappy marriage; there are a number of things people can do to increase the chance of a successful marriage.
For example, they recommend talking with a partner about past experiences and discussing what lessons have been taken on board. They also note that seeking wise advice from others, whether through books, programs or counseling, may increase the chance of a happy marriage.
Stanley adds one final word of advice for brides- or grooms-to-be: “Our bottom-line advice to Americans hoping to marry is this: remember that what you do before you say ‘I do’ may shape your odds of forging a successful marital future.”
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, PA, claiming that a happy marriage may be the key to a healthy heart.