Having More Sex Enhances Positive Gut Feelings About Partners, Relationship Satisfaction

Couple
Sex frequency in relationships can influence overall feelings about a partner and the relationship. Pixabay, Public Domain

After a couple of cocktails with the girls, or a few rounds of beers with the guys, the inevitable question arises: “How many times a week do you have sex?” Some will boast they’ve done it twice just today, while others will admit they can’t remember the last time. Whichever side of the spectrum you fall, does sex frequency matter in relationships?

It depends on whom you ask.

Evolutionarily speaking, frequent sex evolved in humans for the purpose of reproduction. It improves the chances of conception and helps bond partners together in relationships, which facilitates child-rearing. However, when it comes to sex frequency and relationship satisfaction, prior research has been inconclusive.

In a recent study from Florida State University, lead author and psychological scientist Lindsey L. Hicks, observed over 200 newlyweds to ask them about their relationships, how often they had sex, and to test their instinctive, “automatic attitudes about their partners.”

In the first part of the study, the couples completed survey questionnaires about their relationship satisfaction, rating various qualities of their marriage such as bad-good, dissatisfied-satisfied and unpleasant-pleasant. They were also asked whether they agreed with different statements such as “we have a good marriage,” and their overall feelings of satisfaction with their partner, their relationship, and their marriage.

Then the participants were asked to complete a computer classification task: a word appeared on-screen and they had to press a specific key to indicate whether the word was positive or negative. Before the word appeared, a photo of their partners popped up for a third of a second.

The idea behind this implicit measure is that participants’ response times indicate how strongly two items are related at an automatic, or instinctive, level. For example, the faster the response time, the stronger the association between the partner and the word that appeared. Responding more slowly to negative words than to positive words that followed the photo of the partner, would signify “unconscious” positive attitudes towards the partner.

Partners were also asked to estimate how many times they’ve had sex in the last four months. The researchers note these self-reports may not be the most precise measure of sexual frequency. They also take into account the peer pressure felt by both genders, influenced to believe that more sex is universally seen as “better” and less sex is equated to an unhappy or unhealthy relationship.

Initially, the researchers found there was no association between the frequency of sex and self-reported relationship satisfaction. However, when they looked at the participants' automatic behavioral responses, they saw a different pattern. Estimates of sex quantity was linked to partners’ automatic attitudes about their spouses.

"We found that the frequency with which couples have sex has no influence on whether or not they report being happy with their relationship, but their sexual frequency does influence their more spontaneous, automatic, gut-level feelings about their partners," said Hicks, in a statement.

She added: "Deep down, some people feel unhappy with their partner but they don't readily admit it to us, or perhaps even themselves."

The researchers believe their findings warrant further research to see if this applies to all couples or specifically to newlyweds. However, one takeaway is that asking someone about their feelings or attitudes isn't the only way to measure how they view their mates. Rather, it’s what you do unconsciously that can reveal a lot more about your feelings and personal views in your relationship.

In regards to how much sex we should or shouldn't be having, more frequent sex isn't necessarily critical for relationships to thrive. In a 2015 study, researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga found frequent sex doesn’t significantly translate to more happiness for couples. It’s about maintaining a connection with your partner. Having sex once a week is enough to enjoy greater well-being.

So, whether you’re having sex once a month or once every few hours, sometimes it's really just about quality over quantity.

Source: Hicks LL, McNulty JK, Meltzer AL et al. Capturing the Interpersonal Implications of Evolved Preferences? Frequency of Sex Shapes Automatic, but Not Explicit, Partner Evaluations. Psychological Science. 2016.

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