Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 07, 2019

People with History of Casual Sex May Struggle More in Committed Relationships

by Juliana E. French
image of a single rose

Colton Underwood. Ashley Iaconetti. Nick Viall. Kaitlyn Bristowe. Other than finding reality TV fame on ABC’s hit television show The Bachelor(ette), what do these people have in common? In case you’re not entrenched in Bachelor Nation, let me provide a little bit of context. Colton was an intriguing choice to be the bachelor because he was a virgin. Similarly, viewers rooted for Ashley I. to find her knight-in-shining-armor to be her first lover. Nick and Kaitlin, on the other hand, were criticized, villainized, and (in some cases) celebrated for their relaxed, permissive views about casual sex and promiscuous behavior. So, what do these four people have in common? The answer is simple: they all want to find love.

Most people desire to have a close, romantic relationship, and most people do get married or have a long-term committed relationship. Researchers believe that this drive to pursue long-term relationships is rooted in our evolutionary past because children fared better throughout human evolution when their parents stayed together. Moreover, satisfying long-term relationships are critical for mental and physical health.

But that’s clearly not the whole story because many people—even those who want to get married—often pursue shorter-term sexual relationships without any desire for or promise of long-term commitment. This raises important questions about marriage: Are people who have relaxed views about sex and a history of casual sexual encounters happy in their marriages? And do they stay married?

People who have a history of having and desiring uncommitted sex are high in a trait called “unrestricted sociosexuality.” Defining characteristics of this trait are believing that “sex without love is OK,” fantasizing about uncommitted sex, and having a history of casual sexual encounters such as one-night-stands. In contrast, people who are low in unrestricted sociosexuality tend not to engage in sex with someone until they are in a long-term, serious, committed relationship.

When two people get married, each person brings into that marriage his or her sociosexual attitudes and experiences. In our research, we wanted to find out how each partner’s sociosexuality impacts the success of the marriage. In other words, do people who have a history of and a desire for casual sex (the Nick Vialls and Kristyn Bristoes of the world) have more marital difficulties than people who require a higher level of commitment before having sex (looking at you Colton Underwood and Ashley I.)?

To find out, my colleagues and I asked 204 newlywed couples about their sexual histories prior to meeting their spouse, as well as their attitudes toward and current desire for uncommitted sex. We then followed-up with each couple several times a year during the first few years of their marriages to ask questions about their relationship, such as how satisfied they were, and to find out whether they were still married.

It turns out that marriage is less satisfying and less likely to last for people who are high in unrestricted sociosexuality or who have unrestricted partners. Specifically, people who had a history of casual sex and expressed positive attitudes toward and a desire for casual sex began their marriages less satisfied than people who are not sociosexually unrestricted. Moreover, after getting married, their partners experienced rapid declines in relationship satisfaction, which ultimately increased the likelihood of divorce.

Does this mean that people who enjoyed no-strings-attached sexual relationships in their past are doomed for marital failure? Of course not! Although unrestricted sociosexuality can create additional challenges for people’s marriages, this was not the case for everybody in our sample. In fact, people who were high in unrestricted sociosexuality who had low life stress or who had frequent, satisfying sex with their partner were just as happy as people who did not endorse, desire, and pursue casual sex. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of maintaining an active and satisfying sexual relationship with your partner (see the readings listed below), and our research suggests that this may be especially important for people who are inclined to desire casual sex.

Where do you fall on the sociosexuality continuum? If you’re married or in a long-term relationship, where does your partner fall? Marriage can be hard, and many people experience some declines in marital satisfaction over time. But marriage might be harder if you or your partner have relaxed views and a history of casual sex. However, not all is lost—here is the silver lining: Do your best to manage your stress and stay sexually connected to your partner (who wouldn’t want those things anyway?) and you might just get your happily ever-after.

For Further Reading:

French, J. E., Altgelt, E. E., & Meltzer, A. L. (2019). The implications of sociosexuality for marital satisfaction and dissolution. Psychological Science, 30, 1460-1472.

Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., Hicks, L. L., French, J. E., McNulty, J. K., & Bradbury, T. N. (2017). Quantifying the sexual afterglow: The lingering benefits of sex and their implications for pair-bonded relationships. Psychological Science28, 587-598.

McNulty, J. K., Wenner, C. A., & Fisher, T. D. (2016). Longitudinal associations among relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and frequency of sex in early marriage. Archives of Sexual Behavior45, 85-97.

Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. Journal of Sex Research39, 190-196.

Lavner, J. A., & Bradbury, T. N. (2010). Patterns of change in marital satisfaction over the newlywed years. Journal of Marriage and Family72(5), 1171-1187.

Juliana E. French is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at Florida State University. She studies how people’s romantic relationships are shaped by evolutionary processes and how novel features of modern society impact them.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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