Despite what many popular authors propose, a new study finds that more sex does not necessarily lead to greater relationship satisfaction. In fact, in the particular study, couples who had more sex at the researchers request experienced a slight decrease in both sexual and general relationship satisfaction. In the words of the authors of the study…
“The couples instructed to increase sexual frequency did have more sex. However, it did not lead to increased, but instead to a small decrease, in happiness. Looking further, the researchers found that couples instructed to have more sex reported lower sexual desire and a decrease in sexual enjoyment. It wasn’t that actually having more sex led to decreased wanting and liking for sex. Instead, it seemed to be just the fact that they were asked to do it, rather than initiating on their own.”
Emotional Intimacy Drives Satisfaction
On the one hand, it makes sense that couples who are told to do anything would find it less pleasurable than if that activity emerge more naturally from their relationship, but I wonder if more isn’t going on here. In my book, Holy Sex! I note other research that ties sexual satisfaction not so much to frequency, but to the degree of emotional intimacy a couple enjoys. For instance, last week I reported the results of a study showing that couples who experiences high levels of emotional intimacy can manage differences in levels of sexual desire better than couples who have lower levels of emotional intimacy. These couples may not be in the mood for sex, but because they feel emotionally close to their partner, they don’t mind extending themselves–at first–for their partner’s sake, but then they end up enjoying themselves as well. Researchers refer to this positive relationship quality as “sexual communal strength.” That is, the ability to be sexually generous, even when one isn’t in the mood, without feeling taken advantage of and even being able to enjoy the experience despite not starting out in the same place. Sexual communal strength is directly related to the degree of emotional and spiritual intimacy a couple enjoys.
Use = Shame & Shutting Down
I wonder if what this study shows isn’t the opposite. Couples who have lower levels of emotional intimacy will often feel resentful about increased sexual intimacy. From the perspective of the theology of the body, couples in this situation often intuit that they are not so much experiencing more a loving act as they are feeling like they are being used as an object of gratification. Because we were not made by God to be treated as objects, we naturally rebel against being treated that way–even when we don’t consciously realize we’re doing it. Couples with lower emotional intimacy tend to think of sex as scratching an itch–something they do if they feel the urge for it. There isn’t anything wrong with this as far as it goes–even St. Augustine acknowledged this function of sex as being appropriate to marriage. Even so, the more lovers think of sex as scratching an itch, the more they both tend to see themselves as things being used to scratch each other’s itch rather than persons being invited into a deeper, more intimate relationship with one another. The more we feel used the more we experience a sense of shame that makes us shut down and withdraw so that we can protect ourselves from being treated as objects. Sometimes this happens consciously, sometimes not, but humans almost universally have a powerfully negative reaction to even the perception that they are being used and they automatically close up in an effort to protect their sense of dignity as persons.
I think it would have been interesting if researchers in this most recent study had controlled for emotional intimacy. Regardless, the take-away for readers of this blog is that more sex doesn’t necessarily equal a better relationship. If you want both better sex and greater relationship satisfaction, you have to cultivate emotional intimacy by making regular time to work, play, talk, and pray together every day so that you can build up the shared body of experiences that lead to deeper levels of intimacy, shared connection, and mutual understanding and respect.
For more information on how you can have a more passionate, intimate, affirming sexual relationship in your marriage, check out Holy Sex! The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.