Contemporary sitcom and women's magazine wisdom holds that sowing your wild oats on the mating market now will give you important "life experience" and prepare you to be a better partner later. Seemed plausible, until science came along: a new study shows that, ultimately, a long relationship history makes your future marriage worse , not better. Dating might be kind of fun some of the time, but at the end of the day it's more baggage-inducing than educational, unfortunately.
Researchers from the University of Denver in Colorado conducted a study about relationship experience as part of the University of Virginia's "National Marriage Project." Using data from the ongoing national Relationship Data Study, the researchers were able to analyze over 400 participants who were unmarried during initial data collection a few years ago but who had since gotten married. After controlling for "race and ethnicity, personal income, years of education, religion and their attendance at religious services," researchers discovered that a higher number of past partners (prior to marriage) was correlated with a lower quality of marriage.
Why does past relationship experience correlate with lower marriage quality? One hypothesis is that marriage partners are tempted to compare their spouse to past partners — in attractiveness, sexual skills, income, and other important dimensions. This may make them wonder whether they could have done better, or whether they could do better again in the future were they to leave their current spouse. More past breakups means that a person is both more jaded about love and more able to imagine saying goodbye to a current partner, too. Not exactly what you want in your alleged partner for life!
It could also be that the some people are more likely to bounce around relationships due to their personality traits, and that those same personality traits are bad for marriage, too. Someone who's unstable or malcontented may eventually marry, but there's no reason to think that the marriage will magically make him or her stable and happy. A strong marriage can make you somewhat happier, but also happy people get married more in the first place. And your happiness "set point" might be set in genetic stone, too.
Don't stay in an on-again, off-again relationship just to avoid the dating carousel: "cyclical relationships" don't tend to work out either, but they involve tons of stress, negative interactions, and decreased satisfaction while they tank. At the same time, you might want to cool it on the "casual relationships" — sexually transmitted diseases run rampant, and you'll probably become a victim to the "orgasm gap" anyways. A breakup doesn't mean your love life is doomed forever, but it's also not something you should assume will happen to you repeatedly. Enough relationships fail despite our best efforts that there's no need to chase further "experience" for its own sake.