The Problems with Sex Surveys: Does Delaying Sex Make For Better Marriages?

A whole lot of news sites are trumpeting the announcement that delaying sex makes for better relationships. The source is a press release from Brigham Young University touting a study that claims that if couples who wait to have sex until they get married are better off:

  • Relationship stability was rated 22 percent higher
  • Relationship satisfaction was rated 20 percent higher
  • Sexual quality of the relationship was rated 15 percent better
  • Communication was rated 12 percent better

Of course, the internet being what it is, these reports have been reposted with the same quotes over and over. That’s probably because the study isn’t being made available by the Journal of Family Psychology until Tuesday.

According to the researcher,

“There’s more to a relationship than sex, but we did find that those who waited longer were happier with the sexual aspect of their relationship,” Busby added. “I think it’s because they’ve learned to talk and have the skills to work with issues that come up.”

Now, I’ll agree with that- if you develop the ability to talk with your partner about what comes up for you, odds are that you’ll have a happier relationship. And if it’s true that jumping into bed gets in the way of building that foundation, then sure, I can see how sex could hinder the success of a relationship. But then, I also don’t see any reason why you can’t do both. Couldn’t you, say, explore your sexual connection AND find ways to foster healthy communication?

It’s also worth noting that these numbers come from Busby’s RELATE survey, which I signed up for so I could see what sorts of questions they ask. And I have to say that while some of the questions are easy to answer, quite a few are a bit more difficult. For example, given a choice of “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, Very Often”, how would you answer the question “I don’t feel like I have the energy to keep fighting for this relationship”?

When a survey question is phrased as a negative, it’s hard to figure out what the best answer is. After all, do I never not feel like I have the energy? And does that mean that I usually do have the energy? Is this a case where a double negative cancels out?

What about the question “My partner has been withdrawing more and more from the relationship”? Can my partner never have been withdrawing more and more? Can they sometimes have been withdrawing more and more? Or the question “My partner is rarely available to me.” Can my partner sometimes be rarely available to me?

Maybe it’s just that I get picky about these sorts of things, but if a survey question and the possible responses don’t make grammatical sense, I have serious doubts about the test. If the people filling out the survey can get confused about how to answer, that is a serious limit (to say the very least). Granted, most of the questions are easy to understand, but that doesn’t change the fact that not all of them are. To me, that’s a sign that there are significant flaws in the design.

There’s also nothing that I can find confirming the validity or reliability of this survey. Validity is the measure of how well a test measures what it’s supposed to, while reliability is the measure of how well it would give you the same results under the same conditions rather than being the result of random error. It’s pretty common for people to make up tests, assign arbitrary values to the possible answers, crunch some numbers, and make all kinds of claims. But unless the test has been shown to be both reliable and valid, you can’t really trust them. Now, maybe this test has been confirmed, but if so, I can’t find where. And if you look at their “endorsements” page, all you’ll find is this:

What Professionals Are Saying About RELATE:

* I like RELATE because it’s not so secretive. They can interpret it themselves or with the person who is working with them as a counselor, a marital educator, or a clergy.

* RELATE seems to hit all the areas that have been drawn out by research that are predictive of relationship satisfaction.

* The best thing about RELATE is the simplicity and the completeness of it.

* It provides opportunities for couples to really think about and assess themselves in the areas that affect relationships.

Not a single name is mentioned, which always makes me wonder if anyone actually said these things. And there’s nothing there about this actually being a useful scientific survey. Seems fishy to me.

It’s also worth noting that after you fill out the test, you’re given the “opportunity” to pay $20 to get your final report. So there’s going to be a selection bias in the process, since only people who are willing to pay for their results will fill it out. And that’s not mentioned anywhere in the press release or the websites announcing it. Perhaps the people who filled out the survey for this journal article were given it for free- it’s not clear. But it casts serious doubts on the quality of the research.

And their resource page offers the names and emails of 6 people with this endorsement:

The following professionals have been trained to help couples interpret their RELATE reports over email or by phone.

These professionals have also been extensively trained in a six session relationship education program called Couple CARE, that has been effectively used with the RELATE results to help hundreds of couples. Feel free to send them an email if you would like to ask them more questions about their services and contract with them to work with you to improve your relationship.

So these people, who don’t even have any credentials listed, have had an “extensive” 6-session training to help you figure out how to interpret the results that you paid $20 for? While we’re at it, how about asking for some money so that they can transfer money from a Nigerian bank, after which, they’ll repay you?

Let’s not forget the Relate Institute is part of the Marriage Study Consortium at Brigham Young University, so I have to wonder about the bias that crept into the questionnaire and the participant selection process, too.

Unfortunately, the “news” that sex before marriage makes your relationship worse is overshadowing all of these concerns. As is often the case, websites simply pick up on press releases and repackage the content without doing any research or analysis themselves. I’ll try to keep an open mind when I read the study next week. But there’s a lot here to make me feel doubtful. It’s too bad I seem to be in the minority, at least so far.

I also can’t help but wonder about the timing of this. This weekend, millions of people will be spending time with their families, which sometimes means spending time with people who want to share their judgments about relationships. I can just imagine someone’s parents reading an announcement about this and telling them how they’ll never be happy because they’re “living in sin.” I can easily see how this could be used to slut shame somebody over the dinner table. And since the actual study won’t be available until next week, there won’t be much anyone can do to refute this. What a lovely Christmas present that’ll be.

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One Response so far.

  1. Carson says:

    When I read this, I thought immediately of some points that you’ve made in other posts about correlation and causation.

    The cited press release makes it sound as though waiting longer before having sex “can lead to better marriages” (causation). But it seems more likely that, in some marriages, good communication skills and good self-awareness can lead to both waiting for sex and having a strong relationship in the long term (correlation). It’s easy to imagine that partners who have good emotional self-awareness and communication skills would be more likely to discuss concerns, and this might lead to a decision to wait. But that doesn’t meant that not having sex caused the relationship benefits – it might be that good communication skills and self-awareness are the real causes.

    It’s also easy to imagine that in some cases a couple that doesn’t have a strong relationship might coast on sex in the short term and fall flat in the long term. But yet again – it’s not necessarily that having sex is the problem – the problem is the lack of a strong relationship.

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