I’m writing a series on compatibility. You might remember it was one of my five Cs of a healthy, happy relationship. Each installment will look at a specific issue involving compatibility. I believe compatibility is one of the most important principles couples need to consider in their relationship, so (deep breath) here goes. As always, please leave comments and share your thoughts!
There’s a common conception that in order for their relationship to have lasting success, a couple needs to be sexually compatible, and this should be tested before they decide to get married. After all, the reasoning goes, you wouldn’t want to marry someone who was sexually incompatible with you. This could lead to an unfulfilling sex life, potential affairs, and general relationship misery.
Is this conventional wisdom really true? Do we need to take a sexual “test drive” of our partners before we decide to commit to a lifetime of marriage with them? Consider the following:
Couples who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to consider divorce and to report lower levels of satisfaction in their marriage. Multiple studies, such as this one from the University of Denver, have found a “risk for divorce and poorer communication and problem-solving skills in couples who cohabited” before marriage. There are various theories why. One study hypothesized that couples who cohabitate tend to be “less committed to marriage and more approving of divorce.” The study indicated that “cohabiting experiences significantly increase young people’s acceptance of divorce.”
Also, a study in the Journal of Family Psychology has found “sexual restraint [i.e., waiting longer to have sex instead of testing sexual compatibility right away] was associated with better relationship outcomes, even when controlling for education, the number of sexual partners, religiosity, and relationship length.”
Finally, consider this: in the book The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, authors Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher argue that marriage has a whole host of benefits, including a better sex life. That’s right—married people have more satisfying sexual experiences! Why? “Cohabitating couples do not have the same kind of commitment. Waite and Gallagher note that cohabitating couples are less likely to be sexually faithful. Faithful partners do not worry about sexually translated diseases, are more likely to work to improve their sexual relationship, and do not have to worry about sexual jealousy.” (From a book review of The Case for Marriage.)
All of this information contradicts the popular notion that test driving a relationship for sexual compatibility is a good route to take. It actually doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. Being in a committed or cohabiting relationship is simply not the same as marriage. Marriage is a mutual lifetime commitment made publicly. It creates a safe environment for a couple to express intimacy on every level, including physically. A married couple thus has the advantage in sexual compatibility because they can develop it with someone they fully trust. Sex isn’t just a physical act; it’s also an emotional, mental, and even spiritual act. It’s been said before that the largest sex organ in the human body is the brain. That’s very true, and that’s why there can be no substitute for the intimacy of a marriage relationship built on love and trust. Brett Salkeld writes: “The real problem about the search for ‘sexual compatibility’ is that it abstracts sex from the broader relationship. It makes good sex the result of a biological fluke rather than the natural outcome of a loving relationship.”
Sex is like dessert. With practice, and within the safe boundaries of a marriage relationship, a couple can make delicious chocolate raspberry cheesecake. The more you make a recipe, the better you get at it. In fact, the better you get at cooking, the more recipes you learn how to make. There’s no need to worry you’ll get bored of chocolate raspberry cheesecake. But when you’re first learning how to cook, your recipes are not going to turn out perfectly. You might burn the crust a little (and just in case you were wondering, dessert is only a metaphor, not a weird double entendre). That’s why test-drive sex fails. You don’t actually know what kind of delicious recipes the two of you could make together because you’re just starting out. And every time you hook up with a new person, you’re starting out all over again. You’ll never get to the level of chocolate raspberry cheesecake that way. The best recipe for great sex is two committed partners willing to share the entirety of their lives together in marriage, forever.