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More Sex and Happy Relationships: It’s Automatic

When relationship partners have more sex, their relationship satisfaction is higher. Seems obvious, right? Maybe not. Previous research on sexual frequency and relationship quality has not been able to conclusively link these variables. There may be a few reasons for this. For example, quantity of sex may not consistently align with quality. You could have lots of really bad sex or have really amazing sex, but less often. It is also hard to tell what frequency really means, because those numbers may hold different meaning to different people based on expectations. That is, if a couple has sex twice a week, one partner may see that as more than they hoped for, while the other considers it inadequate.

It is also possible that these explanations are all overanalyzing things a bit. There may be a simpler explanation for why sexual frequency doesn’t have a stronger link to relationship satisfaction. Perhaps researchers just haven’t been asking the right questions, or more specifically, asking the question in the best way possible.

To test if question style plays a role in the sex and satisfaction link, researchers from Florida State University and University of Tennessee tested the link between how often couples have sex and relationship quality by measuring marital satisfaction two different ways. The first approach was an explicit or straightforward measure which involved direct questions like how much a person agreed with statements like, “We have a good marriage” and answering questions like “How satisfied are you with your partner?” Notably, these explicit measures have been the method of choice in the previous studies that failed to find a strong link between frequency and satisfaction.

However, the researchers also tested a more indirect way of assessing how a person feels (i.e., their automatic attitudes). To do this, researchers had participants make very quick (in milliseconds) ratings of positive and negative words that were paired with their partner’s picture. The researchers determined participants’ relationship satisfaction based on how long it took to recognize a word as positive or negative. Participants who were quicker to identify positive words and slower to identify negative words were considered more satisfied. The benefit is that this type of measure gets participants’ immediate reaction (think “gut feelings”) without giving the participant too much time to mull things over. Finally, researchers also asked participants to indicate “number of times they had engaged in sexual intercourse with their partner over the prior 4 months.”

Two studies, each with over 100 married couples found, consistent with previous research, a weak association between sexual frequency and explicit measures of satisfaction. However, frequency of sex was significantly associated with the automatic measure of relationship satisfaction.  In other words, when married people reported more sex, they were quicker to endorse positive words that were linked to their partner. 

Taken together, this set of studies offers evidence for what many people assumed, but previous research failed to support: more sex may coincide with some forms of relationship happiness, just not the ones we’re consciously aware of. If you’re looking for ways to add some novelty to your sex life and perhaps boost sexual frequency, take a look at the beginner's guide to sex toys infographic for a quick overview.

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Hicks, L. L., McNulty, J. K., Meltzer, A. L., & Olson, M. A. (2016). Capturing the interpersonal implications of evolved preferences? Frequency of sex shapes automatic, but not explicit, partner evaluations. Psychological Science, 27(6), 836-847. doi:10.1177/0956797616638650

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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