You meet your partner, you enjoy getting to know one another, and you fall in love. Now for the tricky part: How do you make your intimate relationship last and even flourish?
It's a question that many of us therapists help our clients navigate, and one that researchers have been studying for quite some time. And what therapists and researchers would tend to agree on is that individuals and couples who report engaging in more relationship maintenance behaviors tend to be more relationally satisfied. Which makes intuitive sense. When we put effort into our relationship it's likely that we would reap the rewards, whereas if don't put much effort into our relationship it may suffer and, consequently, be less satisfying.
The question is: What factors are considered maintenance behaviors that actually help our relationships thrive? And are there similar, or perhaps uniquely different, factors which help maintain our sexual satisfaction?
In a new study just published in Sex and Relationship Therapy, researchers Goldsmith and Byers were interested in understanding what factors might be associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction in mixed-sex relationships.
For their study, the authors recruited 206 men and 289 women between the ages of 18 and 30 (average age 26.22 years old) in romantic relationships ranging from 6 months to 10 years (2.08 years on average) living in Canada and the United States.
The majority of participants identified as White (71%), 23% percent were married or living together, and 77% were dating exclusively. Just under half of the participants (92 men and 132 women) were in a long-distance relationship and just over half (114 men, 157 women) were in a geographically close relationship.
Potential Maintenance Behaviors
The authors asked participants to complete several questionnaires which tapped into various relational and sexual maintenance behaviors that were theorized to impact relationship and sexual satisfaction.
Relationship maintenance behaviors included: 1) romantic idealization (i.e., "my partner has all the qualities I've always wanted in a mate"); 2) dyadic interaction (i.e., "I tell my partner how much they mean to me"); 3) third-party interaction (i.e., "I maintain common social networks with my partner"); 4) prospective behaviors (i.e., spending time together before being apart); 5) introspective behaviors (e.g., displaying pictures of your partner when you're apart); and 6) retrospective behaviors (e.g., giving a kiss or hug hello after being away from one another).
They also explored the potential role of sexual maintenance behaviors—something that's been missing from previous studies on relationship maintenance. These behaviors included: 1) sexual idealization (i.e., how much does my partner meet my idea of what my ideal sexual partner would be); 2) frequency of sexual fantasies about one's partner; 3) frequency of sexual fantasies about other partners; 4) sexual frequency; 5) frequency of online sexual activity with one's partner; 6) frequency of online sexual activity without one's partner; 7) sexual compliance (i.e., consenting to sex but not really wanting to have it); 8) frequency of solitary online sexual activity; and 9) frequency of masturbation.
The researchers then asked to what degree the above-mentioned factors were associated with sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction.
Factors That Maintain Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction
There were no gender or relationship structure differences that emerged from the analysis. As such, the findings below include men and women, in both long-distance and geographically close relationships.
Based on the findings, the authors determined that all the above-mentioned relationship maintenance behaviors were significantly, and positively, associated with both relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction.
With regard to sexual maintenance behaviors, sexual idealization and frequency of partner-related fantasies were significantly and positively associated with relationship and sexual satisfaction (while frequency of non-partner fantasies was negatively associated with these measures).
Sexual frequency was also positively associated with sexual satisfaction but not relationship satisfaction.
Counter to the authors' hypotheses, all other sexual maintenance behaviors (including frequency of in-person and online sexual compliance, solitary online sexual activity, and masturbation) were negatively correlated with relationship and sexual satisfaction.
Only sexual idealization and frequency of partner fantasies were uniquely, and positively, associated with sexual satisfaction. While only romantic idealization, dyadic interactions, and prospective behaviors were significant uniquely and positively predictive of relationship satisfaction.
Relationship satisfaction was also a significant predictor of sexual satisfaction.
What Does This Mean?
Relationship maintenance behaviors have long been found to positively impact relationship satisfaction, but the findings from this study suggest that focusing on our relationships can also have a positive impact on our sexual satisfaction.
The findings also suggest that there are a number of sexual behaviors that may serve as relationship maintenance behaviors. Specifically, higher sexual idealization, more frequent fantasizes about our partner (and fewer fantasies about non-partners), in addition to higher sexual frequency, were associated with higher relationship and sexual satisfaction.
The authors note that some behaviors not being associated with satisfaction could be circumstantial. Specifically, solo sexuality (online and/or masturbation) and sexual compliance did not serve as maintenance behaviors for participants in this study. This may be a result of some participants being dissatisfied sexually and turning to other modes of achieving satisfaction. The authors point out that these behaviors may function differently in relationships in which satisfaction is high, and masturbation and solo on-line sexual activity could be seen as an enhancement, versus replacement, for sexual activity and connection.
The findings from this study suggest there is a direct link between relationship and sexual maintenance behaviors and relationship and sexual satisfaction. As such, we need to consider both aspects when we talk about intimate relationships.
The findings from this study add to a growing body of literature which finds a reciprocal relationship, such that efforts in our relationships can positively impact sex, and efforts with sex can positively impact our relationships.
Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Kaitlyn Goldsmith & E. Sandra Byers (2020) Factors associated with sexual satisfaction in mixed-sex long-distance and geographically close relationships, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2020.1813884