Most young people want a happy marriage and family life. As a new report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia shows, the choices people make in their relationships prior to marriage matter. Unfortunately, the laissez-faire sexual practices embraced and promoted in our culture today don’t build a strong foundation for marriage.

According to the report, authored by Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley of the University of Denver, individuals with more sexual partners and cohabitation experience tend to report poorer marital quality, as do couples with children from prior relationships. And yet, today the average person reports five sexual partners prior to marriage. Less than one quarter (23 percent) have only had sex with the person they marry. Cohabitation is also common, with the majority of people cohabiting prior to marriage. And more than 40 percent of all children are born outside of marriage.

The pathway to marriage is a precarious one today. Sexual freedom and experimentation pervade our culture. Yet they jeopardize the outcomes that most people say they desire. An anything-goes ideology marginalizes intentional decision-making in these most important areas of marriage and sexual activity.

Sliding vs. Deciding

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Couples who said their relationship began as a “hookup”—over 30 percent of the study’s participants—reported lower marital quality, and those who moved in together without a clear and mutual commitment to marriage were also less likely to report high marital quality.

Clearly, relationships that begin without much thought beyond the short term are less likely to yield the highest quality long-term results. A relationship based on immediate sexual gratification may hinder peoples’ ability to assess the quality of that relationship. The National Marriage Project report suggests this, as does research by Brigham Young University professor Jason Carroll. Couples experience strong physical and emotional rewards through sex, yet without having previously taken the time to develop the relationship, their ability to judge its quality may be hindered if they are already caught up in emotional intensity. Carroll explains:

proper partner selection is often difficult for sexually involved couples who experience strong physical rewards with each other, as these rewards can cause them to ignore or minimize deeper incompatibilities in the relationship. The human brain and body do not just experience pleasure during sex; they also experience strong sensations of attachment and bonding. Simply put, we are hardwired to connect. Rapid sexual initiation often creates poor partner selection because intense feelings of pleasure and attachment can be confused for true intimacy and lasting love. Early sex creates a sort of counterfeit intimacy that makes two people think they are closer to each other than they really are. This can cause people to “fall in love” with, and possibly even marry, someone who is not a good choice for them in the long run.

As Carroll’s research shows, couples who wait until marriage to have sex report higher marital quality: better communication, higher stability and satisfaction, and better sexual quality.

In addition, early sexual activity in a relationship may more rapidly lead to cohabitation, which is linked to lower marital quality, according to research by Sharon Sassler of Cornell University. Part of the reason cohabitation may be linked to lower marital quality is because it too may lead to forgoing an intentional choice regarding marriage. As the National Marriage Project report shows, couples who did not make a clear commitment to marriage prior to moving in together were less likely to report high marital quality. This may be because cohabitors are more likely to “slide” into marriage, rather than making a firm decision to wed, the authors suggest. A couple who is living together is building interdependence—sharing an apartment, cable, utility bills, and pets—which may make it more difficult to exit a relationship, even one that may not be suitable for marriage. Couples may allow inertia to push them toward a subpar marriage rather than making the decision to rock the boat and change course.

Weddings, Public Commitment, and Social Support

Another interesting finding from the study is that couples who had an actual wedding and those who had more guests at their wedding also reported higher marital quality. This may also be connected to intent and commitment, as the authors suggest. Those who have a wedding ceremony are displaying a public commitment to their relationship. Displaying this commitment in front of a number of witnesses may help reinforce that commitment. More guests at a wedding may also suggest a stronger social network supporting the couple in their relationship, as the authors note.

Despite the lack of cultural support for positive practices that help couples toward healthy marriage relationships, the good news is that individuals have control over their relationship choices. And they should make these choices mindfully. As the authors note:

couples should be aware of sliding through major relationship milestones rather than making decisions about them. . . . Transitions related to being officially “together,” having sex, moving in together, getting engaged, having a child, and planning a wedding are not trivial life events. When changes have the potential to be life-altering, people do well to decide rather than slide. For individuals, that means thinking carefully about what you want when it comes to romantic partners, sex, living together, and having children, and keeping these desires in mind as you navigate relationships. For couples, deciding means taking the time to communicate and to make mutual decisions when something important is at stake.

Of course, the prevailing cultural message of sexual freedom is not easy to counteract. Delaying sex until marriage is portrayed as unrealistic or pointless, and sexual experimentation is considered positive and healthy. Many find it easier to follow this tide instead of considering the long-term effects of their relationship choices. Despite research overwhelmingly showing that premarital cohabitation is connected with poorer marital quality, the majority of people cohabit at some point, and most marriages are preceded by cohabitation.

To help both singles and couples achieve the healthy relationships and marriages they desire, we must give them something better to steer toward.

Restoring a Culture of Marriage

Fortunately, there are leaders making strides to portray this vision and restore a culture of marriage. For example, the Love & Fidelity Network seeks to reach college students with a message that contrasts with that of the hookup culture. It is their mission to help “young men and women in college—our next generation of parents and leaders—learn the realities of the sexual culture around them and how they can embrace a healthier and more responsible way of living out their sexuality and preparing for their own future marriages and families.”

Another example is First Things First, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. First Things First is a community healthy marriage initiative that provides relationship education to help individuals build the knowledge and skills necessary to build healthy marriage relationships.

In May, I wrote a Public Discourse essay reviewing Dr. Alan Hawkins’ recent book The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships. In his book, Hawkins lays out a strategy for how to help individuals and couples strengthen their relationships and marriages. He also describes many of the efforts taking place around the nation to accomplish this. While there are indeed noble efforts, as I noted in May “their small size constitutes a drop in the bucket in a society that is often indifferent, if not hostile, to marriage.”

Ultimately, strong marriages and families are at the heart of a healthy society. But perhaps most importantly, strong marriages and families are closely tied to the happiness and well-being of both adults and children. Today’s prevailing cultural approach to relationships, however, is putting true human flourishing on the line. The human heart longs for connection and fulfillment. A message that empowers people to find that happiness would help decrease broken hearts and increase human happiness.