You would think having lots of sex would make couples happier. After all that seems like common sense. If your relationship is going well, you’re more inclined to have sex; and if you are having plenty of sex, well then, your relationship must be going well.
Interesting enough, newlyweds who have a lot of sex don’t report being more satisfied than those who have sex less often. But the key word here is “report.” New research published in Psychological Science has found that their automatic behavioural responses don’t align with this.
According to Lindsey L. Hicks of Florida State University who lead the research, plenty of sex does affect how partners feel about each other.
“We found that the frequency with which couples have sex has no influence on whether or not they report being happy with their relationship, but their sexual frequency does influence their more spontaneous, automatic, gut-level feelings about their partners,” Hicks explains.
“This is important in light of research from my colleagues demonstrating that these automatic attitudes ultimately predict whether couples end up becoming dissatisfied with their relationship.”
Frequent sex offers many benefits from an evolutionary perspective. It makes it more likely that children will be conceived and it helps bond partners, which is certainly ideal for child-rearing. However, when scientists ask couples about their sex lives and relationship satisfaction, they generally don’t find a correlation between the two. It may well be because people are often uncomfortable discussing their sex lives — particularly with curious researchers!
“We thought these inconsistencies may stem from the influence of deliberate reasoning and biased beliefs regarding the sometimes taboo topic of sex,” says Hicks.
Obviously our gut-level reactions don’t require deliberation — that’s why they are called gut feelings. Hicks and her team hypothesised that gut feelings may be influenced by implicit perceptions and associations that we’re not consciously aware of. To test this, they decided to assess relationship satisfaction using self-reporting surveys and automatic behavioural measures.
In their study, a total of 216 newlyweds completed a questionnaire about their relationship; the extent they agreed with statements such as “we have a good marriage”; and their overall feelings towards their partner and their marriage. The researchers also asked couples to estimate how many times they had had sex in the previous four months.
After that they completed a computer classification task. Participants looked a computer screen, words appeared, and they had to decide whether the word was positive or negative. However, before a word appeared, a picture of their partner flashed onscreen for 300 milliseconds.
The thinking behind this was that participants’ response times would indicate how strongly the word and partner were associated at an automatic level — the faster the response time, the stronger the association between the word and the partner. If the participants took more time to respond to negative words than positive words, it would suggest that the partner’s picture was associated with implicit positive feelings.
Like other researchers before them, Hicks and her team found no association between how often a couple had sex and their self-reported levels of happiness. However, the automatic behavioural responses told a different story. Frequency of sex was correlated with positive implicit gut feelings about their partners. The more sex a couple had, the more strongly they associated their partners with positive attributes. And what’s more, it was the same for men and women.
“Our findings suggest that we’re capturing different types of evaluations when we measure explicit and automatic evaluations of a partner or relationship,” says Hicks. “Deep down, some people feel unhappy with their partner but they don’t readily admit it to us, or perhaps even themselves.”
Of course, as Hicks and her team noted, asking couples to remember who often they have sex is an imprecise measure, and it is not yet clear if the findings are applicable to all couples or just newlyweds like the couples they studied. However, the findings are certainly interesting.
“These studies illustrate that some of our experiences, which can be either positive or negative, affect our relationship evaluations whether we know it or not,” Hicks concludes.