In past articles, I have discussed what motivates people to have sex in general. I have also covered how to improve aspects of sexual behavior, such as how to kiss better and how to touch a partner more seductively too. Nevertheless, we have yet to explore how to put all of these pieces together — in order to create a satisfying sexual interaction for both partners.
As we dive into this topic, it is important to keep in mind that relationships are generally a social exchange. Partners interact and trade with one another, and give and take from each other, in order to meet their various practical, physical, and emotional needs. Generally, when benefits of the exchange exceed the costs, individuals get their needs met and are satisfied. When costs exceed benefits, however, the exchange tends to not meet the needs of both partners — and often stops instead.
As we will see, this dynamic plays out in our sexual interactions as well…
Sexual Satisfaction and Interpersonal Exchange
In my hunt for a comprehensive model for human sexual behavior, I found the Interpersonal Exchange Model of Sexual Satisfaction (IEMSS) by Lawrence and Byers (1992). Essentially, this model applies the general social exchange dynamics, which I have discussed elsewhere, to sexual interactions specifically. According to this model, sexual satisfaction is the result of four distinct aspects of the sexual relationship (Byers, 1999). Thus, sexual satisfaction is greater to the extent that…
- Sexual interactions are more rewarding than they are costly for the individual.
- The rewards and costs of sexual activity compare favorably to what the individual expects of the exchange.
- There is more perceived equality between the sexual costs and benefits for both partners.
- The overall relationship is more satisfying (sexual interactions are part of larger relationship interactions too).
These four factors applied to both women and men — and also account for as much as 79 percent of the differences in satisfaction ratings among married couples in Canada (Lawrence & Byers, 1995). They have been shown to account for sexual satisfaction in Chinese couples (Renaud, Byers, & Pan, 1996), dating individuals (Byers, Demmons, & Lawrence, 1998), and homosexual couples (Cohen, Byers, & Walsh, 2008), too. Taken together, then, it appears that sex is significantly more satisfying for partners when the rewards of the sexual experience are maximized, costs are minimized, the exchange meets-or-exceeds expectations, is equally rewarding for both partners, and the relationship is generally satisfying overall.
In a more recent evaluation of this model, Sánchez-Fuentes and Santos-Iglesias (2016) evaluated the specific factors that could be considered as rewarding or costly within the sexual relationship. Their results indicated that, out of a list of 58 sexual exchange factors, over 90 percent of men and women found the following 10 factors rewarding:
- Level of affection you and your partner express during sexual activities
- How much fun you and your partner experience during sexual interactions
- The extent to which you and your partner express enjoyment about your sexual interactions
- How comfortable you and your partner are with each other
- How you feel about yourself during and after engaging in sexual activities with your partner
- Physical sensations from touching, caressing, and hugging
- The extent to which you get sexually aroused
- Your partner’s ability to please you sexually
- Your partner being naked in front of you
- The extent to which you are physically attracted to/sexually desire your partner
Beyond that, the researchers found that women also identified their partner’s responses to their sexual advances as a sexual emotional reward. Men found their own ability to reach orgasm as physically rewarding too. This indicated that men may focus a bit more on the physical rewards of sex, while women may focus a bit more on the emotional rewards — although each found both satisfying overall.
Nevertheless, Sánchez-Fuentes and Santos-Iglesias (2016) found less agreement on sexual costs between women and men. Only 50 percent of both could agree on two costs — having sex when the individual was not in the mood, and having sex when their partner was not in the mood. Otherwise, women’s costs tended to focus on their own ability to reach an orgasm, being naked in front of their partner, and engaging in intimate activities after sex. In contrast, men identified their partner’s response to their sexual advances and their partner’s frequency/ability to reach orgasm as sexual costs.
Tips to Improve Your Sex Life
Based on the model above, Byers (1999) identified four implications for sexual counseling with couples. These implications can serve as good areas of consideration for partners within their own sexual interactions as well (nevertheless, they do not serve as a substitute for evaluation and counseling by a professional as needed). Therefore, to help make your sex life better and more satisfying, focus on the following:
1. Increase general relationship satisfaction. While sex is often an important aspect of a relationship, it is not the only piece of the larger exchange and interaction. As a result, how both partners feel about the relationship overall impacts their feelings of sexual satisfaction as well. Given that, spending some time improving your relationship in other areas can benefit you in the bedroom. Specifically, work on communicating in ways that build a greater connection and rapport with your partner and use conversation to increase attraction. Develop attraction through eye contact, mimicry, as well as sharing exciting and novel activities. Finally, focus on decreasing the negative aspects of your relationship by addressing bad habits and learning how to resolve arguments. Taken together, this will help you talk more, feel better about each other, and set a good foundation for better sexual interactions too.
2. Increase sexual rewards and reduce costs. Once you have established a bit more rapport and conversation with your partner, start to find out what they specifically like about sex (keeping the conversation on present-oriented and sex-related topics can help break the ice here). Then check the 10 factors above and review the various motivations people have for sex to see where you both might match up. When you find something your partner likes, remember to reward them with it, especially when they do something to please you too. Also, address any costs you and your partner identify as well. Particularly, emotional costs can often be aided by building a more rewarding interaction and being appreciative, whereas physical costs can often be improved by working on overall attraction, kissing, and touching.
3. Address unrealistic expectations. Beyond the actual rewards and costs of a sexual interaction, satisfaction is also impacted by expectations too. Unfortunately, as I have discussed elsewhere, media often distorts people’s expectations of relationships and sex. Particularly, descriptions in stories and movies can make some individuals believe they should be overly selfish, taking care of their own needs and pleasure at the expense of a partner. Other times, individuals may feel the need to be selfless instead — serving a partner without considering their own feelings and desires. Distorted portrayals in pornography may make individuals concerned about their body or sexual performance too. Therefore, it is important for both partners to honestly communicate their feelings and needs — instead of relying on what each one “thinks” the other may want, given what they have learned from the media. This is an area where professional counseling and education can help too.
4. Equalize the sexual exchange. Finally, in all exchange relationships, people are often most satisfied when things are fair for both partners. In contrast, as discussed in Equity Theory, people often get uncomfortable when they are getting too little, or too much, compared to their partner in any type of interaction. This is particularly true over time and (as the research above indicates) impacts sexual satisfaction too. Therefore, once you have figured out the basics of what both you and your partner find rewarding and have set some realistic expectations, double-check to make sure you are not getting too little (or too much) in the exchange either. This will help ensure that your sex life stays rewarding and satisfying, for both you and your partner, into the future as well.
© 2018 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Byers, E. S. (1999). The interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction: Implications for sex therapy with couples. Canadian Journal of Counseling, 33, 95-111.
Byers, E. S., Demmons, S., & Lawrence, K. (1998). Sexual satisfaction within dating relationships: A test of the interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 257-267.
Cohen, J. N., Byers, E. S., & Walsh, L. P. (2008) Factors influencing the sexual relationships of lesbians and gay men. International Journal of Sexual Health, 20, 162-176.
Lawrence, K., & Byers, E. S. (1992). Development of the interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 1, 123-128.
Lawrence, K., & Byers, E. S. (1995). Sexual satisfaction in long-term heterosexual relationships: The interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 2, 267-285.
Renaud, C. Byers, E. S., & Pan, S. (1996). Factors related to sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction in mainland China. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 5, 243-252.
Sánchez-Fuentes, M. D. M., & Santos-Iglesias, P. (2016). Sexual satisfaction in Spanish heterosexual couples: Testing the interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 42, 223-242.