Couple Tips

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.

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.

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