Several large-scale surveys have shown that sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and sexual frequency decline with the length of time that partners have been in a relationship (Johnson, Wadsworth, Wellings, & Field, 1994, Klusmann, 2002). It is not a linear decline. Sex can increase or decrease in response to a vast array of mental, physical, relational, social, even financial events and experiences but it is universally accepted that a lack of sex is associated with the existence of other problems in the relationship and may indicate serious marital difficulty. When marriages suffer outside the bedroom, they may suffer inside it as well (Donnelly, 1993).
Not having sex makes couples unhappy, but does having more sex make couples any happier? This is the question researchers at Carnegie Mellon University set out to answer when they initiated the first study into the causal connection between sexual frequency and happiness. The researchers experimentally assigned some couples to have more sex than others, and observed both group’s happiness over a three month period. In a paper published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, they report that simply having more sex did not make couples happier, in part because the increased frequency led to a decline in wanting for and enjoyment of sex.
One hundred and twenty eight healthy individuals between the ages of 35–65 who were in married male-female couples participated in the research. The researchers randomly assigned the couples to one of two groups. The first group received no instructions on sexual frequency. The second group was asked to double their weekly sexual intercourse frequency. Each member of the participating couples completed three different types of surveys. At the beginning of the study, they answered questions to establish baselines. Daily during the experimental period, the participants answered questions online to measure health behaviors, happiness levels and the occurrence, type and enjoyableness of sex. The exit survey analyzed whether baseline levels changed over the three-month period.
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.
“Perhaps couples changed the story they told themselves about why they were having sex, from an activity voluntarily engaged in to one that was part of a research study. If we ran the study again, and could afford to do it, we would try to encourage subjects into initiating more sex in ways that put them in a sexy frame of mind, perhaps with babysitting, hotel rooms or Egyptian sheets, rather than directing them to do so,” said George Loewenstein, the study’s lead investigator and the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Despite the study’s results, Loewenstein continues to believe that most couples have too little sex for their own good, and thinks that increasing sexual frequency in the right ways can be beneficial. One of the study’s designers, Tamar Krishnamurti, suggested that the study’s findings may actually help couples to improve their sex lives and their happiness. “The desire to have sex decreases much more quickly than the enjoyment of sex once it’s been initiated. Instead of focusing on increasing sexual frequency to the levels they experienced at the beginning of a relationship, couples may want to work on creating an environment that sparks their desire and makes the sex that they do have even more fun,” said Krishnamurti, a research scientist in CMU’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy.
One criticism of this research would be that it attempts to look at sex as an isolated aspect of the relationship as a whole when, in fact, the association between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction is bidirectional (Henderson-King & Veroff, 1994). The quality of a couple’s romantic relationship and the quality of their sex life is linked (Sprecher, 1998; Wincze & Carey, 2001) Stable marriages in which partners consider themselves happy and satisfied are more likely to report high rates of sex than relationships characterized by friction and strain (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Doddridge, 1987; Greenblat, 1983; Trussell & Westoff, 1980).
Read the study at www.sciencedirect.com/.