Low sexual desire is a common problem in couples and is considered a key contributor to disruptions in sexual and relational harmony. New research published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that heterosexual couples in Saudi Arabia had better sexual and relationship outcomes when both partners have high levels of sexual desire.
Much existing research on sexual desire has relied on the individual, and not enough on the couple, when assessing problems with sexual desire. Sexual desire discrepancies (SDD) are common in long-term relationships and do not automatically result in distress or dissatisfaction in the relationship for both partners. In the context of heterosexual relationships, research shows that both women and men are likely to be the low desire partner at some point in the relationship; however, SDD might cause more distress and negative outcomes when the man is the low desire partner due to gender stereotypes.
Important for the present research, much of the existing research on sexual desire has been done in WEIRD (i.e., Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) countries where relationships are characterized by sexual equality and joint sexual desire. Thus, it is important to look at sexual desire in other cultural contexts where gender and relationship norms differ.
“Saudi Arabia can be described as a male-dominant culture in which sexuality is regulated by restrictive attitudes, strong religious beliefs, and gender authority,” wrote study author Atia Attaky and colleagues. “It is perceived that only men can manage and initiate a sexual activity and women should always respond positively to their male partner’s desire and sexual needs. These strict gender roles clearly affect how Saudi Arabian couples will perceive and deal with different levels of sexual desire in their relationship.”
The authors were also interested in applying an attachment theory framework to the study of sexual desire. Specifically, positive experiences with an attachment figure in childhood are associated with more satisfying relationships in adulthood (i.e., secure attachment). Negative experiences with an attachment figure, however, can lead to insecure attachment or attachment avoidance, which might be characterized by feelings of incompetence, fear of rejection, and over-dependence on one’s partner.
Researchers recruited 100 heterosexual couples for this study. Half of the sample was recruited from people seeking treatment for sexual or marital problems at an outpatient psychiatric medical center in Riyadh. The other half was recruited from relatives of patients at the center and personal connections with the research team members.
Each couple filled out the questionnaires in a comfortable, private environment and did so independent of each other. Participants answered questions that measured sexual function, sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and attachment orientation.
Of the 100 couples, results show that 6 couples reported identical levels of sexual desire. Women reported more desire in 22 couples, and men reported more desire in 72 couples. Both male and female sexual desire were associated with sexual function, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. Further analysis showed that women reported better sexual function and higher sexual satisfaction when their male partner had higher desire than they did (compared to the other way around). Similarly, analyses show that men who have a more secure attachment orientation reported better sexual function when partners both have high sexual desire or when the man has more desire than the woman.
Women also reported better sexual function when partners both have high sexual desire, but especially so when their male partner had a more secure attachment orientation. For female attachment, women who were less anxious in their attachment orientation reported more sexual satisfaction when both partners have high sexual desire.
“In general, our results showed that higher levels of sexual desire were associated with better sexual function and more sexual and relational satisfaction in both male and female partners. In addition, attachment avoidance was associated with lower sexual desire, whereas attachment anxiety was associated with higher desire.”
The researchers do cite some limitations to their work. One of these is that cross-sectional nature of the study, which makes it impossible to determine whether mismatches in sexual desire or differences in attachment orientation are causing changes in sexual function and sexual and relationship satisfaction (or vice versa). Another limitation is how the participants were recruited. Perhaps recruiting from people who are already seeking help for sexual problems resulted in a biased sample of people who are more comfortable with sexual issues.
The study, “Attachment Orientation Moderates the Sexual and Relational Implications of Sexual Desire Discrepancies“, was authored by Atia Attaky, Gerjo Kok, and Marieke Dewitte.