Valentine's Day is nearing, signaling a looming romantic milestone for any new couple. It made us want to get to the bottom of a tricky relationship question.
When is the optimal time to start being sexually intimate in a relationship?
The answer, like many relationships, is complicated, spanning anywhere from a few dates to a few months after dating.
One of the reasons it's so hard to determine the best time in a relationship to have sex is because there hasn't been a lot of research tackling that specific question. Plus, studies that have been conducted feature very specific samples, mainly college-age men and women and married heterosexual couples.
Few studies have taken a look at the health of a relationship as it relates to when the couple first had sex. And what's out there is somewhat conflicting.
What we know about commitment and sex
In the early 2000s, Illinois State University communications professor Sandra Metts performed a study to find out whether having an emotional connection — in particular saying "I love you" before having sex — could have a positive impact on the where the relationship went.
Her study of almost 300 college-age men and women found that it indeed did.
In fact, Metts found, couples that had sex first and said "I love you" after had a negative experience: The introduction of that conversation was often awkward and apologetic.
Though not a clear indicator of the exact timing to have sex, Metts' study did provide a list of classic steps partners should take before they get physical, including first getting to know the person, sharing a first kiss, and then building to an expression of commitment. That emotional connection is one of the key elements of any relationship, Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist from the Washington, DC, area, told Business Insider in 2015.
Having a good level of communication and an understanding of where the relationship is headed also helps make sure the experience is positive, she said, referring to her professional experience working with single men and women working toward successful relationships.
Barton Goldsmith, a psychotherapist from California, agreed that being on the same page emotionally is helpful for finding the best time to start having sex.
"The most important thing is you both agree not to push," he told Business Insider in 2015. "Be clear that the person is comfortable."
In other words, it's best to wait at least a little bit, at least until you're comfortable with each other and have a better picture of what each person wants in the relationship. But when it comes to how long you wait, that depends.