How Your Past Affects Your Marriage

marriage relationships Oct 02, 2014

Remember the old jump rope jingle?

Tommy and Suzy sittin’ in a tree


First comes love, then comes marriage

Then comes Suzy with a baby carriage!

We usually inserted the names of a boy and a girl we knew and used this rhyme as a way of embarrassing them; but the point is, it wasn’t that long ago that the sequence of events in the relationship were the norm, and variances were socially unacceptable.

Social climate, perceived standards of morality and priorities have changed a lot since then!  I read some interesting research by Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley that explored how the “new normal” trends have affected the younger generation of married couples.  Their findings include 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.

Current statistics show that 90% of couples have sex before marriage. While the concept of being able to “sow your wild oats” before you settle down is appealing and even encouraged by a lot of contemporary voices, Rhoades & Stanley found, Men and women who only slept with their (future) spouse prior to marriage reported higher marital quality than those who had other sexual partners as well…  We further found that the more sexual partners a woman had had before marriage, the less happy she reported her marriage to be.  This association was not statistically significant for men.

  1. Some couples slide through major relationship transitions, while others make intentional decisions about moving through them. The couples in the latter category fare better.

The adage, “Fail to plan, plan to fail” comes to mind as we consider this important element of the research. Couples who take the time to think about and discuss what they want for – and from – their relationship and decide what steps to take moving forward have a better chance of enjoying a satisfying marriage.  While you may not need to make an exact timetable for every major event (dating, engagement, wedding date, when to begin sexual relations, timing and number of children, etc.) realistic, honest discussion that includes a list of priorities will greatly improve your chances of a happier marriage in the long run.

Many couples that slide from one phase of the relationship to the next without a plan, however, tend to report having a lower quality marriage.  Relationships that start with a “hook-up” usually fit in here. People who think and act impulsively are more likely to jump in and see how it all works out, and can find themselves in a relationship that’s too deep, too soon.  Couples who begin with sex, which may lead to cohabitation or even having a child together, sometimes find themselves with a very significant bond with someone who does not turn out to be a good long-term partner. And if you factor in the possibility that the current partner (whom we have already established tends to slide rather than decide) is bringing a child or children into the new relationship from one or more previous relationships, it’s easy to see how many challenges the couple faces in trying to establish a mutually satisfying marriage.

Dr. James Dobson said that once sex begins in a relationship, talking stops. But, it’s talking and spending time together in a variety of circumstances, problem-solving scenarios and social circles that help us to really know a person and to decide if this is someone we are genuinely compatible with.  I have observed in couples who come for marital counseling that a well-thought-out relationship inevitably has a stronger foundation, less stress and disagreement and more enjoyment and satisfaction.

One interesting question addressed by the researchers is that, since in many areas of life more experience means greater skill and knowledge, why wouldn’t people with a lot of relationship experience be really good at marriage? A couple of logical answers emerge. One is that having many partners with varying qualities – like conflict resolution style, sexual skill, physical attractiveness, etc. – can create comparison that causes frustration with the current partner/spouse. And the other is, if there have been multiple relationships, there have been an equal number of break-ups.  The more expertise you develop at breaking up, the more jaded you are likely to feel and the less likely you are to try to avoid it.

  1. Choices about weddings seem to say something important about the quality of marriages.

Rhoades & Stanley found an interesting correlation between the type of wedding a couple has – i.e. formal, with many guests vs. informal, with few guests or witnesses – and how they impact future marital satisfaction.  They took in to consideration variables such as finances, traditions, and religious beliefs and when it was all said and done, concluded that people who had larger ceremonies generally had more satisfying marriages. This may speak to the support system that’s in place when a couple begins their marriage. Having lots of family and/or friends who join you as you pledge your lifetime of fidelity and witness your vows offers both support and accountability.

So, what can we conclude from all the research? What do you do with the information? If your past is catching up with you, start today to respect yourself and your spouse enough to be thoughtful about your life together. Talk about what’s important to you, what your expectations are, how your past may or may not affect your relationship today.  If necessary, talk with a counselor, pastor or wise friend for perspective. Remember, none of the findings in the study apply to 100% of people.  Some “sliding” people enjoy wonderful, spontaneous, fun-loving marriages, and “deciding” what you want won’t guarantee success.  But talk about it honestly, realistically and respectfully – it’s worth the effort!

Live, Work and Relate Well!

Dr. Todd

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