Study highlights the role of emotion regulation in couples coping with clinically low sexual interest

New research sheds light on the importance of emotion regulation strategies among couples with Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder. The findings, which appear in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, suggest that a strategy known as emotional reappraisal is linked to better relational and sexual well-being.

“Low sexual desire and/or arousal is one of the most common sexual complaints among women, yet reliable treatment options are scarce,” said study author Justin P. Dubé of Dalhousie University.

“Medications, for example, aren’t much better than placebo and there are currently no psychological interventions for couples coping with women’s low sexual desire. Thus, we wanted to identify whether a psychosocial factor — emotion regulation — might be linked to couple’s adjustment to low sexual desire/arousal. Support for our predictions would suggest couples’ emotion regulation be included as targets for treatment of Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD).”

“My interest in emotion regulation also stemmed from personal experience. I sustained a severe concussion prior to starting graduate school. This injury interfered with my ability to effectively manage my emotions, which I noticed was taking a toll on my relationships,” Dubé said.

“I had a hunch that my experience might generalize. Fortunately, my interests overlapped with my supervisor, Dr. Natalie Rosen, and she provided the support I needed to test my predictions.”

The researchers surveyed 87 women diagnosed with FSIAD, as well as their male partners, regarding emotion regulation, relationship satisfaction, anxiety, depression, and other factors. All of the couples had been in a relationship for at least 6 months.

Emotion regulation was assessed with a questionnaire that asked participants how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “When I’m upset, I believe that wallowing in it is all I can do” and “When I’m upset, I lose control over my behavior.”

Dubé and his colleagues found that greater difficulty regulating negative emotion was related to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety for both women with FSIAD and their partners.

For men, greater difficulty regulating negative emotion was linked to greater sexual distress. Surprisingly, women’s emotion regulation was not associated with their own or their partner’s sexual desire or distress — but this finding could be due to methodological limitations.

The use of suppression to regulate one’s emotions was linked to lower relationship satisfaction. The use of emotional reappraisal by both men and women, on the other hand, was linked to lower depression, lower anxiety, and lower perceived conflict. Men’s greater use of emotional reappraisal was also linked to their own higher partner-focused sexual desire.

“The main takeaway is that emotion regulation is linked to the adjustment of both members of couples coping with clinically low sexual interest/arousal. Thus, couples who are better able to manage their emotions may experience greater psychological, relational, and sexual well-being. This can be achieved by relying less on emotional suppression (i.e., concealing emotions) and more on emotional reappraisal (i.e., reframing a situation) in sexual contexts,” Dubé told PsyPost.

“For example, a woman with FSIAD may reframe a sexual experience to focus on intimacy with her partner, even if her sexual desire or arousal is low,” the researchers explained.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One major caveat of the current study is that our analyses were completed using data from people in mixed-gendered relationships. So, we cannot be sure whether our results extend to same-gendered couple,” Dubé explained.

“We also used a cross-sectional design. This means that we collected all of our data at one point in time. We cannot, therefore, make causal interpretations of our results. For example, it is possible that people who report better well-being in their relationship simply find it easier to regulate their emotions (rather than emotion regulation predicting their better well-being).”

Future research should help to clear up some of these lingering questions.

“We are building on the current research using a more rigorous design. Our new study combines online questionnaires with observational and longitudinal methods. Couples come into our lab and discuss an area of sexual disagreement within their relationship. We then see how their emotion regulation during this discussion (self-reported and objectively coded by observers) predicts their sexual well-being over the course of a year (assessed via multiple online questionnaires),” Dubé told PsyPost.

“We predict that people with better emotion regulation during this discussion will report better sexual well-being over the long term, as will their partners. Stay tuned for results!”

The study, “Emotion Regulation in Couples Affected by Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder“, Justin P. Dubé, Serena Corsini‑Munt, Amy Muise, and Natalie O. Rosen.