One of the concerns that often comes up in premarital counselling is from a couple where there are different amounts of sexual experience. Even apart from the moral concerns this may prompt are the fears, uncertainties, and doubts of what sexual intimacy may look like when you get married.
For those of you that are new to this podcast, Verlynda and I are born-again believers but I’d say we are the non-judging variety, and we come to marriage with the belief that it comes as a gift from God, but we also believe that marriage is for all people, not just for Christians. As such, our podcasts are not preachy and they are usually not even very pastoral. We take an integrated approach between our Christian worldview and current research to bring you the best truth and wisdom for your marriage.
But most of our readers are followers of Jesus Christ, and one of the Biblical values that we adhere to is that sex is reserved for marriage. The reason for that is not because God is prudish and likes to take pleasure away from people, but for a few reasons.
- First, we believe that God gets to set the rules.
- Second, we believe that the best sex happens in the marriage bed. Or should…that may not be your experience, but the research has shown that happily married couples are indeed having the best sex: moreso than singles or cohabiting couples.
- Finally, while sex in any context may bring pleasure, we are going to see again today that the only place where loving, consensual sex is most likely to be free of complications is inside marriage.
So that’s just a little primer on where we are coming from on this episode. Let’s point out that if you’re virgins and not married, this is another reason why we recommend waiting for marriage. But if you’re coming to marriage and you’re not a virgin, we’re not here to shame you. There are likely to be some consequences but God is a God of redemption and grace. So we’re not here to shame or judge you, just to help you create a thriving passionate marriage. After all, none of us comes to marriage perfect. We all have brokenness.
Let’s begin by acknowledging some of the struggles that may come in a situation like this.
How Premarital Sex Can Impact Marriage
A quick touch of background theory: in social psychology exchange theory is a commonly used way of understanding how people act. And exchange theory views relationships in terms of give and take. The basic premise is that people are happiest when the reward they get from a relationship is higher than what they have to put into it (the cost).
When it comes to marriages, sexual satisfaction is determined by four factors:
- Reward (pleasure, intimacy)
- Cost (having to do things you don’t want, differences in sexual desire or preference)
- Comparison of rewards (how the rewards of the current relationship compare to past relationships- is sex with your spouse more or less satisfying?)
- Comparison of costs (how the costs of the marriage compare to past relationships)
Now, this is going to look a bit different depending on your past sexual experience, if any. For the virgin spouse there is no comparison to previous partners, so 3 and 4 don’t apply: sexual satisfaction is totally determined by the current relationship. Anxiety about lack of sexual experience or about being compared to previous partners may contribute to the “costs” of the relationship for the virgin spouse and make sex less enjoyable initially.
For a non-virgin spouse, satisfaction will be partly determined by how the current sex compares to previous partners. This can go either way: if sex was high in reward with previous partners then current sexual satisfaction may suffer, but if prior sex was higher in cost than the current sex (e.g., past partners wanted to have sex in ways you didn’t enjoy, or weren’t good at responding to your needs) then sexual satisfaction in the marriage may be higher.
What we’re acknowledging here is that it is hard to get away from the comparison thing. But hold that thought…we’ll have some better news for you on that later.
Premarital Sex Can Impact Current Sexual Functioning
This is not the case for all, but for some it may be. Depending on the timing of when you get married, and when the non-virgin spouse first had sex, some kinds of sexual performance issues may be present.
Both having sex at an early age (mid-teens) and not having sex until later (mid-twenties onwards) can lead to issues in men such as difficulty getting aroused, premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction[i].
And you can imagine that for a virgin spouse, if his or her experienced spouse has difficulty getting aroused this is likely to increase their anxiety and fear of being compared to previous partners.
It Takes Time to Align Experience and Understand Needs
In this situation potential problems can occur due to a mismatch in your differing levels of experience. Your experienced fiancée may bring to the marriage bed an understanding of how to meet your needs. As the virgin, it’s normal for you to have little idea of how to meet your spouse’s sexual needs. In fact, you may not even have much idea of what your own needs are either. This could make sex less enjoyable for both spouses, at least initially. But this is a difference that can pass.
The non-virgin likely has a better idea of their own needs and preferences. This could make sex more enjoyable for them if they are able/willing to communicate their needs to their spouse. However, since the non-virgin already knows what they like, they may be less interested in finding out what their spouse’s needs and desires are, and have sex-focused entirely on how they want it to be. So that’s something to be aware of if you’re on the non-virgin side of this.
My Fiance is a Virgin and I am Not
Speaking of which: today’s post is primarily geared towards prepping the virgin fiancée. However, we created a PDF guide for the experienced fiancée to help you understand how to better be prepared for marriage and for sex with your virgin spouse. Issues like managing your expectations and dealing with the possibility of guilt are all worth taking the time to process. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
While we have mentioned some very real challenges I want to encourage you to look at the long view on this. Yes, it can certainly create some additional complexities and even fairly serious challenges at the start of marriage, but overall, one spouse not being a virgin has a small negative effect on the likelihood of having a sexually satisfying marriage. In one study, the researcher found that for every additional partner a person has before marriage, the odds of them being sexually satisfied during marriage decrease by 3.9%. So unless one spouse had a LOT of sexual partners before marriage it’s unlikely to have much of an impact.
Play the Long Game
Research consistently shows that sexual satisfaction is highest among married couples. This is due to couples increasing in intimacy over time, and also getting better at understanding and responding to each other’s needs and preferences over time. Commitment, trust and intimacy are typically higher in married couples than other relationships. All of those factors (commitment, trust and intimacy) positively affect sexual satisfaction.
According to exchange theory, the tendency to compare your partner to others is negatively correlated with commitment levels. Once you are fully committed to a relationship (which would hopefully be the case by the time you get married), there is no longer any reason to compare your current partner to potential alternatives. So levels of comparing your spouse to previous sexual partners will normally be minimal, and will only get less and less over time.
So overall, the potential problems caused by one spouse not being a virgin are likely only going to affect the start of the marriage.
Strategies For Handling Different Levels of Sexual Experience
Learn About Sex
If you, as the virgin spouse, are concerned about your lack of knowledge and understanding of sex, learn about it! Premarital counseling that gives practical advice on sex has a positive impact on improving sexual satisfaction and reducing performance issues[ii].
As well, read some books on sex to educate yourself beyond the basics that you learned during health education in school. And, as always, learn to communicate with your spouse about sex as well.
If you are both Christians, it’s pretty likely that your non-virgin spouse feels some level of guilt and shame about their past sexual experiences[iii]. So be sensitive when talking about it. That can be difficult to do if you see their experience as depriving you of something.
But: are there ways you can view their experience redemptively? God has forgiven; can you get on board with that too?
Emotional intimacy is one of the reasons marital sex is better than non marital sex[iv]. So don’t worry too much about your own lack of practical experience. Instead, focus on creating a healthy and intimate marriage. Good sex naturally follows from this!
[i] Theo G.M. Sandfort et al., “Long-Term Health Correlates of Timing of Sexual Debut: Results From a National US Study,” American Journal of Public Health 98, no. 1 (January 2008): 155–61, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2006.097444.
[ii] Bilgin Kıray Vural and Ayla Bayık Temel, “Effectiveness of Premarital Sexual Counselling Program on Sexual Satisfaction of Recently Married Couples,” Sexual Health 6, no. 3 (2009): 222–32.
[iii] Sandra L. Murray et al., “For Better or Worse? Self-Esteem and the Contingencies of Acceptance in Marriage,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 32, no. 7 (July 2006): 866–80.
[iv] Sherie Christensen, “The Effects of Premarital Sexual Promiscuity on Subsequent Marital Sexual Satisfaction,” All Theses and Dissertations, June 25, 2004, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/138.