According to a recent study done at the Brigham Young University in Utah, US, married couples that delayed sex while dating, were more likely to have longer-lasting marriages, while couples who had sex the earliest -- on the first date or within the first month of dating -- had the worst relationship outcomes.
To quote study co-author Dean Busby, "What seems to happen is that if couples become sexual too early, this very rewarding area of the relationship overwhelms good decision-making and keeps couples in a relationship that might not be the best for them in the long-run."
Dr Prakash Kothari, founder, advisor, World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) says that one's approach to sex is likely to make the difference. "Sex denotes different things for different people. For some it is a way to marriage and for such people, it would be better to understand their partner well, find out whether the partner is trustworthy, and then go forward. But for those who consider sex as just fun, it will not make a difference," he says.
According to Dr Parul Tank, consultant psychiatrist, Fortis Hospital, Mulund, there are two ways to approaching the findings of the study. And in the Indian context, the great urban-rural divide comes into the picture. "In big cities, people prefer getting to know each other intimately before getting married and later finding out there is a problem. Whereas with people from small towns, the mindset is that sex should lead to marriage and when that does not happen they tend to get devastated," she says.
As old as the vedas
Contrary to popular belief, the concept of pre-marital sex is not new to Indians. Kunti Devi, the mother of the eldest three Pandava brothers in the Indian epic Mahabharata had a child out of wedlock.
But aside from the 'morality' debate, sex is important in the big picture. For one, it strengthens bonds. "Sex reduces stress," says psychiatrist Bhupesh Velaskar.
Dr Kothari adds that on reaching orgasm, the body releases hormones, which create a sense of wellbeing. "Sometimes, these hormones (endorphins) can also act as pain-killers," he says.
However, those seeking to be in a long-term relationship might need to go beyond chemistry. "Physical attraction isn't what keeps people together for long. It is okay for emotional bonds to have an element of erotica, but that should not take over. It is important to build on the emotional quotient," says psychiatrist Dr Shefali Batra.
2,035 heterosexual individuals, averaging around 36 years of age, and who were in their first marriage were recruited for the study. Participants were asked when they first had sexual relations with their current spouse. They also had to answer questions that would evaluate how well they could express empathy towards partners and how well they were able to communicate within the relationship.
Other questions focused on relationship satisfaction and stability. Questions included how often they thought their relationship was in trouble; how often they thought of ending the relationship; and how often they had broken up and got back together.
Individuals were categorised as having: Early sex (before dating or less than one month after they started dating), Late sex (between one month and two years of dating) and those who waited until after they were married.
Dr Velaskar feels that the dating habits of youngsters depend on levels of affluence, especially in metros, as the opportunities to meet the opposite sex are considered far greater. Online dating sites and dating reality shows have also redefined the prevalent dating culture and societal norms.
"They instigate a lifestyle that is not very natural. The shows make a public mockery of dating and show nothing positive," says Dr Tank.
Dr Kothari agrees, saying that, "TV shows promote titillation, not knowledge."Dr Velaskar however disagrees and says, "Not too many youngsters take these shows seriously."
Ultimately however, the strength of a marriage can not hinge solely on sex, according to Dr Velaskar.
He says, "Relationships can't only be sustained by sexual intimacy. Sharing, caring, commitment and responsibility are also important."
How long should you wait to have sex?
Experts believe that one should ideally wait a few months to get to know each other before getting intimate. "Sex increases intimacy in a relationship. Either the relationship becomes stronger or it disintegrates," says psychiatrist Parul Tank.
She advises caution as girls especially feel the pressure of staying on in a relationship, once they have had sex with their partners, regardless of compatibility. "You should give it a little time and mull over whether you wish to take the relationship forward. There is no harm in waiting for some time," adds Dr Tank.