When is the right time to start having sex in a relationship? Not until marriage? A couple months in? The “standard” three dates? Sometimes even on the first date?
There are as many opinions on this question as there are men in this world, and each will often vigorously defend his position. The guy who waited until marriage says he couldn’t be happier with his decision, while the guy who sees nothing wrong with sex on the first date contends that such behavior is entirely natural and without negative consequence. And of course abstinence guy will never be able to step into the shoes of early-in-the-relationship guy, and vice versa. Which is why time and experience have shown that arguing about this decision – especially over the internet! – rarely, if ever, convinces someone to entirely change their position.
Thus what I hope to lay out in this article is not an iron-clad rule for when you should become intimate in a relationship. Instead what I aim to present today is a case for delaying intimacy in a relationship and taking it slower – leaving the interpretation of what “slower” means up to each individual man to filter through his own moral, religious, and philosophical beliefs.
Note: Before we begin, I should probably point out the somewhat obvious fact that this post is directed at those who desire a long-term relationship. While I don’t personally endorse the one-night stand, if that’s your modus operandi, then this article would not be relevant for your situation.
Is There Any Evidence That Delaying Intimacy Benefits a Long-Term Relationship?
You may have a heard a parent, teacher, or preacher contend that waiting to have sex will ultimately strengthen a relationship. But is there any actual evidence out there that backs up this well-meaning, if often vague advice? There is at least some that seems to point in that direction.
In one study, Dr. Sandra Metts asked 286 participants to think about the different turning points in their present or past relationships. One question she hoped to answer was whether it made a difference if the couple had made a commitment to be exclusive and had said “I love you” before or after commencing sexual intimacy. Metts found that when a commitment is made and love is expressed before a couple starts to have sex, the “sexual experience is perceived to be a positive turning point in the relationship, increasing understanding, commitment, trust, and sense of security.” However, when love and commitment is expressed after a couple becomes sexually involved, “the experience is perceived as a negative turning point, evoking regret, uncertainty, discomfort, and prompting apologies.” Metts did not find a significant difference in this pattern between men and women.
In another study, Dr. Dean Busby sought to find out the effect that sexual timing had on the health of a couple’s eventual marriage. He surveyed over 2,000 people who ranged in age from 19 to 71, had been married anywhere from 6 months to more than 20 years, and held a variety of religious beliefs (and no religious beliefs at all). The results were controlled for religiosity, income, education, race, and the length of relationship. What Busby found is that couples who delayed intimacy in a relationship enjoyed better long-term prospects and greater satisfaction in a variety of areas in their marriage. Those who waited until marriage to have sex reported the following benefits over those who had sex early on in the relationship:
- Relationship stability was rated 22 percent higher
- Relationship satisfaction was rated 20 percent higher
- Sexual quality of the relationship was rated 15 percent better
- Communication was rated 12 percent better
For those couples that waited longer in a relationship to have sex, but not until marriage, the benefits were still present, but about half as strong.
Why Would Delaying Intimacy Benefit a Long-Term Relationship?
These studies are certainly not conclusive and do not decidedly settle the question of whether or not delaying intimacy is beneficial for a long-term relationship. But the results are intriguing, and as they at least point towards that idea, it’s worth exploring why this might be so.
The main point of contention in the debate over when you should get intimate in a relationship generally boils down to whether it’s better to find out if you are sexually “compatible” as early as possible, or whether holding off on sex might uniquely strengthen the relationship in such a way as to make that question a moot point. For example, while the participants in Busby’s study who waited until marriage to have sex would seemingly have taken the biggest gamble in “buying a car without ever taking it for a test drive” (to use an analogy that frequently comes up in this discussion), they still reported being more satisfied with their sex life than those who had kicked the tires right out the gate. Busby offers this explanation for such a result: “The mechanics of good sex are not particularly difficult or beyond the reach of most couples, but the emotions, the vulnerability, the meaning of sex and whether it brings couples closer together are much more complicated to figure out.”
The following factors help explain how waiting to have sex may trump the question of sexual compatibility.
The Importance of Narrative in Our Relationships
In the past decade, psychologists have increasingly recognized the importance of “personal narratives” in the way we construct our identities, make choices, and find meaning. Researchers have found that the human mind has a natural affinity for stories, and this predilection strongly extends into how we view and make sense of our own lives. We all seek to fit our experiences and memories into a personal narrative that explains who we are, when and how we’ve regressed and grown, and why our lives have turned out the way they have. We construct these narratives just like any other stories; we divide our lives into different “chapters” and emphasize important high points, low points, and, of particular importance here, turning points. Psychologists have shown that these personal narratives are truly powerful things that shape our behavior and influence our big decisions – even when we’re not aware of it. They affect both how we view the past, and how we see our future. As science reporter Benedict Carey puts it, “The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.”
The power of personal narrative may explain the results of Dr. Metts’ study. She theorizes that “for both men and women, the explicit expression of love and commitment prior to sexual involvement in a dating relationship appears to provide communicative framing [emphasis mine] for the personal and relational meaning of sexual actions.” For couples that make a commitment to each other prior to becoming intimate, the initiation of sex becomes framed as “a relational event” rather than a “physical release or moment of pleasure.” In other words, whether “I love you” came before the sex or after it changed the way the couple was able to fit this turning point into the narrative of their relationship and thus what kind of meaning the event took on.
Psychologists have found that just like all good stories, the coherence of our personal narratives matters and the more coherence our life story has, the greater our sense of well-being. Coherence grows out of a number of things, including the way one event seems to lead naturally to another, and how clearly cause and effect can be seen. When sex happens prior to love and commitment and somewhat randomly – “After a few dates we were watching a movie and then we started making out and ended up having sex.” – it becomes a fragment that’s harder to fit into the narrative of your relationship and doesn’t add much to the story of how you became a couple. On the other hand, if the sex in a relationship follows after expressions of love and commitment – “We first said I love when we watched the sun come up after a hike. We booked a weekend at a bed and breakfast a few weeks later and had sex for the first time.” – the episode easily becomes integrated – in a positive way — into the story of your relationship.
It may be easy to dismiss stories as just…stories. But the effect of personal narrative in your life should not be underestimated. The memory of your first time as a couple will be something you look back on and draw from for the rest of your life and will at least partially color – for better or worse – “the story of us.”
The Creation and Lasting Power of Sexual Patterns and Preferences
We’ve talked a lot about habits and how our repeated behaviors not only train our minds to think and act in certain ways but can even change the literal circuitry of our brains. How we choose to do certain things can set a pattern that’s very difficult to alter. This is likely as true for sexual intimacy as it is for anything else.
As Dr. Busby puts it: “Many will say, ‘When I get ready to settle down I’m going to take things more slowly.’ Unfortunately, some of our more recent research seems to suggest that the patterns that develop in young adulthood, and their relational consequences, can’t just be turned off or avoided once a person decides it is time to marry. Every relationship we have, however brief and insignificant, influences every other relationship we have, and the patterns that we repeat across relationships become very difficult to change.”
Busby is likely referring to some of the studies on relationships and marriage he has conducted, but for my money one of the most interesting experiments on sex and habit comes from a different laboratory – this one headed by psychologist and neurobiologist Jim Pfaus. In one study, Pfaus painted female rats with “cadaverine” – a synthetic form of the scent of death. Cadaverine smells so bad that rats will scramble across electrified gates to get away from it. Thus when virginal male rats were put in a cage with these death-scented females, they at first predictably refused to mate with them at all. But after much coaxing from the researchers and flirting from the female rats (who were blissfully unaware of their repulsiveness), the male rats gave in and got down to business. Later on, when these male rats were given a choice between mating with the death-scented rats and ones that smelled naturally good (to a rat), they preferred to mate with those wearing eau de cadaver. Pfaus even tried perfuming some female rats with the delightful smell of lemon, but the male rats couldn’t be swayed from the preference they had formed during their first sexual experiences.
In another experiment, Pfaus put different virginal male rats in little Marlon Brando-esque leather jackets, which they wore during their first times mating. When the leather jackets were later removed and the rats given a chance to mate again, a third of them refused to even make an attempt, many that tried to give it a go couldn’t get an erection, and sex for all the rats took longer and required a lot of help from the females.
In both groups of rats, the male rats had come to associate certain elements (scent, jacket) that were present during their first sexual experiences with arousal, and had formed a preference and even a need for those same elements to be present for successful sex later on. This result has been shown in numerous other studies – when rats are sexually stimulated in certain locations or in various degrees of light, they will come to associate those conditions with arousal. It’s basic Pavlovian conditioning, applied to sex.
While the gap between humans and rats may seem huge, their limbic systems are so similar to our own that they are frequently used in studies on sexuality and have been called the “‘guiding flashlights’ for understanding the primitive mechanisms of our own brain.” While I’m drawing my own conclusion here, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that if we come to associate sex with feelings of love and commitment, of being in a secure, comfortable relationship, that’s what we’ll continue to prefer and seek out and be turned on by, while if we come to associate sex with novelty and newness, we may then have trouble breaking that pattern and being satisfied with the sex of a long-term relationship. This is true with pornography as well. The brain gets tuned to being aroused by different women or by certain sexual acts on screen, and then you are no longer able to perform with your significant other.
In fact, our brains may have evolved to aid in the continuation of a pattern of short-term sexual relationships once a man has started down that path. In primitive times, a man was driven to spread his seed to increase his chances of siring as many progeny as possible (this pattern is repeated by modern men who wish to have as much sex as possible, but typically do not want any children to result from these couplings). But as evolutionary psychologist David Buss points out, a “critical problem that must be solved by men pursuing a short-term mating strategy is the problem of avoiding commitment and investment. The larger the investment in a particular mating, the fewer the number of sexual partners a given man can pursue.” Buss calls this the “commitment-avoidance” problem and a study he conducted found the possible solution to it: after sex, men who have had numerous sexual partners experience a “negative affective shift” — they perceive the woman they’ve just copulated with as less sexually attractive than they did prior to doing the deed. Why would this shift in perception occur? Buss theorizes that “a negative change in perception of the woman’s sexual attractiveness might provide the motivational impetus to promote a relatively hasty postcopulatory departure. This quick departure, in turn, would function primarily to reduce the risks to the man of making unwanted commitments.” Buss thus concludes that “successful short-term strategists are more likely to experience a negative affective shift following sexual intercourse than long-term sexual strategists.”