In a recent article, I discussed my research using fictional scenarios to show that perceptions of why someone is having sex with their partner influences how people rate that person’s sexual desire and satisfaction. In that study, people who were perceived as having sex for approach goals, such as to enhance intimacy or to feel closer to a partner, as opposed to avoidance goals, such as to avoid conflict or a partner’s disappointment, were perceived as feeling more sexual desire for their partner and being more satisfied with their sex lives and relationships. In our next study, we wanted to consider people’s actual goals for sex and how having sex for different reasons is associated with a person’s sexual and relationship quality. So, how do a person’s own reasons for having sex influence their own feelings of desire and satisfaction?
Recently, my colleagues and I conducted two daily experience studies involving dating, cohabitating, and married couples to answer this question. Daily experience—or “daily diary”—studies allow us to look at how day-to-day changes that occur in a couple’s relationship influence how they feel about their relationship. Specifically, we asked couple members to fill out a brief survey every night for several weeks about their relationship. Each day, they reported how satisfied they felt in their relationship, how much desire they felt for their partner, and on days they reported having sex with their partner, they answered questions about their reasons for having sex and their sexual satisfaction.
Across both studies, on days when a person had sex more for approach goals, such as to feel closer to their partner or to enhance intimacy in their relationship, they reported higher sexual desire and, in turn, felt happier with their sex life and relationship. In contrast, on days when a person had sex more for avoidance goals, such as to avoid conflict or to prevent their partner’s disappointment, they reported lower sexual desire and, in turn, lower satisfaction. In other words, a person’s reasons for having sex with their partner on a particular day are associated with how they feel about their sex life and their relationship.1
The next question we had was how a person’s reasons for having sex were linked to their partner’s feelings of desire and satisfaction. It makes sense that when a person has sex to avoid disappointing their partner, they may feel less satisfied, but the person likely expects that by having sex they are making their partner happy (after all, you are doing it to avoid disappointing him or her). However, we found that having sex to avoid disappointing your partner (i.e., for avoidance goals) is actually associated with partners reporting less desire and satisfaction.1 In other words, when people simply “give it up” to avoid negative outcomes in their relationships, their partners have less positive sexual experiences and feel worse about the relationship.
Given that having sex for avoidance goals is associated with more negative outcomes for both partners, is it better to not have sex at all than to have sex for avoidance goals? Not necessarily. Couples reported higher relationship satisfaction on days when they had sex, regardless of their reasons for doing so, compared to days without sex. Hhaving sex for avoidance goals may provide a daily boost in relationship satisfaction compared to not having sex at all (although not nearly as much of a boost as having sex for approach goals!).
So although sex (even if avoidance-motivated) provides a daily boost of satisfaction, how does having sex for avoidance goals impact a relationship over time? In one of our studies, we followed up with couples four months after they completed the diary study to see how their reasons for having sex over the course of the diary impacted their desire and satisfaction over time. Not surprisingly, people who had sex more for avoidance goals over the course of the diary reported lower desire and felt less sexually satisfied four months later. More interestingly, their partners also felt less sexually satisfied and less committed to the relationship four months later!1 In short, it seems that having sex to avoid negative outcomes may provide daily benefits compared to not having sex, but if sex is commonly pursued for avoidance goals, it negatively impacts the well-being of the relationship over time. “Giving it up” to avoid negative outcomes may not actually benefit the relationship.
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1Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Getting it on vs. getting it over with: Approach-avoidance sexual motivation, desire and satisfaction in intimate bonds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Advanced online publication.
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.