Sex plays an important role in overall relationship happiness.1 But, is simply having sex enough to maintain a happy relationship? In a recent set of studies, my colleagues and I looked at the reasons people say they have sex with their partners and how these reasons affect their feelings of desire and happiness with their sex lives and overall relationships.2
Why do people have sex in their romantic relationships?
In our research, we considered two broad categories of reasons why people have sex with their romantic partners:
How do people perceive the impact of having sex for different reasons?
In our first study, we tested how approach and avoidance goals for sex are associated with sexual desire and satisfaction by having people in relationships read different scenarios and rate the sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction of the couple members in the scenario. For example, a participant would read the following scenario and then rate Kate’s level of desire and satisfaction:
John and Katie have been dating for several months. One night, John and Katie go out for dinner and see a late movie. After the date, they have sex. Katie’s reason for having sex that night is to feel closer to John.
We varied the scenarios in three ways. In some scenarios couples were married for several years (vs. dating for several months), John’s reason for sex was indicated instead of Katie’s, and sex was pursued for an avoidance goal (to avoid disappointing the partner) as opposed to an approach goal (to feel closer). When the person in the scenario was having sex to feel closer to their partner (approach) vs. to avoid disappointing their partner (avoidance), he or she was rated as having higher desire for sex and, in turn, was rated as feeling more satisfied with his or her sex life and relationship. The results were consistent for both men and women (John and Katie) and for both dating and married couples. In other words, people perceive having sex for approach goals (vs. avoidance goals) as being associated with higher desire and satisfaction regardless of the person’s gender or relationship length.2
These initial findings suggest that reasons for having sex are differentially linked to relationship and sexual outcomes – specifically, people who have sex for approach goals are perceived to have higher desire and satisfaction, whereas people who have sex for avoidance goals are perceived to have lower desire and satisfaction.
How do people’s reasons for having sex impact their desire and satisfaction?
Although our first study provides important information about how individuals perceive the sex lives and relationships of other people who engage in sex for different reasons, this method does not provide information about people’s actual goals for sex and how pursuing sex for different reasons is association with a person’s sexual and relationship quality. So, in our next two study we wanted to know how this would play out in the daily lives of real couples – that is, how are a person’s reasons for having sex on a particular day associated with their feelings of desire and satisfaction on that same day?
We conducted two daily experience studies involving dating, cohabitating, and married couples to answer this question. Daily experience—or daily diary—studies allow us to look at how day-to-day changes that occur in a couples’ relationship influence how they feel about their relationship. Specifically, we asked couple members to fill out a brief survey every night for several weeks about their relationship. Each day they reported how satisfied they felt in their relationship, how much desire they felt for their partner and on days the reported having sex with their partner they answered questions about their reasons for having sex and their sexual satisfaction.
Across both studies, on days when a person had sex more for approach goals, such as to feel closer to their partner or to enhance intimacy in their relationship, they reported higher sexual desire and, in turn, felt happier with their sex life and relationship. In contrast, on days when a person had sex more for avoidance goals, such as to avoid conflict or their partner’s disappointment, they reported lower sexual desire and, in turn, lower satisfaction. In other words, a person’s reasons for having sex with their partner on a particular day are associated with how they feel about their sex life and their relationship.2
How do people’s reasons for having sex impact their partner’s desire and satisfaction?
The next question we had was how a person’s reasons for having sex were linked to their partner’s feelings of desire and satisfaction. It makes sense that when a person has sex to avoid disappointing their partner, they may feel less satisfied, but the person likely expects that by having sex they are making their partner happy (after all, you are doing it to avoid disappointing him or her). However, we found that having sex to avoid disappointing your partner (i.e., for avoidance goals) is actually associated with partners reporting less desire and satisfaction.2 In other words, when people “give it up” to avoid negative outcomes their partners have less positive sexual experiences and feel worse about the relationship.
Given that having sex for avoidance goals is associated with more negative outcomes for both partners, is it better to not have sex at all than to have sex for avoidance goals? Not necessarily. Couples reported higher relationship satisfaction on days when they had sex, regardless of their reasons for doing so, compared to days without sex. So having sex for avoidance goals may provide a daily boost in relationship satisfaction compared to not having sex at all (although not nearly as much of a boost as having sex for approach goals!).
What are the long-term relationship implications?
So far we have reported the daily effects of sexual goals on relationship and sexual quality, but how does having sex for avoidance goals impact a relationship over time? In one of our studies we followed up with couples four months after they completed the diary study to see how their reasons for having sex over the course of the diary impacted their desire and satisfaction over time. Not surprisingly, people who had sex more for avoidance goals over the course of the diary reported lower desire and felt less sexually satisfied four months later. More interestingly, their partners also felt less sexually satisfied and less committed to the relationship four months later!2 In short, it seems that having sex to avoid negative outcomes may provide daily benefits compared to not having sex, but if sex is commonly pursued for avoidance goals, it negatively impacts the well-being of the relationship over time.
So, in short, “giving it up” to avoid negative outcomes may not actually benefit the relationship.
1 Impett, E. A., Muise, A., & Breines, J. (2013). Because it feels good: Toward a positive psychology of sexuality. In M. Hojjat & D. Cramer (Eds.), Positive psychology of love (pp. 57-75). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
2 Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Getting it on vs. getting it over with: Approach-avoidance sexual motivation, desire and satisfaction in intimate bonds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Advanced online publication.