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Does Timing of Sex During Dating Matter?

Is it better to test sexual compatibility early in dating or to wait to have sex? Does “true love wait” or should you “test drive” a relationship before saying I do? These are important questions to ask since most single adults report that they desire to one day have a successful, lifelong marriage. However, in their dating many couples move rapidly into sexual relationships. In fact, recent studies have found that between 30 to 40% of couples report having sex within one month of the start of their relationship (Busby, Carroll, & Willoughby, 2010; Peplau et al., 1977; Sassler et al., 2012). Are these dating patterns compatible with the desire to have a loving and lasting marriage later? Let’s take a look at these questions.

Sexual Chemistry Versus Sexual Restraint

The current dating culture often emphasizes that two people should test their “sexual chemistry” before committing to each other. This type of compatibility is frequently mentioned as an essential characteristic for people to seek out in romantic relationships, particularly ones that could lead to marriage. Thus, couples who do not test their sexual chemistry prior to the commitments of exclusivity, engagement, and marriage are often seen as being at risk for getting into a relationship that will not satisfy them in the future—thus increasing their risk of later marital dissatisfaction and divorce. However, two recently published studies call into question the validity of testing “sexual chemistry” early in dating.

My colleagues and I published the first study a few years ago in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology (see Busby et al., 2010). This study involved a nationally selected sample of 2,035 married individuals who participated in the popular online couple assessment survey called “RELATE.” The study found that the longer a couple waits in dating to have sex, the better their relationship is after marriage. In fact, couples who wait until marriage to have sex compared to those who started having sex early in their dating report higher relationship satisfaction (20% higher), better communication patterns (12% better), less consideration of divorce (22% lower), and better sexual quality (15% better). These patterns were statistically significant even when controlling for a variety of other variables such as the number of sexual partners, education levels, religiosity and relationship length. For couples in between—those that became sexually involved later in their dating, but prior to marriage—the benefits were about half as strong.

The second study was done by Sharon Sassler and her colleagues at Cornell University. Sassler, et al. found that rapid sexual involvement has adverse long-term implications for relationship quality. Using data from the Marital and Relationship Survey, which provides information on nearly 600 low- to moderate-income couples living with minor children, their study examined the tempo of sexual intimacy and subsequent relationship quality in a sample of married and cohabiting men and women. Their analyses also suggest that delaying sexual involvement is associated with higher relationship quality across several dimensions.

They also found that the negative association between sexual timing and relationship quality is largely driven by cohabitation; meaning that sexual involvement early in a romantic relationship is associated with an increased likelihood of moving quicker into living together. This finding supports Glenn’s (2002) hypothesis that sexual involvement may lead to unhealthy emotional entanglements that make ending a bad relationship difficult.

Sassler and colleagues (2012) concluded, “Adequate time is required for romantic relationships to develop in a healthy way. In contrast, relationships that move too quickly, without adequate discussion of the goals and long-term desires of each partner, may be insufficiently committed and therefore result in relationship distress, especially if one partner is more committed than the other” (p. 710).

So, why does sexual restraint benefit couples during dating and later in marriage? Evidence points to two primary explanations for why couples benefit from waiting to become sexually involved—intentional partner selection and sexual symbolism.

Intentional Partner Selection

A primary reason why sexual restraint benefits couples is that it facilitates intentional partner selection. Simply put, you have a better chance of making good decisions in dating when you have not become sexually involved with your dating partner. Leading marriage expert Dr. Scott Stanley has proposed a concept of dating that he calls “relationship inertia.” The central idea of inertia is that some couples end up married who otherwise would not have married partly because they become “prematurely entangled” in a sexual relationship prior to making the decision to be committed to one another. Inertia suggests that it becomes harder for some couples to veer from the path they are on, even when doing so would be wise. Thus, some couples are “sliders,” while others are “deciders” (Stanley et al, 2006).

For many young adults, single life has become synonymous with hook-ups and sexual experimentation. The problem with these patterns is that proper partner selection is often skewed for sexually involved couples who experience strong physical rewards with each other, thereby causing 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 these intense feelings of pleasure and attachment are 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.

Sexual Symbolism and Lasting Love

Sexual restraint also benefits couples because it requires partners to prioritize communication and commitment as the foundation of their attraction to each other. This gives couples a different type of foundation than couples who build their relationship on physical attraction and sexual gratification. This difference becomes particularly critical as couples naturally move past an initial period of intense attraction and excitement into a relationship more characterized by companionship and partnership. As Dr. Mark Regnerus, author of “Premarital Sex in America,” explains, “couples who hit the honeymoon too early—that is prioritize sex promptly at the outset of the relationship—often find their relationship underdeveloped when it comes to qualities that make relationships stable and spouses reliable and trustworthy.” Couples who do not wait to have sex often develop lopsided commitment levels (i.e., the woman is more committed than the man), less developed communication patterns, more constraint to leaving the relationship, and less ability to manage differences and conflict.

The value of sexual restraint for committed couples moving toward marriage is best understood when couples appreciate that emotional intimacy is the true foundation of sexual intimacy in a healthy marriage. Emotional intimacy exists in a relationship when two people experience a sense of security, support, trust, comfort, and safety with one another. In dating, focusing on emotional intimacy is a process of coming to know each other from the inside out, not just the outside in. Sexual restraint allows couples to focus on and evaluate the emotional aspects of their relationship. By gaining a deeper understanding of emotional intimacy, dating couples can more fully appreciate the principle of sexual symbolism.

Ultimately, loving and lasting marriages are ones where sexual intimacy is a meaningful physical symbol of the emotional intimacy shared between the spouses. Without this, sex is just physical and lacks the meaning needed to be truly satisfying and lasting. In dating, couples should focus on developing a foundation of friendship and communication that will serve as the ongoing foundation for sexual intimacy in their marriage. By practicing sexual restraint, couples allow themselves to focus on a true foundation of intimacy—acceptance, understanding, partnership, and love. So, while true love does indeed wait, it may actually work the other way around—waiting helps create true love.


Busby, D. M., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Compatibility or Restraint?: The Effects of Sexual Timing on Marriage Relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 766-774.

Glenn, N. D. (2002). A plea for greater concern about the quality of marital matching. In A. J. Hawkins, L. D. Wardle, & D. O. Coolidge (Eds.), Revitalizing the institution of marriage for the twenty-first century (pp. 46 – 58). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Peplau, L. A., Rubin, Z., & Hill, C. T. (1977). Sexual Intimacy in Dating Relationships. Journal of Social Issues , 33, 86-109.

Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012). The Tempo of Sexual Activity and Later Relationship Quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74 , 708-725.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.