In romantic relationships sex tends to be a source of pleasure and connection. But, even beyond the positive sensations and feelings associated with sex during the deed, research has shown that sexual activity also has numerous benefits not only for overall feelings of relationship satisfaction, but also for the personal well-being. People who have more frequent sex are generally happier in their lives, and this association is comparable in strength to the association observed between making more money and feeling happier.1
Why does sex have these benefits for people’s happiness? The media often depict the physical or technical aspects of sex,2 such as experiencing physical pleasure or a release during orgasm, as central. This means that many of the suggestions in the popular media for improving couples’ sex lives focuses on incorporating sex toys or lingerie to increase arousal and pleasure. However, as relationship researchers, my colleagues and I suspected that the relational aspects of sex, such as affection, might play an important role in understanding why sex matters so much for your overall happiness. Indeed, some studies show that when people report having sex on a given day, they behave more affectionately toward the partner on the next day3 and the more affection people experience in their relationships, the better they feel, both in terms of their physical health, as well as their overall feelings of happiness.4
In four studies, we tested the prediction that the experience of affection (i.e., positive regard both toward or from the partner that can be expressed verbally or through physical closeness or touch) would explain the association between sex and well-being. In the first study, we asked 335 people who were currently in a romantic relationship about their sexual frequency, their satisfaction with their lives and how frequently they engaged in affectionate touch, such as cuddling and kissing, with their partner. We found that the more frequently people had sex in their relationship, the more affectionate they were with their partner, and this was one key reason why they reported feeling happier in their lives.
In a second study, we recruited both members of 74 romantic couples and asked them about their sexual frequency, affectionate behaviors, and a more specific indicator of well-being: positive emotions. That is, instead of reporting on their overall satisfaction with life, participants reported the extent to which they felt a number of different positive emotions, such as joy and awe. The results again showed that couples who were having more frequent sex were also more physically affectionate in their relationship and this in turn, was associated with feeling more positive emotions–however in this sample, we observed the association between sex and affectionate touch only for men.
Because we can’t confirm from these first two studies whether more sex leads to more affection and well-being or if well-being and affection lead to more sex, we conducted a third study where we followed couples over 10 days. In this study, 106 couples reported each day if they had had sex, experienced affection with their partner, and how happy they felt. The results again confirmed our hypothesis: in daily life, when people had sex, this boosted their experiences of affection with their partner, and having more affection in their relationship was one reason why people felt more positive emotion the following morning after having sex.
In a fourth study, where 58 couples reported on these same variables at multiple times throughout the day, we were able to test whether sex could, in fact, lead to increased affection and positive feelings. Confirming this direction of association where sex promotes increases in affection and well-being, we found that having sex predicted more affectionate experiences later that day, and, in turn, affection predicted later experiences of positive emotions.
Finally, we also tested whether the effects of sex and well-being persisted over time. Using the sample from our third study, we found that people who reported a stronger link between sex and positive emotions in daily life—that is, people who reported greater increases in positive emotions after sex—felt more satisfied in their relationship 6 months later and so did their partners. This shows that experiencing these positive emotions after sex is important for maintaining feelings of satisfaction in the relationship.
Although the media (and past research) tends to emphasize biological, physical or mechanical aspects of sex, our research shows the importance of the emotional or affectionate connection experienced with the partner in understanding why sexual activity is good for you. Affection and the quality of the connection with a partner are a crucial part of the positive effects of sex in romantic relationships.
1Muise, A., Schimmack, U., & Impett, E. A. (2016). Sexual frequency predicts greater well-being, but more is not always better. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(4), 295–302. doi:10.1177/1948550615616462
2Ménard, A. D., & Kleinplatz, P. J. (2008). Twenty-one moves guaranteed to make his thighs go up in flames: Depictions of “great sex” in popular magazines. Sexuality & Culture, 12(1), 1–20. doi:10.1007/s12119-007-9013-7
3Birnbaum, G. E., Reis, H. T., Mikulincer, M., Gillath, O., & Orpaz, A. (2006). When sex is more than just sex: Attachment orientations, sexual experience, and relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 929–943.
4Floyd, K. (2008). Communicating affection: Interpersonal behavior and social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Anik Debrot – Anik’s research focuses on how affectionate behaviors, in particular touch, promote relational and individual well-being in couple relationship. She uses a dyadic perspective in her work, as well as multiple methods. She received her PhD from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and also trained and worked in psychotherapy. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Toronto in Canada, and will begin a position as a Lecturer at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland in January.
Dr. Amy Muise – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
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.