Happy Wife, Happy Life
Exploring the association between relational and sexual satisfaction.
Posted Jan 02, 2020
The association between relationship satisfaction and sexual enjoyment is clearly established in the literature on relationship science. Happy couples have sex frequently, and couples who suffer from sexual problems rate their relationships as less satisfying than do those without major issues.
The causal connection between frequent, pleasurable sex and relationship satisfaction is still unclear. On the one hand, it could be that regular, mind-blowing sex is what makes an intimate relationship satisfying. On the other hand, it could be that happy couples simply want to have sex often. Nevertheless, the association between sexual and relational satisfaction is undeniable.
Although most species reserve sex solely for procreative purposes, humans have co-opted this pleasurable activity as a means of pair-bonding. For this reason, couples have to take precautions to avoid unwanted pregnancy as they engage in sex to build the emotional bonds of their relationship. And yet, most commonly used forms of contraceptives have downsides that potentially detract from the momentary pleasure of the sexual experience.
In modern society, two commonly used methods of avoiding pregnancy are condoms and hormonal contraception. It’s widely believed that condoms reduce the pleasure of the sexual experience. Moreover, frequently reported side effects of hormonal contraception are reduced sexual desire and depressed mood. Thus, couples have to strike a balance between the desire for mutually pleasurable sexual experiences and the need to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
In a recently published article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the University of Wisconsin psychologists Shari Blumenstock and Lauren Papp explore the association between momentary sexual enjoyment and relationship satisfaction. They also consider the impact that hormonal contraception and condom use have on people's sexual and relationship satisfaction.
For the purposes of this study, Blumenstock and Papp recruited 43 sexually active couples to take part in a project examining the association between momentary sexual enjoyment and relationship satisfaction. At the beginning of the study, the females reported whether they were using a hormonal contraceptive. Then, three times a day for the next ten days, each member of the couple responded to a brief survey on their smartphone. Specifically, they were asked whether they'd had sex since the last survey. They also indicated their level of enjoyment and whether a condom had been used. Finally, they rated their current level of relationship satisfaction.
At the onset of the study, the researchers had two straightforward predictions. First, they posited that both the woman’s and the man’s relationship satisfaction would be positively correlated with each partner’s momentary sexual enjoyment. In other words, the man’s current level of satisfaction with the relationship should predict how much both he and his partner enjoyed their last sexual session and vice versa. Second, they believed that both hormonal contraception and condom use would lower momentary sexual enjoyment for both partners, based on previous reports.
The results of the study were somewhat surprising. As expected, the woman’s level of relationship satisfaction predicted both her own and her partner’s degree of momentary sexual enjoyment. However, the man’s relationship satisfaction had no association with either partner’s reported level of momentary sexual enjoyment. In other words, when the woman was happy in the relationship, both partners enjoyed sex more. But the man’s happiness in the relationship didn’t affect either partner’s sexual enjoyment that much.
This finding contradicts major theoretical assumptions in relationship science, and I think it needs to be unpacked to understand its implications. In the literature, it’s generally reported that women tend to find it difficult to enjoy sex unless they're also generally satisfied in their relationship with their partner. In contrast, men often report that they can enjoy sex whether it’s in the context of a committed relationship or not. So men can still find pleasure in sex even when other aspects of the relationship aren't especially good. Furthermore, these findings also suggest that men derive at least some of their sexual satisfaction from observing the pleasure their partners are experiencing.
In terms of the relationship between contraception and sexual pleasure, this study also yielded a mixture of expected and unexpected results. First, decreased sexual desire and mood are commonly reported side effects of hormonal contraceptive use, especially in the first few months. It’s not surprising that it led to a decrease in momentary sexual enjoyment for the women who used it.
Unexpected but perhaps not surprising was that the woman’s use of hormonal contraception also decreased the man’s sexual pleasure. Again, this hearkens back to the notion that men derive at least some of their sexual enjoyment from the pleasurable feelings they observe in their partners.
Finally, the results regarding the relationship between condom use and sexual pleasure were interesting. In general, sexually active persons tend to believe that condoms reduce sexual enjoyment and detract from feelings of intimacy. But the participants of this study reported that condom use had no effect on their momentary sexual enjoyment.
More research is needed on this, but we can already speculate on the reason for this result. As Blumenstock and Papp point out, couples tend to use condoms only during the initial stages of their relationship, shifting to hormonal contraceptives as the relationship matures. Since overall sexual desire and excitement are likely highest at the start of the relationship, condom use may simply not matter when it comes to momentary sexual enjoyment. Further research should test long-term couples who continue to use condoms as their regular form of contraception.
For me, the take-home message from this study is the key role of the woman’s happiness in the overall well-being of the relationship. Generally speaking, a woman can only enjoy sex if she’s happy in the relationship. And likewise, the man can only really enjoy sex if his partner also enjoys it.
I suspect that this observation holds true for long-married spouses as it does for newly dating couples. In my 30 years of marriage, I’ve found the following adage to be especially pertinent: “Happy wife, happy life.” In short, a man needs to make sure his partner is satisfied with the relationship overall if he wants to enjoy the time he spends with her in bed.
Blumenstock, S. M. & Papp, L. M. (2019). Momentary sexual enjoyment: The dyadic roles of relationship satisfaction and contraception among mixed-gender dating couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407519878266