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What Leads to Sexual (Dis)satisfaction During Pregnancy?

Why do some pregnant couples experience more, or less, sexual satisfaction?

Key points

  • Pregnancy is typically considered a time when couples may experience a decrease in sexual satisfaction.
  • Sexual dissatisfaction during pregnancy is not universal, nor inevitable.
  • New research explored what factors resulted in couples experiencing higher, or lower, levels of sexual satisfaction.

It’s understandable to think of pregnancy as a time when couples would experience a decrease in sexual function and sexual satisfaction. Whether it’s the result of physical symptoms such as morning sickness, fatigue, and physical discomfort, or the emotional and psychological processing that accompanies the entry into parenthood (or adding another child into the family), pregnancy doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the sexiest of thoughts.

However, the idea that pregnancy has an unequivocally negative impact on sexual satisfaction may be painting with too broad of a stroke. That is, there is some evidence to suggest that some couples may experience either no change, or even an increase, in their sexual satisfaction during pregnancy.

But why might some couples experience a reduction in sexual satisfaction during pregnancy while others experience it as a time of either equal or perhaps improved sexual satisfaction?

The Study

In a new study, recently published in The Journal of Sex Research, researchers explored whether there may be differences in how couples experience sexual satisfaction during pregnancy and what might be contributing to these different experiences.

Most research on sexual satisfaction during pregnancy has typically focused on women who are pregnant. However, the authors of the current study, taking an interpersonal relational approach, were interested in how couples (in this case, married, mixed-sex couples) navigated sexual satisfaction together during this time.

Participants were recruited from a larger, nationally representative survey of newly married couples living in the United States. For the purpose of this study, couples were included if they were currently married, it was the first marriage for at least one of the participants, one spouse was between the ages of 18 and 36 years old, and that the woman was pregnant at the time of the study.

The final sample included 523 mixed-sex married couples (i.e., a husband and wife). Most participants (67% of wives and 62% of husbands) identified as white and were in their late 20s (mean age for husbands was 29.82 years old and mean age for wives was 28.04 years old).

Sexual satisfaction was measured with a five-dimension scale that included participants' reported satisfaction with affection, frequency of sex, orgasm frequency, creativity, and initiation patterns.

The researchers also measured various biopsychosocial factors that typically occur during pregnancy, including physical health symptoms (e.g., nausea, joint pain), poor sleep quality, the number of weeks pregnant the woman was, depressive symptoms, relationship satisfaction, marital power (i.e., whether participants felt they could openly express their opinions in their relationship), partner attachment, and conflict resolution.

The researchers controlled for some variables including age, education, sexual frequency, the number of weeks pregnant, and physical health.

More Sexually Satisfied Versus Less Sexually Satisfied Couples

The authors found that there were, in fact, two distinct groups of couples when it came to sexual satisfaction during pregnancy.

One group, which included the majority of couples (n = 413 couples), was described as being “more sexually satisfied,” while the other (n = 110 couples) were described as being “less sexually satisfied.”

Couples in the “more sexually satisfied” group reported higher sexual satisfaction across all five categories of sexual satisfaction for both men and women. Again, this included both the husbands' and wives' reports of sexual satisfaction in terms of affection, frequency of sex, orgasm frequency, creativity, and initiation patterns.

In terms of what made couples more likely to belong to one of the two groups, the authors determined that relational satisfaction, power, attachment, and sexual frequency differentiated the two groups. However, by and large, the biggest factor that predicted group belonging was wives’ depressive symptoms. That is, when wives reported higher degrees of depressive symptoms, they were more likely to belong to the group that experienced lower sexual satisfaction.

What Do These Findings Mean?

Sexual changes during pregnancy are normal and to be expected. However, the findings from this study suggest that among younger, heterosexual, married couples, sexual satisfaction during pregnancy appears to be a relatively common experience.

Given that more sexually satisfied couples reported higher sexual creativity, the authors suggest that being adaptive during pregnancy, such as exploring different sexual activities outside of penetration, could help promote higher levels of sexual satisfaction during this time.

They also highlight the importance of health professionals monitoring depressive symptoms for women throughout pregnancy. While supports around depression during pregnancy have numerous benefits for a pregnant person’s overall well-being, the findings from this study suggest that managing depressive symptoms may also have a positive effect on sexual satisfaction.

References

Allsop, D. B., Leavitt, C. E., Yorgason, J. B., & Holmes, E. K. (2021). Variable sexual satisfaction in pregnancy: A latent profile analysis of pregnant wives and their husbands. Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2021.1970708.

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