- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Call it the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” effect: Having lots of guests at your wedding is linked to a high-quality marriage, say researchers, who note that it’s not the lavishness of a wedding that matters but the size of the social network of friends and family who come to support the union.

The bulk of the new study, being released Tuesday by the National Marriage Project, also looks at how premarital sexual activities, cohabiting and childbearing may promote or hinder subsequent marital happiness.

Having multiple premarital sexual partners, cohabiting casually and “sliding” into marriage — instead of “deciding” to marry — were all associated with lower marital quality.

“Our bottom-line advice to Americans hoping to marry is this: Remember that what you do before you say ‘I do’ may shape your odds of forging a successful marital life,” said study co-author Scott M. Stanley, research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

The researchers studied nearly 1,300 people, aged 18 to 34, who were unmarried but in an opposite-sex romantic relationship in 2007-2008 and who agreed to be part of the federally funded Relationship Development Study at the University of Denver.

Over the subsequent five years, 418 of the adults in the study married. Years of data collected about them allowed researchers to examine premarital relationships and their statistical links to current marital quality.

Premarital preparation, for instance, was found to be strongly associated with higher-quality marriages: Some 57 percent of spouses who engaged in some kind of marriage-preparation program said their unions were very good, while only 32 percent of spouses who skipped marriage prep gave such high marks to their unions.

Living together before marriage — which is now common — was also examined. Researchers found that couples who didn’t cohabit before marriage or cohabited only with each other as a future spouse were the most likely to be in happy unions. Conversely, couples who cohabited under more nebulous conditions or had multiple cohabiting experiences were more likely to have lower-quality marriages.

In fact, having multiple sexual partners was tied to lower-quality marriages, the researchers said.

This could be because sexually experienced people are able to compare a new partner to many old ones, leading to feelings of dissatisfaction with a new partner, said the study, “Before ‘I Do:’ What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do With Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults.”

Moreover, people who have had many sexual partners also had more experience breaking up — which can “make it harder to maintain commitment” and lead to “a more jaundiced view of love and relationships,” the researchers concluded.

Raising a child from a previous relationship was also associated with lower-quality marriages, a finding echoed in other research.

The researchers cautioned that none of their findings meant that a marriage is “doomed” based on premarital experiences. But they said the results do challenge the idea that previous romantic and sexual experiences are irrelevant to future marital happiness.

Unlike past job experience — which is highly valued — “we found that having more [relationship] experience before getting married was associated with lower marital quality,” said Galena K. Rhoades, study co-author and research associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

While people can’t undo their past, they can control things going forward, she said. Dating couples “probably ought to talk about” past experiences, she said. The goal is not to share all the details of the past but to understand “how those experiences might have really shaped your general sense of what relationships look like, and trust and commitment in relationships,” she said.

In a finding likely to be seized on by the $50 billion-plus U.S. wedding industry, the study found that when it comes to marital quality, the bigger the nuptials the better.

“This study finds that couples who have larger wedding parties are more likely to report high-quality marriages,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and an associate professor of sociology, noting the popular 2002 romantic-comedy movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

The study’s finding “is not about spending lots of money on a wedding party,” he added. “It’s about having a good number of friends and family in your corner.”