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How Feeling Like a "We" Boosts Sexual Satisfaction

... and how motivated couples can find the feeling.

Key points

  • Intimacy and closeness are hard to define, especially when researching sexuality and relationship.
  • How much we include the other person in our own sense of self is a good measure of closeness; it includes both behaving and feeling close.
  • Sexual satisfaction and sexual problem coping are partially accounted for by how much couples include each other in their own sense of self.
  • Research and experience suggest ways for motivated couples to build sexual and relationship satisfaction.

Commonsense tells us that closeness and sexual satisfaction are connected, but little research looks at sexual satisfaction in loving relationships, intimacy, and how people deal with sexual difficulty together. A study published in The Journal of Sex Research (2021) by Pietras, Wiessner and Briken, reviewing current understanding and analyzing population-based health and sexuality data from over 3,000 men and women aged 18-75, highlights the components of satisfaction, even in the presence of difficulties.

What is the difference between intimacy and closeness?

It is challenging, authors note, to study relationships and sexuality because of variation in how “closeness” and “intimacy” are defined and measured. Relationship research and sexuality research, perhaps surprisingly, have been largely addressed as separate subjects, with different professional societies, journals, and conferences.

Because intimacy and closeness are difficult to consistently define and measure, researchers Aron and colleagues (1992) developed the “inclusion of other in the self” (IOS) rating system. In this model, one selects which of the seven pairs of circles, ranging from just barely touching to almost completely overlapping, best describes the relationship

Adapted by author from Aron et al., 1992
Illustration: IOS rating scale
Source: Adapted by author from Aron et al., 1992

The IOS is based on “self-expansion theory”, which posits that “relationship closeness is the degree to which an individual includes aspects of the partner’s self into their own self-concept, thereby adopting a we-perspective—i.e., shared identities, resources and experiences.” (Pietras et al., 2021). IOS has two independent components: behaving close, and feeling close.

IOS and sexuality in large population sample

In the current study, Pietras and colleagues looked at data from the German Health and Sexuality Survey (GeSiD). Participants were evaluated via interview and standardized measures, selected from a representative sample across the population to get generalizable results.

Measures used included the IOS scale; a survey of sexual satisfaction, estimating four key areas over the prior 12 months1; relationship status and duration; sexual problems for men and women, including low desire, pain during sex, and difficulty with or absent orgasm; degree of reported love for one’s partner; and occurrence of orgasm the last time they had sex (a common measure in the literature, on average much higher for men than women).

Study findings

First, IOS was significantly and positively correlated with sexual satisfaction for both men and women, highlighting the benefits of sharing a sense of identity on mutual pleasure. For women, 13 percent of sexual satisfaction was correlated with orgasm the last time they had sex, IOS, and loving one’s partner. The length of the relationship did not influence women’s sexual satisfaction.

For men, 11 percent of sexual satisfaction was accounted for by loving one's partner, being close per IOS, and relationship length. Orgasm during last sex did not correlate with sexual satisfaction for men. Importantly, IOS and loving one’s partner were distinct constructs with independent impact on sexual satisfaction, suggesting that we can love people without including them fully within our own sense of self.

People reporting greater inclusion of other in the self had similar rates of sexual problems as those reporting lower IOS. However, for those with sexual problems, higher IOS participants reported that sexual problems affected them less. High IOS appeared to reduce the negative impact of sexual distress for couples.

Women with higher IOS reported less distress related to low sexual desire, low sexual arousal, and pain during sex. For men, IOS offset the negative impact of erectile difficulties and early ejaculation. In this group, 76 percent of females had one or more orgasms the last time they had sex, and 96 percent of men.

Including the other in the self

Self-expansion theory, as reflected in the “inclusion of other in the self”, is a useful concept for understanding and studying relationships2.

As related to long-term romantic couples, this work advances our understanding of how sexual satisfaction and relationship connect. It’s a complex picture. Prior research has shown that while sexual satisfaction declines over the course of the average marriage, relationship satisfaction may increase. High sexual satisfaction at the beginning of the relationship predicted greater satisfaction later on, and low sexual satisfaction predicted future lower overall relationship satisfaction.

For couples, couples therapists, researchers, and additional interested parties, understanding what intimacy is, what the drivers of relationship and sexual satisfaction are, and how to cultivate rising levels of both to ensure long-term satisfaction and better overall well-being for individual and couple are of paramount importance. When couples open up, building trust and safety together, relationship satisfaction tends to increase, perhaps because when we share authentically, we create opportunities for us to take, and be taken, within one another's sense of self. When we pick the right partner—and move thoughtfully to avoid opening up too soon to undesirable partners—the rewards for engaged couples build on themselves.

The IOS suggests that couples may benefit by engaging in activities that enhance self-expansion with significant others. Prior research, the study authors say, shows that couples can increase IOS by sharing novel self-expanding experiences together. On higher IOS days, couples reported enhanced sexual desire and increased sexual activity and satisfaction. Similarly, couples reported that passion from earlier on in the relationship was reignited on days when they engaged in greater self-expanding activities together, as reflected in higher IOS.

The two IOS elements of behaving and feeling close are both significant. Couples who create opportunities to do things together that are meaningful and involve genuine and heartfelt sharing of one another are likely to increase mutual inclusion of other in the self, what one might call "self-other inclusion"—while also developing true interdependence.

Work on "irrelationship", a form of shared relationship dysfunction based in avoiding fear of intimacy (Borg, Brenner, Berry, 2018), suggests that struggling couples, often those who experienced difficulty with healthy closeness with primary caregivers (and others) while growing up, may in the beginning find it unfamiliar to cultivate healthy relationships. Discovering loneliness in the midst of a committed relationship is challenging, but with compassion, education, and practice, motivated couples can learn how to develop satisfying intimacy and vibrant connection.

Facebook image: Realstock/Shutterstock



1. Sexual satisfaction was measured for the past 12 months by asking the participants to rate the following four statements on a five-point Likert scale from 1) does not apply at all; to 5) totally applies: a) All things considered, I am satisfied with my sex life; b) I would like to have more sex than I’ve had recently; c) I would like to receive more caressing (kissing, cuddling, stroking, touching) than I’ve had recently; d) My sex life was not varied enough.

2. See how the IOS works–you look at two circles, one representing yourself and one your long-term partner, picking which most shows how much you see yourself and the other person as overlapping. It’s a literal metaphor for closeness–and it works both intuitively and as a research tool. Individuals can use it for self-reflection, and reflection on their relationships with others, and perhaps even for things like how we relate to our work, our workplace, and other situations and experiences in life.


Laura Pietras, Christian Wiessner & Peer Briken (2021): How Inclusion
of Other in the Self Relates to Couple’s Sexuality and Functioning – Results from the
German Health and Sexuality Survey (GeSiD), The Journal of Sex Research, DOI:

Arthur Aron, Elaine N. Aron & Danny Smollan (1992): Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale and the Structure of Interpersonal Closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 596–612.

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Grant H. Brenner & Daniel Berry (2018). Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships, Central Recovery Press (Las Vegas, Nevada).

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