Nadya Lukic / Shutterstock
Source: Nadya Lukic / Shutterstock

Sex is an important part of any romantic relationship. In many ways, sex is what makes our romantic relationships what they are—as opposed to just really good friendships. What ends up being ironic is that the powerful sexual attraction that often leads us to begin a relationship with a partner often declines as a relationship progresses over time.

What’s unfortunate is that the feelings of sexual desire that were so prevalent in the early phases of our relationships often don’t decline uniformly, or in lock-step, for both partners. When one partner desires sex more often than the other, this can lead to feelings of hurt and rejection on the part of the partner desiring more sexual intimacy, and feelings of obligation and guilt on the part of the partner desiring less.

In preparation for writing this blog entry, I Googled the phrases “sexless marriage,” “I want more sex than my partner does,” and “My partner wants more sex than I do,” and received 534,000, 135,000,000, and 27,600,000 hits, respectively (although it’s worth noting that many were repeats).

Obviously, this is an issue that many people are facing in their relationships.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that social psychologists have started investigating how individuals handle declining sexual attraction in their ongoing relationships, or mismatches in sexual drive and interest. In particular, I wanted to focus on a new paper in the June 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Day, Muise, Joel, & Impett, 2015). The researchers investigated how individuals managed what they called "sexual interdependence dilemmas" within their relationships, with the dilemmas being situations in which one partner’s sexual needs were not well aligned with the other’s. They focused on comparing the experiences and behaviors of individuals who were relatively high on a construct called sexual communal orientation in these sexual interdependence dilemmas. Essentially, individuals who report high levels of this type of communal orientation are highly motivated to satisfy their partner’s sexual needs and desires.

They predicted that individuals that were high, compared to low, in this communal orientation would be more likely to be willing to engage in sexual acts with their partner even when their own desire was low; and, further, that this willingness would actually predict beneficial outcomes for a relationship. Essentially, they argued that individuals who were highly motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs would be more willing to have sex, even if they weren’t particularly in the mood, and that this would predict increases in their relationship satisfaction, whereas individuals who were less motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs would not be as willing to have sex when not in the mood, and would not relationally benefit as a result.

They found support for their predictions across three studies:

  • In an experimental study, they found that individuals who were induced to be more motivated, compared to less, to meet their partner’s sexual needs reported being more willing to engage in sex with their partner even when they were not in the mood, and reported that they would be more satisfied with their relationship after doing so.
  • A retrospective study that asked participants to recall a time in their own relationship in which their partner’s desire was high, but their own was low (which 80% of participants were able to do) replicated this effect: Individuals who were higher in sexual communal orientation were more interested in their partner’s versus their own needs in the dilemma they recalled; were more likely to have engaged in sex even though their desire was low; and rated their relationships in general, as well as the sexual experience, as more satisfying as a result.
  • Finally, a diary study that asked individuals to report on these dilemmas in their relationships over a 21-day period also found similar results such that individuals who were higher in sexual communal orientation focused more on their partner's needs on days when their partner desired sex but they did not; were more likely to engage in sex on those days; and were reported higher relationship and sexual satisfaction than their counterparts who were lower in sexual communal orientation.

So what does this all mean?

The results from these studies suggest that sometimes it’s OK, and maybe even a good idea, to have sex with your partner even if you’re not feeling especially in the mood. If you do it because you are interested in meeting your partner’s needs, you are likely to feel good about the experience afterwards, and your relationship in general if you do.

Of course, the research I reviewed here, while interesting, only represents one set of studies from one lab, and focuses on when individuals have sex, even if they don’t really feel like it, for pro-relationship motivations. There may be many situations when your partner is in the mood and you’re not when you shouldn’t engage in sex. Only you know yourself and the dynamics of your relationship in order to make that call. And, I hope it goes without saying, all sex in any relationship should always be consensual and free of coercion.

Day, L.C., Muise, A., Joel, S., & Impett, E.A. (2015). To do it or not to do it? How communally oriented people navigate sexual interdependence dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 6, 791-804.

About the Author

Erica Slotter

Erica B. Slotter, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and an assistant professor at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. 

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