The Real Reason Couples Have Sex
Two New Studies Examine What Motivates Couples to Have Sex
By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Mr. Brinton, also 34, appreciates his wife's gesture. "But afterward," he says, "I always feel guilty, that I've been selfish."
Both studies were what researchers call "daily diary" studies. In the first, 108 heterosexual dating couples completed a survey every day for two weeks. On days that they had sex, the partners each answered 26 questions about their motives, rating them from 1 to 7. Examples: "To prevent my partner from becoming upset" or "To feel better about myself." They also rated their relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction and desire each day.
The results: On days when a person's motivation to have sex is more positively oriented, he or she felt more satisfied—both in the relationship and sexually—and had a higher level of desire. Conversely, on days when someone was motivated to have sex by more negative goals, he or she felt less satisfied and less desire.
Even more interesting, the researchers say: A person's sexual motivation affected his or her partner's gratification. When someone had sex for positive reasons, the partner felt more desire and relationship satisfaction. When someone had sex for negative reasons, the partner felt less satisfied in the relationship and less sexually satisfied.
The researchers found no difference when it came to gender. "Men do have higher desire in general, but the motives for sex and the way they make people feel aren't different for men and women," says Dr. Muise.
Also, regardless of how often a couple had sex, the results of the research were the same.
"One thing we wanted to know is whether it really matters to your partner why you want to have sex, as long as they are getting what they want," says Dr. Muise. The answer, she says, is yes. "If I am having sex more for approach goals, it increases my desire and satisfaction, so my partner probably senses that and it contributes to their outcome. Our satisfaction carries over to them."
The second study followed 44 married or cohabitating couples for three weeks—and then followed up four months later. The results were very similar to the first study.
And these effects held steady over time. People who had sex mostly for positive reasons over the course of the diary reported higher sexual satisfaction four months later, while people who had sex mostly for negative reasons had lower sexual satisfaction and desire. (Ditto, in both cases, for their partners.)
So is it better to have sex for negative, or avoidance, reasons than not at all? The answer is complicated. Research shows that on days when we have sex we feel more satisfied in our relationship than on days when we don't. And yet when people have sex more often for negative motives, the bad outcomes build up. Dr. Muise's conclusion: "Unless the sex is highly avoidance motivated, it might be OK in the moment," she says. "But you definitely get more benefits from approach motivation."
How can you become more positively motivated when it comes to sex? If you're feeling like you'd just rather go to sleep, try tuning into the emotional connection between you and your partner, says Julie Hanks, a clinical social worker in Salt Lake City. "Lead with what you want instead of what you don't want to happen," she says.
About a year ago, Ms. Brinton decided she and her husband needed to work on their sex life. "I thought, 'I want to enjoy sex. I want to feel connected to my husband. I want to reclaim my sexuality.' "
So she started doing things to make herself feel sexy: She bought new lingerie and started reading erotic romance novels.
Ms. Brinton also asked her husband to go to a sex therapist with her.
Her husband says he was thrilled. He figured there would be a lot of sex as homework. But, at least initially, their homework was to focus on real communication—not just small talk—about issues unrelated to sex. "I came to realize that you can't have a great, intimate sex life until you have learned to connect outside of the bedroom," says Mr. Brinton, who owns a custom-framing business.
Eventually, their conversations led to talk of sex—and then more sex. Once "we knew how to talk about other things, we felt comfortable with the difficult questions about what the other person likes in bed," says Mr. Brinton.
They say they are both careful to focus on feeling good. "Every reason we have sex now is a positive for me," says Ms. Brinton.
—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Bonds@wsj.com or follow her column at www.Facebook.com/EBernsteinWSJ or www.Twitter.com/EBernsteinWSJ.