By Justin Lehmiller
What makes for a satisfying marriage? Previous studies have found that couples who have sex more often tend to be happier. In other words, how we feel about our relationships would seem to depend, at least in part, on how much sex we’re having. However, those studies didn’t necessarily take both quantity and quality of sex into account simultaneously, which may have given us the wrong idea about how sexual frequency is linked to relationship satisfaction. Indeed, a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that frequent sex isn’t nearly as important as good sex when it comes to how people feel about their marriages.
In this study, researchers analyzed data from 168 different-sex married couples who were surveyed four times over a 13-year period. The study took place in the 1980s and 1990s and began when participants were newlyweds. Over the course of the study, both partners were surveyed periodically about their relationships and sex lives.
The researchers looked specifically at how overall satisfaction with the marriage was related to how often couples reported having sex, how satisfied they were with their sex lives, and the extent to which each partner engaged in both positive emotional behaviors (such as saying “I love you” and providing physical affection) and negative emotional behaviors (such as showing anger or purposefully annoying one’s partner).
When considered altogether, sexual frequency was not related to marital satisfaction for either husbands or wives. By contrast, both partners were more satisfied with their marriages to the extent that they felt their sex lives were good.
Likewise, and perhaps not surprisingly, both husbands and wives were happier with their marriages to the extent that they said their partners engaged in more positive and fewer negative emotional behaviors
Altogether, what these findings tell us is that the happiest marriages are not necessarily the ones in which the partners have the most active sex lives. Instead, the most content couples are characterized by “having a satisfying sex life and a warm emotional life,” in the words of the study’s authors.
Schoenfeld, E. A., Loving, T. J., Pope, M. T., Huston, T. L., & Štulhofer, A. (2017). Does sex really matter? Examining the connections between spouses’ nonsexual behaviors, sexual frequency, sexual satisfaction, and marital satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 489-501.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.