Sex is like money; only too much is enough
— John Updike
It’s a popular notion that couples who engage in more sex are more contented in their relationship than couples who engage in less. But is it true? Perhaps sex operates like money. In that area, research has revealed that the greater one’s family income, the higher the level of reported satisfaction — but only to a point. Beyond a certain income level, more money doesn’t enhance satisfaction. Could it be that way when it comes to sex?
Studies have demonstrated that higher sexual frequency leads to greater romantic relationship happiness. And that higher sexual frequency also leads to greater overall well-being.i ii But researchers at the University of Toronto wondered whether there’s an upper limit beyond which more sex doesn’t seem to increase relationship satisfaction or well-being?iii To investigate that question, they conducted three studies examining data from over 30,000 individuals. Their 2015 findings indicated that what’s true for money seems true for sex: beyond a certain point — an average of one sexual encounter per week — increasing the frequency of sex doesn’t seem to produce added benefits for people in ongoing, partnered relationships.
Why is more not better? Definitive answers haven’t been determined. Perhaps, as it is with money, we compare ourselves to those around us and feel satisfied based on an assumption that weekly sex is typical for people like us. Or maybe when it comes to couples with busy lives, including work and children, feeling pressured to engage in more frequent sex may be stressful in itself. Perhaps the challenge of making the effort (and finding the time) for more sex cancels out the potential benefits of greater frequency.
But what matters more than statistical averages is each couple determining its own optimal frequency. Honest conversation is the way to go: How are we feeling about our sex life? Are we content with its frequency? What obstacles might be standing in the way of a more satisfying sex life? Can we think of ways to resolve those obstacles? Rarely is this an easy conversation, so schedule it — put it on the calendar — for when there’s energy and no distractions, when moods are upbeat and stresses are low. Egos bruise easily when talking about sex, so be gentle and kind and assume good intentions in one another. You’ll probably think about this conversation many times afterwards, so participate in a way that you’re unlikely to later regret.
i Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004). “Money, sex and happiness: An empirical study.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 106, 393–415. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9442.2.
ii Cheng, Z., & Smyth, R. (2015). “Sex and happiness.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 112, 26–32.
iii Muise, A., U. Schimmack and E.A. Impett, “Sexual frequency predicts greater well-being, but more is not always better.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 10.1177/1948550615616462.
Women once sent love letters on scented stationery, hoping the fragrance would arouse the object of their affection. Those days are largely gone, but the wish to arouse a loved one still remains. Only the vehicles of communication have changed.
Take sexting. While it’s gotten bad press for its role in political and celebrity scandals, research is pointing to something called healthy sexting — a vehicle for enhancing the amorous dimensions of loving relationships. It might be the texting of a few spicy and seductive words, or selfie photos capturing just enough to whet the imagination and invite amorous or erotic thoughts. While there’s no limit to the creative ways texting can be used to suggest or entice or arouse, some important parameters can help to distinguish healthy from unhealthy sexting.
Healthy sexting is consensual. Sender and receiver ought to agree, prior to a first message, that sex-oriented texting is acceptable and welcome. This is especially important when sexts take on an X-rated aspect, where people’s sense of propriety may widely differ. Receiving sexts without prior agreement can be unwelcome and unsettling. Studies have found significant percentages of people — particularly women — sexting as a result of pressure from their partners, and finding themselves afterwards feeling regretful and remorseful for what they’ve done. Some psychologists have come to view the pressure to participate in sexting as a form of intimate partner violence, which undermines the well-being of both the individuals and their relationship.i
Healthy sexting occurs within a context of physical and emotional safety. Just as a healthy sexual relationship flourishes when partners feel physically safe and emotionally understood and respected, the same is true with sexting. One study found that people afraid of looking bad in a partner’s eyes sexted more than people emotionally secure in their relationship.ii Sexting just to win approval may not be coercive per se, but it may not be freely chosen either — and so it’s apt to stir feelings of guilt or regret afterwards.
Healthy sexting shouldn’t substitute for true intimacy. People uncomfortable with direct, face-to-face sexuality may rely on sexting as a means of making sexual connection. When it becomes a substitute for the real thing, rather than a fun and pleasurable enhancement, it can turn into an unhealthy habit promoting the illusion of true connection. That’s when consultation with a therapist might be of help.
(Stories abound of kids getting their hands on their parents’ smartphones, and former significant others using old sexts in ways not originally intended. Prudent sexting should weigh such risks.)
i Drouin, M., J. Ross, and E. Tobin. “Sexting: a new, digital vehicle for intimate partner aggression?” Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 50, September 2015, 197-204.
ii Weisskirch, R., M. Drouin, and R. Delevi. “Relational anxiety and sexting.” Journal of Sex Research, published online 31 May 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1181147
Tip to all heterosexual men in long-term relationships: women’s sexual desire operates differently than your own.
Although research has found that heterosexual men in the early stage of relationships typically overestimate a woman’s sexual interest, this overestimation doesn’t persist once relationships evolve into long-term. Recent studies have found that men in ongoing, romantic relationships seem to underestimate their female partner’s sexual desire. In other words, men in long-term relationships appear particularly bad at guessing whether their wives or girlfriends are turned on.i
Sexual desire is of course complicated. In recent years, sex researchers have begun to think of arousal not only as something that occurs spontaneously — the urge strikes suddenly and without warning, familiar to a great many men — but as a response to some sort of pleasurable experience. Spontaneous desire versus responsive desire. Women in long-term relationships tend to experience responsive desire.
So while it may not take much for men to feel turned on — what’s happening in the moment may not play that big a role — for many women the context is critical. Am I feeling emotionally close to him these days? Is he treating me especially well? Is the mood conducive to romance? Perhaps because spontaneous desire is what most men experience in themselves, they don’t recognize responsive desire when it stirs in the woman next to them. (By comparison, surveys have found women to be pretty good at identifying when their male partner is interested or not.)
As a relatively new concept in the field of sex research, responsive desire has been less studied than spontaneous desire, which may explain why it’s less understood. This may be the reason why it’s more likely to go unnoticed, leaving a lot of men missing out on opportunities waiting to be enjoyed.
So what should men do? Don’t assume she’s not interested. Boldly make the right overture and see where it goes. Or offer a simple wink and playfully ask, “Are you in the mood right now?”
i Muise, Amy et al. “Not in the mood? Men under- (not over-) perceive their partner’s sexual desire in established intimate relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 110(5), May 2016, 725-742. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000046
“I’m sorry” doesn’t always end couple conflict in a satisfying way. Often something more is needed, an expression in words or actions that speaks to and “corrects” the underlying experience of one or both partners.
Two kinds of underlying experience characterize much couple conflicti: The first is when we perceive threat from a partner — when power or authority is flaunted in a way designed to stifle us, to demonstrate how wrong we are, to scold and belittle us. This triggers our sense of intimidation and threat.
The second underlying experience is when we perceive neglect — when a partner’s actions or words send a message of indifference, when the implication is “you don’t matter” or “I don’t have time for this” or “you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
Depending on whether we perceive threat or neglect, what leads to a satisfying resolution may differ. When we perceive threat, we want our partner to relinquish power and end an adversarial posture. Instead of a tone of intimidation behind his or her words, we want to feel a sense of equality restored, of power shared. Here are some ways it can be done:
- Admitting fault and showing vulnerability with words like, “I know I was wrong” or “that was insensitive of me” or “I was in a hurry and should have been more careful.”
- Showing personal respect with words like, “I shouldn’t have treated you that way” or “you deserve better from me.”
- Compromising (rather than striving to “win” or dominate) with words like “you’ve raised some good points” or “can we find a way so that both of us get something we want?”
When we perceive neglect during conflict, we want our partner to demonstrate a true investment in the relationship — and in us. Here are some ways it can be done:
- Offering gestures of affection, like an embrace or extending a hand.
- Demonstrating an investment in the relationship, with words like “I’m glad you raised this matter” or “it’s good that we talked.”
- Showing an interest in more — not less — communication, with words like “is there more you want to say?” or “are you satisfied with the response I’ve given you?”
The right words and actions can often exceed — without necessarily precluding — the value of an apology in effectively resolving conflict.
iSanford, K., & *Wolfe, K. L. (2013). What married couples want from each other during conflicts: An investigation of underlying concerns. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32, 674-699.
“My friend Caroline is driving me crazy,” your partner reports, exasperated. “She keeps pushing me to go shopping again, but I don’t have her endless energy for that.” Quickly, you’re poised to suggest a way she can beg off on her friend’s invitation. But before the words come out of your mouth, you notice you’re about to give advice. You notice that familiar impulse to help and solve and suggest … and you remember her telling you that she doesn’t want advice all the time — she wants simple listening. Because you noticed your impulse, you’re able to slow down and take another path. You won’t slip into being Mr. Fixit.
“I don’t want to visit your parents this summer,” your partner announces. “We saw them twice already this year, and you know how difficult your mother can be.” You’re ready to point out that the two of you visit his parents a lot more often than your parents. But before you open your mouth, you notice your body tightening, and the feeling of irritation … familiar signs of defensiveness. Because you noticed all that, you slow down and say only “tell me more,” deferring comments until later. You’ve learned that conversations rarely go well when you become defensive.
Noticing what’s stirring within us — observing ourselves before we open our mouths — allows us to sidestep our automatic and quick reactions that can get us into trouble. Noticing is the logical brain at work, and the best way to keep the emotional brain from hijacking the moment (see Two Brains, April/May 2014).
One of the greatest gifts we can give our partner — and ourselves — is being fully present in conversations. Being fully present requires that we prevent our own thoughts and feelings from getting in the way of our best listening (see How to “Get It,” April 2015). It begins by noticing our thoughts and feelings as they stir within us (see The Mind’s Traffic, Sept/Oct 2015). Noticing gives us the power to handle our quick reactions wisely: to think about where those reactions are coming from, and to set them aside until the proper moment, at least — if we find ourselves worked up — until we’ve “cooled off.”
Learning to observe ourselves requires practice — lots of it. But when the payoff is less bickering and fewer fights, you’re sure to find the practice well worth the investment.
Marriage has earned a reputation for offering health advantages: longer and happier lives, fewer medical challenges. But “it’s not the case that any marriage is better than none.”i Some studies have found better health among divorced or single people as compared to spouses in high conflict/high stress marriages. In fact, unhappy marriages have been associated with high blood pressure, suppressed immune response, obesity, and the leading killer of Americans: heart disease.
Researchers at Michigan State University looked at data from 1,200 married men and women between 57 and 85 years of age. Relationships in which one spouse regularly criticizes or makes demands were associated with a greater risk of heart disease in the other spouse. The effect was stronger for older couples, and the health risk greater for the female rather than male partner.ii
These 2014 data affirm an earlier study in which women reporting moderate to severe marital strain and with a history of cardiac trouble were found to be 2.9 times more likely to subsequently need heart surgery, suffer heart attacks, or die of heart disease when compared to women with similar cardiac histories but in low-stress marriages.iii
How to understand the connection between hearth health and marital strain? Perhaps repeated exposure to stress hormones like cortisol (which increases blood pressure) and adrenaline (which increases heart rate and blood pressure) gradually undermine heart function. With the body more vulnerable as we age — we’re frailer and immune function is less robust — marital stress may stimulate more intense cardiovascular responses. And because women tend to internalize negative feelings more than men — carrying around the painful emotions triggered by moments of marital discord — their hearts may pay a greater price for the toll that accumulates over time.
It makes sense then, from a heart-healthy perspective, for all couples — younger as well as older — to do what they can to learn the skills that contribute to marital harmony and effective problem solving … before cardiac problems develop. Maybe communication and conflict-resolution skills are as important as diet and exercise for promoting cardiac wellness. (See Argue Kindly, May 2010; Your Start-up, September 2010; Husbands: Warm It Up, January 2012; Complain Skillfully, September 2012).
If moderate to severe marital strain is a regular feature of your relationship, marriage counseling might be a very effective medicine.
i Umberson, D. et al. “You make me sick: marital quality and health over the life course.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2006 March 47(1):1-16.
ii Liu, H. and L. Waite. “Bad marriage, broken heart? Age and gender differences in the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risks among older adults.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2014 December 55: 403-423,doi:10.1177/0022146514556893
Small gestures can sometimes deliver big results.
Researchers at the University of Georgia studied nearly 500 married couples to investigate the connection between financial well being and the quality of the relationshipi. They wondered what the impact would be on a marriage when a couple faces tough economic times. While it was expected that financial distress would inevitably challenge any relationship and perhaps reduce the spouses’ level of marital satisfaction, the research found one thing that served as a kind of buffer, minimizing the negative impact: the expression of gratitude. Couples who made it a habit to regularly say thank you to one another were less harmed by any number of conventional marital stressors, including financial problems.
“Spousal gratitude,” wrote the authors, “promotes and protects marital quality.”
Other studies have found a similar effect. Some researchers have speculated about “a cycle of generosity” that enables relationships to thrive: spouses who report feeling more appreciated by their partners — hearing thank you on a regular basis — report being more appreciative of those partners, and in turn more inclined to be sensitive and responsive to those partners’ needs. ii
Once relationships pass through the early honeymoon and romance phase, it’s easy for us to take for granted the qualities in a partner that we appreciated early on. We can forget what once seemed special, focusing instead on traits and behaviors we now find annoying and unattractive. One way to check the inevitability of acclimating to (and taking for granted) our partner’s positive traits is by cultivating the habit of voicing appreciation, especially for the small things he or she does, like putting away the groceries, shoveling the walk, folding the laundry, checking the air in the tires, bringing in the morning paper. Expressing gratitude by offering a sincere and heartfelt thank you seem too small to matter, but small gestures can indeed deliver big results.
i Barton, A.W., Futris, T. G. and Nielsen, R. B. (2015), “Linking financial distress to marital quality: The intermediary roles of demand/withdraw and spousal gratitude expressions.” Personal Relationships, 22: 536–549. doi: 10.1111/pere.12094
ii Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012, May 28). “To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0028723