What Predicts Relationship Satisfaction?
Part 3: Sexual Satisfaction
The relationship between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction has been vigorously researched and debated in recent decades. Common arguments are that one influences the other, or that the influence is bidirectional or that there is no relationship between the two factors. If this has been vigorously researched, then why is it debatable? Firstly, relationships are complicated, varied and are influenced by many factors. Therefore, trying to boil down two significant variables in romantic relationships to a simple one or two-way relationship is challenging. Secondly, relationship factors don’t develop independently in a straight line. They are much more likely to develop systematically. Despite these challenges, recent research supports a bidirectional relationship (sexual satisfaction influences relationship satisfaction and visa versa) (Quinn-Nilas, 2020). This article will explain how to understand the relationship between sexual and relationship satisfaction and how to improve it in your own life.
It would come as no surprise to most people that stress moderates (alters) the relationship between sexual and relationship satisfaction. However, what is surprising is that those who are highly stressed experience a bigger impact on their relationship satisfaction the day after having sex (Zhao et al., 2022). Perhaps this means that highly stressed people appreciate the stress-reducing effects of sex and carry that appreciation to their relationship. Allred et al. (2016) suggests that people who are highly stressed tend to rely upon mental shortcuts. Therefore, they would generalize their feelings about their sexual satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) to their relationship satisfaction. Whereas less stressed people may consider multiple facets of their relationship in their appraisal. Whilst there is only so much, we can do about the level of stress we experience daily, there is something we can do to manage our perception of our relationship.
TIP: Consider your stress level when you are feeling dissatisfied with your relationship. If you are highly stressed, you may be making unhelpful generalisations about your relationship or sex life. Especially considering that during highly stressful situations we tend to have less energy and time for intimacy. In those moments it may be helpful to reflect on the other satisfying and meaningful aspects of your relationship.
Gender and Sexuality
The research shows higher and more stable levels of sexual desire in men compared to women over the lifespan (Wieczorek et al., 2022). This was true for both homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Importantly around the age of 40 most women in the study experienced a steep decline in sexual desire towards their partner and attractive people in general. Whereas for men, their sexual desire peaked in their 20s and remained stable into their old age. Significant differences in sexual desire in romantic partners can lead to sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. However, this is not limited to the data above, differences in desire level can occur in relationships with any combination of genders and sexualities.
TIP: Whether you have a higher or lower sexual desire than your partner, it’s important to not take it personally. Firstly, because it’s likely that it’s not personal. There are many biological, contextual and psychological factors that influence a person’s sexual desire in a given moment. Secondly, how you respond to your partner declining sex is the greatest predictor of how frequently you will have sex in the future. Research from the Gottman Institute found that those who responded with understanding and kindness had more sex in the future than those who were critical or pressuring. So, remember it’s not personal and being kind might get you laid.
Sexual satisfaction is a primary predictor of relationship satisfaction. As we’ve seen, this can look very different for different people. The research suggests that taking a broad perspective of your relationship and treating your partner with understanding will likely improve your sexual and relationship satisfaction. If you still feel like you need further support and assistance, we have a range of psychologists & therapists who have experience in this.
Józefacka, N. M., Szpakiewicz, E., Lech, D., Guzowski, K., & Kania, G. (2023). What Matters in a Relationship-Age, Sexual Satisfaction, Relationship Length, and Interpersonal Closeness as Predictors of Relationship Satisfaction in Young Adults. International journal of environmental research and public health, 20(5), 4103. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20054103
Quinn-Nilas, C. (2020). Relationship and sexual satisfaction: A developmental perspective on bidirectionality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(2), 624–646. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519876018
Wieczorek, L. L., Chivers, M., Koehn, M. A., DeBruine, L. M., & Jones, B. C. (2022). Age Effects on Women’s and Men’s Dyadic and Solitary Sexual Desire. Archives of sexual behavior, 51(8), 3765–3789. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-022-02375-8
Zhao, C., McNulty, J.K., Turner, J.A. et al. Evidence of a Bidirectional Association Between Daily Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction That Is Moderated by Daily Stress. Arch Sex Behav 51, 3791–3806 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-022-02399-0