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Why More Sex Isn’t the Key to Marital Bliss

It’s more like marital survival, according to a new study

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on May 2, 2016.

Are couples that have sex more often happier with their relationships? Over the years researchers have come down on both sides of the question, but a new study published in Psychological Science offers a bifold lesson: How much sex a romantically involved couple has doesn’t influence how satisfied they are with their relationship overall, but it does affect how they behave towards their partner in subtle yet pervasive ways.

The team, led by Lindsey L. Hicks of Florida State University, asked 120 newlywed couples to answer questions about how satisfied they were with their relationships. The couples rated qualities of their relationship (e.g., “Would you consider your relationship pleasant?”) and described overall feelings of satisfaction with their partner, relationship and marriage as a whole.

The newlyweds then completed a behavioral task. Subjects were shown slides of positive or negative words. Some slides were preceded by an image of their loved one which flashed for 300 milliseconds. Subjects were then asked to estimate how many times they had had sex in the last four months. This yielded a surprising pattern: Couples who had more sex didn’t say that they were more satisfied with their relationships, but they did more quickly identify words as positive when primed with an image of their partner.

What these findings suggest is that even if the frequency with which couples have sex doesn’t affect general relationship satisfaction, it influences their behavior in ways that affect first impressions and gut responses — reactions that happen faster than conscious thought. These kinds of reactions have small but constant effects on how people make judgments about their interactions with their partners. So people having more sex could be more likely to, say, appreciate a small kindness, smile at a text, or even give their partner benefit of the doubt about why the dishes haven’t been done.

So while having more sex isn’t necessarily the key to marital bliss, it might help couples get through the day without killing each other.