science of us

Sleeping Around Before Marriage Doesn’t Reduce Marital Happiness … Much

Well first there was John, and then there was Michael … can’t forget Philippe. Photo: ilbusca/Getty Images

The Institute of Family Studies, an organization aiming to “strengthen marriage and family life,” recently published a blog post called “Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?” They based their findings on numbers collected in the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth.

The answer they arrive at: Yes, a little. The Atlantic summarizes this as “Fewer Sex Partners Means a Happier Marriage,” and although I would add a “Slightly” in there (a slightly happier marriage), the original post does conclude that the “surprisingly large” number of Americans who report having only one lifetime sex partner do in fact claim to have the happiest marriages.

Looking at the numbers, though, it starts to get a little murky. Most people surveyed (64 percent), regardless of past sexual history or gender, claim to be “very happy” in their marriages. And the measured happiness gap between the least and most promiscuous women, for instance, is only eight percentage points — from 64 percent (the number of women with only one sexual partner reporting to be “very happy” in their marriage) to 57 percent (the number of women with 21 or more sexual partners reporting the same in their marriages). If only sleeping with one person makes you 8 percent more likely to report having a “happy marriage,” is that a worthwhile exchange? Maybe.

Among the men, the rates of reported single-partner marital happiness were even higher, starting at 71 percent and dropping a couple points with each additional partner. For both men and women the study cuts off at 21+ past partners.

There’s a funny detail in the findings, though, which is that although reported marital happiness apparently decreases (slightly!) with increased promiscuity, there are little upswings for women along this downward trajectory, especially after they hit partner No. 11 (and, for men, No. 5). Maybe that’s when past partners get dwarfed into obscurity/buried by numbers/the sheer mass makes it all funny and slightly less distracting/threatening?

It’s also worth noting that while the graph might look dramatic, it only covers a relatively narrow range of variation — from 75 percent to 50 percent of married respondents claiming to be “very happy” — and if you zoom back, things look a little less stark.

I imagine the point of the report is to encourage young people to be more careful about sex, which I respect. But for anyone past the point of no return, the small but nevertheless noticeable rises in reported marital happiness after minor promiscuity benchmarks seems both amusing and heartening. If you can’t go backward, there’s always forward.

Promiscuity Doesn’t Reduce Wedded Bliss … Much