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How Couples Negotiate Frequency of Sex

Happy couples talk about sex, but most romantic partners remain silent.

Early in a romantic relationship, couples are driven by passion to have sex often. However, as couples settle into their new life together, the frequency of intercourse declines. This leads to a problem all couples face, namely what to do when one partner is in the mood for sex and the other one isn’t.

At first, there may be enough goodwill to amicably resolve discrepancies in sexual desire. Nevertheless, as these “mood mismatches” continue to occur, they add on to all the other petty disagreements and hurt feelings that accrue throughout the relationship.

So, how do couples negotiate their frequency of sex? This is the question that Norwegian psychologist Trond Grøntvedt and his colleagues explored in a recent study reported in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. For this study, the researchers recruited 92 heterosexual couples between the ages of 19 and 30 who had been in a committed intimate relationship for at least a month. Each partner independently completed a series of surveys intended to measure various aspects of their relationship.

The first survey assessed each individual’s level of sociosexuality. People who are low in sociosexuality show little interest in—or even negative feelings toward—casual sex, instead viewing sex solely as a means of expressing love within a committed relationship. In contrast, those who are high in sociosexuality are open to short-term relationships in which partners engage in sex for pleasure but without feelings of love.

The researchers suspected that this willingness to detach sex from feelings of love may play an important role in how couples negotiate their frequency of sex. After all, if you consider sex and love to be inextricably linked, then you may be reluctant to have intercourse with your partner when you’re not in the mood. Likewise, if you can separate sex and love, you may be more willing to please your partner even though you’re not feeling romantic at the moment.

The second survey measured each partner’s perceived quality of the relationship. The questionnaire included items touching on satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, trust, love, and passion.

Finally, each partner was asked how frequently they have sex with their partner. They indicated this on a nine-point scale, where 1 indicated “never” and 9 meant “at least once a day.” Prior research has shown that the quality of the relationship is correlated with the frequency of sex. Happy couples have sex more frequently than unhappy couples.

And now for the results. With regards to sociosexuality, the men were generally more open to casual sex than were the women, as expected. However, within each couple, there wasn’t much difference in sociosexuality between the man and the woman. This suggests what psychologists call "assortative mating," that is, our tendency to select romantic partners that are similar to us. It should come as no surprise that similarity of sexual attitudes is one feature that people take into consideration when sizing up a potential mate.

The researchers had hypothesized that the partner’s level of sociosexuality would predict the frequency of sex in the relationship. After all, people who are open to casual sex tend to have more intercourse than those who view sex strictly as an expression of love. However, the relationship between sociosexuality and frequency of sex is more complicated when situated within the dynamics of a committed relationship.

Among the men in this study, sociosexuality was unrelated to the couple’s frequency of sex. Conversely, the women’s attitudes toward casual sex did predict how often they had sex with their partner. The couples who had the most intercourse were the ones in which the woman had an open attitude about casual sex. This result also suggests that it’s the women and not the men who determine when and how often the couple has intercourse.

On the one hand, these results aren’t surprising. As the researchers point out, Norwegian society places a strong emphasis on gender equality, as do other industrialized nations, and so Norwegian men generally understand the importance of respecting a woman’s sexual boundaries. The researchers also surmise that results would be different in a traditional, male-dominant society in which women play a subservient role to men.

On the other hand, the findings also suggest that there probably isn’t much negotiation going on in couples with regards to their frequency of sex. Plenty of research shows that most couples are reluctant to discuss their sexual activities with each other. Instead, the higher-sex-drive partner stops initiating after multiple rebuffs and lets the lower-sex-drive partner determine the frequency of intercourse instead. In the end, there’s no compromise, but rather a settling for the lowest common denominator instead.

The current study shows that the couples most satisfied with their relationship are the ones who have open attitudes about sexuality. They have sex frequently, and they probably talk about sex with their partner as well. These then are the couples who are most likely to negotiate a frequency of intercourse that’s acceptable to both.

When one partner’s needs are constantly frustrated, resentment grows and satisfaction with the relationship plummets. To avoid this vicious cycle of frustration and resentment, couples need to compromise in all areas where their preferences differ. We need to be willing to do things for our partner that we don’t especially want to do, in exchange for the things they do for us even though they don’t particularly feel like doing them. Only when both partners' needs are met to a reasonable degree can a relationship be happy.

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Grøntvedt, T. V., Kennair, L. E. O., & Bendixen, M. (2019, April 29). How intercourse frequency is affected by relationship length, relationship quality, and sexual strategies using couple data. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Advance online publication.