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Why Marital Success Depends on Women’s Sexual Desire

Pair bonding through sex, and what happens when frequency declines.

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Marriage is designed to cement the permanence of a relationship; however, many spouses become dissatisfied with their marriages. Researchers have identified a potential source of this dissatisfaction that has not been assessed in previous work—a mismatch in the way couples’ sexual desires change over time (McNulty et al., 2019). This work appears in the new issue of the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

McNulty and colleagues assessed heterosexual newlywed couples’ sexual desire, marital satisfaction, sexual frequency, and other measures such as stress and depressive symptoms. They also recorded whether the newlyweds had children or had given birth to a child during the course of the study.

In two longitudinal studies (one spanning one year and one spanning four years), the researchers found that, on average, women’s levels of sexual desire were not only lower than men’s at the beginning of their marriages, but much more variable than men’s. Men’s levels of sexual desire stayed higher and more constant than women’s throughout the duration of both studies.

Furthermore, declines in women’s sexual desire predicted declining marital satisfaction for both members of the couple. Interestingly, although women’s sexual desire declined over time, couples’ sexual frequency did not, suggesting that women were likely to engage in sex even when they did not desire it.

Because these data were collected over time, the authors were also able to assess the reverse possibility—that declining marital satisfaction was predictive of less sexual desire. However, this was not supported by the data.

For those couples who became new parents during the course of the study, wives’ sexual desire declined even more steeply, yet men’s sexual desire still tended to remain stable. However, the authors stress that because couples without children also showed declines, parenthood is not the only challenge for women’s sexual desire and couples’ marital satisfaction.

The authors suggest that women’s sexual desire may function not only to facilitate reproduction, but also to enable pair bonding. They speculate that once couples marry, women may not feel as strong a need for sex to secure their bond with their husbands.

The researchers note that both studies were limited to heterosexual couples, and they state that a mismatch in sexual desire may be less challenging for same-sex couples. Furthermore, the researchers acknowledge that most of the couples who participated were Caucasian, and that future research should examine these relationships in other demographic groups and cultures. Additionally, these couples were all newlyweds, so the authors believe that these correlations may change for older couples or for non-married couples.

The researchers also recommend studying the factors which might prevent women’s sexual desire from declining, such as “being more willing to meet a partner’s sexual needs, believing that sex takes work, and expecting sexual desire to fluctuate.” They also stress that a mismatch in sexual desire in couples is normal and typical and that couples may want to address these issues with a therapist.

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McNulty, J. K., Maxwell, J. A., Meltzer, A. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). Sex-Differentiated Changes in Sexual Desire Predict Marital Dissatisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1-17.

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