Couples with similar levels of personal autonomy tend to have more sexual desire, study finds

Are you a clingy lover or do you maintain your independence? New exploratory research has investigated how our sense of personal autonomy is related to sexual desire.

The findings, published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, suggest that couples with a similar level of autonomy in their relationship tend to have a better sex life.

“While I was studying at UW-Madison, I started to get really interested in primatology and development or maintenance of social relationships within a community. I guess studying couples is a natural development of that initial interest,” said study author Luana Cunha Ferreira.

“I have always been puzzled by couple relationships,” she told PsyPost, “by how they function and how they can seem so strong and yet be so fragile. What keeps them great beyond all its troubles and sorrows? What are the ingredients a type of connection that survives throughout the years? What makes partners choose each other day after day when so many other choices are appealing?”

“Sexual desire is an important feature of optimal couple relationships but it won’t last alone for much time. Both emotional intimacy and personal autonomy appear to have an important role in successful relationships and I wanted to investigate that role.”

The researchers were interested in differentiation of self, a concept that describes how much autonomy a person maintains in an intimate relationship. A person with low differentiation of self tends to become more dependent and allows their relationships to dissolve their sense of self.

In their study of 33 heterosexual couples, Ferreira and her colleagues found that couples with more similar levels of differentiation of self tended to have higher levels of sexual desire. Conversely, the greater the discrepancy between two partners’ differentiation of self, the lower their sexual desire tended to be.

“Differentiation of self is a trait-like personal characteristic that appear to have a major role in the quality of our relationships, as it help regulate closeness and distance. A well differentiated person can be intensely intimate with another without losing their sense of self and independence,” Ferreira explained.

“Since there is some evidence that differentiation is also related to desire, I wanted to investigate the dynamic of these variables in real life couples. Interestingly, more differentiation is not always better. This study suggested that couples with similarity trumps quantity in terms of differentiation.”

“That is, couples with similar levels of differentiation fare better in terms of desire than couples with higher, yet different levels of this variable,” Ferreira told PsyPost. “So more autonomy is not always the better, as it might be more important for couples to have consonant views and feeling regarding autonomy, closeness and emotional reactivity.”

But does the similarity in differentiation of self lead to more sexual desire or does more sexual desire lead to a more similar differentiation of self? The study used cross-sectional methodology, meaning the researchers cannot draw any inferences about cause-and-effect.

“Due to its sampling procedures, we can not infer causality from this study, that is, we can not say that couples had a higher sexual desire due to having similar levels of differentiation of self,” Ferreira said. “Also, sample size is not great. We would love to develop bigger, longitudinal studies, possibly with daily qualitative assessments, to better tap these processes.”

The study, “Partners’ Similarity in Differentiation of Self is Associated With Higher Sexual Desire: A Quantitative Dyadic Study“, was also co-authored by Isabel Narciso, Rosa Ferreira Novo, and CĂ­cero Roberto Pereira.