Sex plays an important role in overall relationship happiness.1 But, is simply having sex enough to maintain a happy relationship? In a recent study, my colleagues and I looked at the reasons people say they have sex with their partners and how these reasons affect their feelings of desire and happiness with their sex lives and overall relationships.2
We considered two broad categories of reasons why people have sex with their romantic partners:
- Approach goals: A person having sex for these reasons is focused on pursuing positive outcomes in their relationship, such as enhancing intimacy or feeling closer to a partner.
- Avoidance goals: A person having sex for these reasons is focused on averting negative outcomes in their relationship, such as conflict or disappointing a partner.
In one study, we tested how approach and avoidance goals for sex are associated with sexual desire and satisfaction by having people in relationships read different scenarios and rate the sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction of the couple members in the scenario. For example, a participant would read the following scenario and then rate Kate’s level of desire and satisfaction:
John and Katie have been dating for several months. One night, John and Katie go out for dinner and see a late movie. After the date, they have sex. Katie’s reason for having sex that night is to feel closer to John.
We varied the scenarios in three ways. In some scenarios couples were married for several years (vs. dating for several months), John’s reason for sex was indicated instead of Katie’s, and sex was pursued for an avoidance goal (to avoid disappointing the partner) as opposed to an approach goal (to feel closer). When the person in the scenario was having sex to feel closer to their partner (approach) vs. to avoid disappointing their partner (avoidance), he or she was rated as having higher desire for sex and, in turn, was rated as feeling more satisfied with his or her sex life and relationship. The results were consistent for both men and women (John and Katie) and for both dating and married couples. In other words, people perceive having sex for approach goals (vs. avoidance goals) as being associated with higher desire and satisfaction regardless of the person’s gender or relationship length.
These initial findings suggest that reasons for having sex are differentially linked to relationship and sexual outcomes – specifically, people who have sex for approach goals are perceived to have higher desire and satisfaction, whereas people who have sex for avoidance goals are perceived to have lower desire and satisfaction.
Although this scenario study provides important information about how individuals perceive the sex lives and relationships of other people who engage in sex for different reasons, this method does not provide information about people’s actual goals for sex and how pursuing sex for different reasons is associated with a person’s sexual and relationship quality. So, in our next study, we wanted to know how this would play out in the daily lives of real couples – that is, how are a person’s reasons for having sex on a particular day associated with their feelings of desire and satisfaction on that same day. We were also interested in how a person’s reasons for sex influenced their partner’s feelings of desire and satisfaction. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, in which we explore these remaining questions.
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1Impett, E. A., Muise, A., & Breines, J. (2013). Because it feels good: Toward a positive psychology of sexuality. In M. Hojjat & D. Cramer (Eds.), Positive psychology of love (pp. 57-75). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
2Muise, 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.