Does test-driving with sex partners before marriage improve your chances of marital bliss? Not according to recent study that shows a correlation between the number of sex partners one has had and their future marital satisfaction. The National Marriage Project reported the research of University of Denver professors Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley, surveying a thousand unmarried Americans ages 18 to 34, 418 of whom got married over the five-year study. Researchers found that the 23 percent of participants who only had sex with their spouse prior to marriage reported higher quality marriages than those with additional sexual partners in their past.
Apparently, the more partners one has, the less satisfied they are later in marriage. And the dynamic was even more apparent among women. “We further found that the more sexual partners a woman had had before marriage, the less happy she reported her marriage to be.”
What are we to make of all this? There are a predictable number of reactions and contradictory interpretations.Whatever the causal reasoning may be, the numbers are the numbers. Some think the stats are dangerous because they might cause some to “cast judgment on one’s sexual history and incite sentiments of slut-shaming.” But let’s not be so fearful.
Lest we forget, free choice means trusting people with the facts to make their own decisions. And there's a big difference between shaming and simply having regrets.
Shaming, when a person is degraded by others for mistakes they’ve made or appear to have made, comes from the outside. Regret comes from the inside. Confusing the two is problematic because it can stifle personal growth.
Having regrets doesn’t mean we have to feel shamed by them. We can regret something and acknowledge it as a mistake, something we wouldn’t do again because maybe it hurt ourselves or others, but also be at peace with it as a part of what made us who we are. In fact it can help us learn to have better judgment. As my grandfather used to say, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Acknowledging regret is part of being an adult.
Those who hate the R-word feel anything that can cause a person—and women in particular—to have regrets goes too far. But I think we’re stronger than that. “No regrets” might seem like a cool tattoo or bumper sticker, yet it’s missing the point.
Recognizing data in this study, for instance, doesn’t mean we’re going to be instantly transported to a world of The Scarlet Letter. We live in a country and age where Taylor Swift publicly dated pariah and serial-dater John Mayer then wrote the song “Trouble” to recover from it. She’s still America’s sweetheart, now even more so. It’s perfectly logical to look back at a relationship as not quite “Out of the Woods” when you were in it, “Trouble” in retrospect, and then to later “Shake it Off.” Not all regrets have to be met with life-crippling banishment from society.
So what if some people look back with regret on the number of partners they’ve had? Part of living and learning is making mistakes and drawing experience from them. Even Jennifer Lopez—well-known for her multiple romantic pairings, including such public figures as Sean Combs, Ben Affleck, and Marc Anthony—gets this. Lopez put it best in her recent song, “First Love”:
“I wish you were my first love / 'Cause if you were first / Baby, there would have been no second, third, or fourth love.”
Is Lopez worried about having regrets? Nope.
“Mistakes I don’t worry ’bout them no more / It ain’t no thing / 'Cause you got me up on cloud nine / So good, knowing I could just keep it real.”
This is exactly why I think regret is important. Because what matters is not so much whether your prior relationships went nowhere, as much as whether you learned something from them by the time you got married. Could it be that those who had multiple partners followed by marital discontent were ones who didn’t learn from their mistakes?
Because another way to read the data is this: Those who had multiple partners also had multiple breakups—possibly multiple failures in relationships. If they keep repeating past relationship mistakes or dysfunctional habits in their marriages, that could be why the current relationship isn’t thriving.
I suspect someone who has learned from their past experiences and refuses to make the same mistakes over again has much better chances of marital satisfaction. We’re not slaves to our past. What matters most is whether we learn from our mistakes—not repeat them.
And that requires us to first identify them as things we regret. Rather than worrying about whether we’ll be shamed, we should encourage one another in our journeys toward more satisfied lives. No shaming necessary.