Forget true love, romance and friendship — the key to a happy marriage is kicking it all off with an extravagant wedding. A study by the University of Virginia in the US found that couples who had larger ceremonies tended to have more successful marriages.

Researchers believe that marrying in front of a large number of people demonstrates a greater commitment to the marriage and discourages divorce.

Dr Galena Rhoades, the lead author of the study, said that there was reason to believe that having more witnesses at a wedding “may actually strengthen marital quality”.

“We try to keep our present attitudes and behaviours in line with our past conduct,” she said. “The desire for consistency is likely enhanced by public expressions of intention. Weddings may foster support for the new marriage from within a couple’s network of friends and family.”

The report is part of the National Marriage Project, which has been studying what makes marriages work for more than 15 years. A survey of 418 people found that 30 per cent of couples who had 50 guests or fewer at their weddings had highly successful marriages, compared with nearly half of couples who had 150 guests.

Brad Wilcox, the director for the National Marriage Project, said: “Couples with larger networks of friends and family may have more help and encouragement in navigating the challenges of married life.”

The research also found that couples who had fewer partners before marriage were happier and more content. The authors warned that having several relationships before getting married could lead couples to compare their partners with former lovers.

“We generally think that having more experience is better,” Dr Rhoades said. “But what we find for relationships is the opposite. Having more experience was related to having a less happy marriage. People who had been married before, people who had lived with a boyfriend or girlfriend before and those who had more sexual partners before marriage were each associated with having lower marital quality.”

She said that having more relationship experience might lead to a “greater sense of what the alternatives are”, which could make it harder to commit to a marriage.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that marriage in Britain is stronger than it has been for a generation, with the divorce rate in England and Wales almost 20 per cent lower than it was a decade ago.

The trend towards more stable marriages is being driven by younger people, with the divorce rates falling among men under 50 and women under 45. However, separations in people over 60 continue to rise.