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Can Sex Survive Marriage?

Useful data from a study of sex and relationship satisfaction spanning 20 years.

"I'm also interested in the modern suggestion that you can have a combination of love and sex in a marriage—which no previous society has ever believed." —Alain de Botton

Researchers have long pondered how relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction influence one another during long-term relationships. Studies have looked at various aspects in isolation, but it isn't clear how they interact with each other. Is a good sexual relationship necessary for overall relationship satisfaction?

Does having a quality relationship make a married couple's sex life better? Is it possible to stay married and be sexually satisfied? Read to the end of the article for links on how to improve sex life and intimacy.

Studying Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction Over Time

To look at how relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction play out, Christopher Quinn-Nilas (2019) from the University of Guelph, Canada analyzed data collected over two decades from over 700 couples in stable marriages, drawing upon the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.

Participants, mainly White American heterosexual couples, completed three waves of interviews and survey questionnaires. The first was in 1995 to 1996, the second from 2004 to 2006 and the final from 2013 to 2014. The average age at the beginning of the study was about 45 years old, from a range of 25 to 74. Most couples had been married an average of 22 years, with a decade spread around that average—i.e., about 70 percent of the participants were married from 10 to 30 years.

The MIDUS measures included demographic variables, such as relationship status, sexual orientation, gender, age, and so on. Individuals were asked if they were in "marriage" or "marriage-like" relationships.

Relationship satisfaction was estimated as follows: Participants were asked, "Using a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means ‘the worst possible marriage or close relationship’ and 10 means ‘the best possible marriage or close relationship,’ how would you rate your marriage or close relationship these days?” Sexual satisfaction was rated as follows: “Using a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 means ‘the worst possible situation’ and 10 means ‘the best possible situation,’ how would you rate the sexual aspect of your life these days?”

The data were analyzed by testing several models to find which fit, based on a variety of statistical considerations. The best fitting models were chosen, and relevant data were correlated over time.

How Do Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction Connect Over the Course of a Life Together?

The following graph shows how relationship and sexual satisfaction scores trended:

Quinn-Nilas, 2019
Average scores: Relationship and sexual satisfaction
Source: Quinn-Nilas, 2019
  1. Sexual satisfaction declined over time while relationship satisfaction rose. Older participants had lower sexual satisfaction compared with younger ones, but had greater relationship satisfaction.
  2. Sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction were correlated at the start of the study. Individuals who rated their relationship satisfaction high also rated sexual satisfaction high.
  3. Sexual satisfaction started out mid-range. Over time, sexual satisfaction declined, dropping by over 0.7 at each time point. Where people started out—whether higher or lower in sexual satisfaction—did not determine where they ended up. There was a lot of individual variation (hint, hint). Initial sexual satisfaction did not predict the course of change in sexual satisfaction over time.
  4. As marriages progressed, sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction changed in the same direction. On average, sexual and relationship satisfaction rose or fell together.
  5. Sexual satisfaction at the start of the relationship had a protective effect on the relationship. Couples who started with a better sex life maintained relationship satisfaction compared with those who started off less sexually satisfied.
  6. Lower sexual satisfaction at the start placed couples at risk for more steeply declining relationship quality.
  7. Couples who started off with greater relationship satisfaction maintained that level longer, showing slower decline in relationship satisfaction over time.
  8. Women's relationship satisfaction declined more slowly than men's. That was the only significant finding related to gender.

Pre-Marital Considerations

Overall, relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction are inversely related, with individual variation. Even as sex became less satisfying, couples reported that their relationship was getting better. This suggests that the quality of the sexual relationship lays the foundation for longer-term sustainability.

At the same time, while sex is of core importance for many people, for others, sex may not be as crucial in relationships. Early amorous bonding appears protective of the relationship, possibly by strengthening the attachment bond, creating fond memories, and providing a loving shared experience. If the results of this study are valid, then pair with someone (if you want to) where there is high relationship and sexual satisfaction.

While speculative, it makes sense—and is suggested by this research—to work on the relationship before making a commitment with a focus on these factors. If they aren't both there, it seems prudent to seek pre-marital counseling or the equivalent to address the lack. It may save a lot of trouble later on. In addition, as we know, working on both aspects of the relationship improves overall relationship quality over the decades many couples plan to spend together.

Sexual Factors

Sexual satisfaction tends to decline over time, however—an inertial drift which, if unchecked, leads to unresolved sexual complaints. As initial sexual satisfaction did not predict the path sexuality took over time, couples would be wise to pay attention to sexuality in their relationship as time goes on.

Many, couples, by no means all, get along sexually swimmingly. The longer this goes on, the harder it gets to course-correct—making infidelity a more appealing option for some. As this current study did not look at rates of extra-marital relationships, we cannot tell what role, if any, this factor had.

Couples who have a mismatch in requiring sexual satisfaction as part of relationship satisfaction have to work harder if they want to keep the relationship positive for both. Considering factors such as attachment style may help couples work on their sex lives, as may working with other couples on improving intimacy. Individuals can examine their "sexual self-image" and talk together about how to support one another in improving sexual self-esteem.

Other factors, such as identifying barriers to sexual satisfaction and focusing on techniques for sexual satisfaction, may be useful to improve both aspects of satisfaction. Greater sexual satisfaction appears to drive overall relationship satisfaction.

Future Directions

Ongoing research is important to see if these findings hold out more broadly, given the limited demographic and study measures used. As contemporary ideas about relationships shift from more traditional models, as gender becomes more fluid, as divorce and separation rates rise, as people meet on the internet more than through in-person communities, and as the lifespan continues to lengthen, patterns of how sexuality and relationship satisfaction connect with one another vary more and more, as prior research shows.

For couples remaining in exclusive long-term relationships, challenges of novelty and new experience will continue to be important for both sexual and relationship satisfaction.

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