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May 22, 2020

Is Sex Important in a Relationship?

The Once-a-Day Relationship Challenge

Have you ever heard of the once-a-day challenge? It’s a challenge where couples commit to having sex every day for a week, a month, 100 days, or even a year unless one partner is sick, traveling, or uses the escape clause to particularly decline. Some benefits couples find from this is committing to daily sex allows for couples to explore sexual desires they normally wouldn’t because instead of figuring out whether or not to have sex, they have to figure out how to. Many who take on this challenge enjoy feeling healthy and relaxed, the endorphins sex rowels up are great and can leave people feeling younger. Sexual desire and sexual interaction distinguish intimate relationships from other interpersonal relationships but what comes first? Does a healthy, satisfying sex life improve and strengthen a relationship or does a healthy, satisfying relationship improve sexual satisfaction?

Sexual Satisfaction and Relationship Satisfaction

The internet gives us many things, including descriptions of explicit sexuality and people blogging, bragging, and complaining about their sex lives. A big part of our identities includes the type of sex we pursue and how we pursue it. However, even in a cultural landscape saturated with sex, research in 59 countries found most people have sex within the context of an intimate relationship. Many people believe you can’t have a satisfying intimate relationship without a satisfying sex life. Adults of all ages in the United States rate faithfulness and a happy sex life as the most important aspect of a successful relationship, especially in marriage. They even rate it far more important in the relationship than sharing household chores, money, housing, religious beliefs, shared interests and hobbies, children, and agreement on politics. Relationship satisfaction is the product of an overall evaluation of a relationship and sexual satisfaction is each partner’s evaluation of the sex life a relationship has. The responses to questions about both seem to overlap. People who report being more satisfied with the sexual aspect of their relationship report being more satisfied with their relationship as a whole. This is true for young and old, same-sex and different-sex, relationships and marriages all over the world with personal beliefs that prioritize the sexual part of relationships. For example, people who think oral sex is important care more about giving or getting oral sex compared to people who don’t value it as much.

There are many factors that play a role. Attachment styles are a factor. People with an anxious attachment style are more affected by the quality of sexual interactions they have with their partners on a given day than people with a secure attachment style. People with an avoidant attachment style are less affected. Gender is another factor. Men have a stronger association between sexual and relationship satisfaction than women do even though sex is consistently significant for both. Longitudinal research has studied how relationship and sexual satisfaction change over time. In the early years of a relationship, sexual satisfaction predicts changes in relationship satisfaction. For example, newlywed’s satisfaction with their relationship and sexual satisfaction affect each other in both directions. Relationships where partners are just getting to know each other are more affected by sexual satisfaction while they are discovering what they each like and dislike. Couples who are able to connect sexually early on develop a deeper bond, on average, than couples who aren’t able to as easily. As for established relationships, couples married 10 years and 30 years on average have a reliable association between their initial levels of sexual satisfaction and changes in their relationship satisfaction. For men and women, no matter the stage a relationship is in, a couple’s sex life predicts the course of the committed relationship. On the other hand, the older a couple gets, the less their relationship satisfaction will change their sexual behaviors. Often times, after a couple has been together for more than a decade their sex life becomes predictable and although sexual satisfaction still predicts changes in relationship satisfaction, relationship satisfaction will no longer predict changes in sexual satisfaction or behaviors.

Relationships Without Sex

Can a relationship be satisfying without sex? Yes! There are millions of people that wait until marriage to have sex. Some for religious reasons, some for personal reasons that don’t involve religion or spirituality at all. People can have satisfying romantic relationships without sex or sexual attraction whether they identify as being asexual or not. For most people, some sort of sexual interaction is essential to fulfilling intimacy, but it is possible to voluntarily abstain from having sex and be satisfied with a relationship. People who are involuntarily celibate for a long time against their will are rarely satisfied with their relationships but may stay in them for other reasons. A walk in the park, cooking together, or any other shared behavior cannot substitute sex. Sex is often something only shared between intimate partners in a relationship. It often defines what being intimate with someone else means, especially in popular culture, but it is not the only way to attain intimacy with someone. There are various ways to be intimate with someone outside of physical intimacy. Chances are, the better the emotional intimacy in a relationship is, the better the sex in the relationship will be.

One effect of an increased number of people valuing satisfying sex is that virginity is no longer as attractive as it used to be in mainstream society. It makes sense, when the purpose of sex was primarily reproduction, people sought out partners with little or no sexual experience. Now, people assume that experienced partners will be better lovers and the remaining a virgin until marriage is less common. That being said, too much sexual experience can also be a turn-off. On average, college students around 21 years old want their prospective partners to have a handful of previous partners, to be experienced enough to know their desires and preferences, but not have more than a handful of partners.

The Course of Sexual Desire in Relationships

Long-term relationships present couples with what can feel like a trade-off. Sexual desire tends to be aroused by new experiences and risk but commitment to a relationship tends to be reinforced by feelings of familiarity and security. The trade-off is that the safer and more reliable a relationship becomes, the less sexy it becomes. This especially echoes with women seeking help for their low sexual desire. Women often report that the security of knowing how much their partners love them and feeling comfortable taking their clothes off fades the excitement that once accompanied their sex lives and they lose sexual desire. On average, sexual desire does not decrease for women and men and yet as couples get older, they tend to have less sex. The major cause for this is what happens as we age, especially to men. Changes in the relationship are another major reason. If relationship satisfaction declines over time, sexual satisfaction, and the frequency of sexual interactions will decline. Even so, surveys conducted in the United States and Germany controlling for the effects of age and relationship satisfaction confirm that sexual frequency and satisfaction tend to peak in the first year of a relationship and decline in the second year. Fortunately, these studies found the decline to level off after the second year. What continued to change was the feeling of lust for a partner depending on the emotional climate of the relationship on a particular day. This doesn’t mean that couples have to choose between passion and security in their relationship. On average, declines in sexual desire aren’t inevitable nor universal. Even age-related declines in sexual desire are significantly smaller for people in better relationships. Relationships take work but it is possible to maintain a healthy and satisfying sex life within a stable and secure long-term relationship regardless of age.

Ingredients of a Healthy Sex Life in Relationships

For centuries, people have made all kinds of pills, ointments, and tools to guarantee sexual satisfaction. Spoiler alert, it’s not that simple! One of the most common complaints from couples, especially heterosexual males, is that they don’t have enough sex. In western and sexually liberated countries like the United States and non-western countries like Iran and China, simply having more sex can lead to more satisfaction and fewer complaints. Among newlyweds, the more couples report having sex, the more sexually satisfied they are over the next 4 years. Furthermore, partners are more satisfied the more time they spend having sex, and the longer their average sexual encounter lasts independently of how much sex they have. The association between sexual frequency and general happiness doesn’t follow a straight line. Sure, rarely having sex is linked to being less happy compared to having sex regularly, but how often do people who have sex regularly actually have sex? People who have sex on a weekly basis are happier than people who don’t, but people who have sex more than once a week aren’t much happier than people who have sex once a week. Quantity isn’t everything.

Quantity of Sex in Relationships

Just because the quantity of sex is linked to greater satisfaction doesn’t mean that having more sex will make a sexual relationship more satisfying. If you’re having amazing sex, you’re likely to want to have sex more often. Having sex more often might be a result of sexual satisfaction, not the cause. An experiment with a sample of 128 heterosexual married couples who reported having sex between once a month was conducted to measure positive moods and study the relationships. The couples were split into two groups. The first group was directed to double the amount of sex they usually had, and the other group didn’t receive any instructions. The couples completed an online questionnaire for the next 90 days. Having more sex did not lead the first group, assigned to double the amount of sex they had, to experience more positive emotions. In fact, compared to the couples who weren’t instructed to change their sexual behaviors, the couples who were instructed to increase the amount of sex they had were less happy by the end of the study. Even though the first group was having more sex, they were enjoying it less and possibly experiencing less sexual desire as a result. Sexual satisfaction heavily depends on why you’re having sex. If you’re having sex to express desire and passion, it’s a turn on. If you’re having sex like it’s a chore, it’s a turn-off. Couples struggling to conceive a child know the pressure to have a certain amount of sex at a certain time of the month to maximize fertility often takes the fun and excitement out of having sex. Couples who participate in the once-a-day challenge often reflect learning this same lesson.

Sexual Technique in Relationships

Have you ever heard of Kama Sutra? It’s one of the oldest and most popular examples of manuals and guides offered to advise people on how to best please their partners and improve their sex life. Unbeknownst to many, only one out of the thirty-six chapters in Kama Sutra is actually dedicated to sexual practices and the illustrations of various sex positions commonly featured in magazines and phone applications. Guides like Kama Sutra don’t tell couples to have more sex, they promise to improve the quality of sex couples are having. Kama Sutra does this by identifying specific techniques to make sex more satisfying, which a skilled lover would know, and an unskilled lover could learn. Kama Sutra hasn’t really been scientifically studied, but there are sexual behaviors that are reliably associated with greater sexual satisfaction. For example, the more people consistently reach orgasm, the more sexually satisfied they are. For men, sexual satisfaction is higher the more consistently their partner reaches orgasm. For women, it isn’t, presumably because there’s little variability in men experiencing orgasm. Women and men who report greater sexual satisfaction and more regular orgasms are more likely to report engaging in mutual masturbation, oral sex, and penile-vaginal intercourse. However, there aren’t specific techniques that are universally found to be crucial for a satisfying sex life. The greater the variety, the more satisfied women and men are. Another factor associated with sexual satisfaction in relationships is what couples do right before and right after they have sex. Take a moment to think. How often do you and your partner set the mood by dimming the lights, playing music, or engaging in some sexy talk? How often do you and your partner cuddle and express affection after you have sex? Even after accounting for how long sex lasts or how often couples have sex, women and men are more sexually satisfied the more they spend time bonding and enjoying time together after sex. Our behaviors don’t just affect how our partner physically feels and possibly sexually please them. Our behaviors affect how we make our partner feel emotionally. The key to sexual satisfaction is not necessarily sexual skills, but enthusiasm for a sexual connection and an interest in pleasing our partner.

Responsiveness in Relationships

Aside from technically competent genital stimulation, women report the highest levels of sexual satisfaction when they are in a committed relationship. Sexperts rarely emphasize specific sexual techniques and shine a spotlight on the importance of being mindfully present, feeling connected, mutual respect, and good communication. Understandings the quality of a relationships’ sex life requires understanding how partners relate to each other daily. Relationships where couples are happy with communication are relationships where couples stay more sexually satisfied over time. Regardless of how much they have sex, couples are more satisfied with their sex lives the more they report positive behaviors, and the less they report negative ones. For example, expressing approval, complimenting, and not dominating conversations or arguing all the time will improve sexual satisfaction even if nothing else in a relationship’s sex life changes. Great communication is super sexy! We’re most likely to feel understood, validated, and cared for by our partners when they’re responsive. When our partners’ actions to our disclosures and vulnerability meet and exceed our desires and goals, we’re happier. Independent from the general level of relationship satisfaction, the more responsive partners are to each other, the stronger their sexual desire will be for each other. Responsive partners make each other feel wanted, desired, special, and unique. Responsive partners are perceived to be more attractive to their partners and to people outside of the relationship. Regardless of spiritual, religious, political, cultural, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and other differences, responsiveness is a universal turn-on. We want our partners to understand, validate, and care for us when we are afraid or disappointed, and we also want them to be responsive when we express sexual desire and arousal. The more partners invest time in understanding each other and their sexual preferences, the more they’ll enjoy their sex lives. Instead of spending your time looking for the perfect lover, invest your time in creating and nourishing the perfect love.

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