Couples who live together before tying the knot tend to engaged in less frequent sex and have lower levels of sexual satisfaction during the first few years of their marriage, according to a new study that appears in the Journal of Sex Research.

“Relationship science often shows that frequency and quality of sex decline across the early years of marriage. Drawing from a variety of perspectives, it is likely that the factors couples experience prior to marriage have implications for their later marital sexual relationship,” explained study author Emma Altgelt, a graduate student at Florida State University.

“My co-author, Dr. Andrea Meltzer, and I thus examined the implications of three such factors: length of courtship, whether couples lived together before marriage, and whether couples had children before marriage.”

In a 4-year longitudinal study, the researchers repeatedly surveyed 113 newly-wed heterosexual couples regarding their frequency of sex and sexual satisfaction every six months.

An initial survey also assessed how long the couple dated before getting married, if and how long the couple lived together prior to getting married, and whether either spouse had children before getting married.

The study found that “life choices that predate couples’ wedding day (e.g., courtship duration, cohabiting, having children) seem to matter for their sexual relationship during the early years of marriage,” Altgelt told PsyPost.

“Indeed, our research shows that couples with relatively longer (versus shorter) courtships or who did (versus did not) cohabit before marriage engaged in less frequent sex at the start of marriage,” she said.

Despite being behind the ball initially, couples who dated for a longer period of time before getting married had a similar frequency of sex to those with shorter courtships by the end of the study.

“Additionally, couples who did (versus did not) cohabit were less sexually satisfied,” Altgelt noted. But there was not a similar trend — couples who did cohabitate before marriage continued to engage in less frequent sex and have lower satisfaction over time compared to those who didn’t cohabitate.

“It is worth noting, however, that some of these premarital factors seemed to positively impact couples’ sexual relationship during the early years of marriage. For example, couples with relatively longer courtships or with premarital children experienced less steep declines in frequency of sex over time,” Altgelt said.

“Taken together, these findings suggest that experiencing certain factors before marriage can have negative implications for some couples’ sexual relationships, but the same factors can also buffer couples against declines over time.”

All research includes some caveats, and the current study is no exception. The research looks at overall trends — so just because a couple lives together before marriage doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doomed to have less sex in their marriage.

“Like most sex research, our data are not experimental (that is, we are ethically unable to manipulate couples’ premarital factors). For this reason, we cannot claim that these premarital factors cause changes in couples’ sexual relationships during marriage. Nevertheless, our research offers valuable insight into newlywed relationships — particularly their sexual functioning,” Altgelt explained.

The researchers also controlled for a number of factors, such as age, education, parental divorce, employment status, neuroticism, depression, chronic stress, marital satisfaction, marital conflict, and perceived marital problems.

“Although we cannot draw definitive causal conclusions, it is important to note that we were able to rule out many possible explanations as to why these premarital factors are related to couples’ sexual relationships. For example, although couples who do (versus do not) cohabit or who have relatively longer (versus shorter) courtships may experience more conflict during marriage, this marital conflict does not seem to account for our demonstrated associations,” Altgelt said.

“Likewise, although couples who do cohabit or who have relatively longer courtships may be older when they marry, this age difference does not seem to account for our demonstrated associations. Given that these variables did not appear to explain our associations, future research would benefit from identifying why these premarital factors are associated with couples’ sexual relationships.”

The study, “Associations Between Premarital Factors and First-Married, Heterosexual Newlywed Couples’ Frequency of Sex and Sexual Satisfaction Trajectories“, Emma E. Altgelt and Andrea L. Meltzer.