Does good sex lead to a good relationship or does a good relationship cause good sex? To many people, this may seem like a chicken and egg problem. A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that relationship and sexual satisfaction have a bidirectional relationship, where each one affects the other.
Sex is an important part of a romantic relationship. Sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction are closely linked, though the mechanisms causing them to be related are less clear. Some research suggests that because sex is thought of as a positive aspect, it leads to higher relationship satisfaction. Other research suggests that a happy and stable relationship itself leads to more satisfying sex.
Many studies suggest a bidirectional relationship between the two. Additionally, there are other factors that could serve as potential moderators, including stress, neuroticism, attachment style, length of relationship, and more. This study sought to better understand the relationship between sexual and marital satisfactions by exploring directionality and potential moderators.
Zhao and colleagues utilized 287 married participants recruited through Prolific for a study on the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants needed to be married, based in the US or UK, and be willing to record a video for the study. The sample was predominantly white and in a heterosexual marriage. Participants were told the study was meant to explore effects of the pandemic on families.
Participants completed demographic information and measures on neuroticism, attachment insecurity, self-esteem, and developmental history. Participants then completed a diary for the following 12 days on sex, stress, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction.
Results showed support for a bidirectional relationship between sexual and marital satisfaction. This relationship was time-lagged, with marital satisfaction predicting sexual satisfaction the next day, and sexual satisfaction predicting marital satisfaction the next day. This relationship was seen for both global sexual satisfaction and satisfaction with sex that occurred that day.
This relationship was also seen when gender, neuroticism, attachment, self-esteem, age, length of marriage, and childhood experiences were all controlled for. These results were moderated by daily stress, with the results being consistent when stress was higher, but not lower, than normal.
The researchers noted that sexual and marital satisfaction both often decline over time, and that previous research has indicated that individuals who remain satisfied with their relationships tend to be satisfied at the outset, while individuals who experience the greatest declines tend to be less satisfied at the outset.
“The bidirectional association that emerged here perhaps helps explain why these initial differences in satisfaction widen over time,” Zhao and colleagues wrote. “Individuals who are initially more satisfied with their marriages engage in more positive interactions, such as sex, which leads to continued marital happiness.”
“In contrast, individuals who are less satisfied with their marriages at the outset may engage in less satisfying sex, leading to reduced satisfaction with the marriage, and even more reduced sexual satisfaction in the future. The vicious cycle continues. Given that this process appears to operate at a daily level, it is not surprising that relationships can change as quickly as they do.”
“Further, our moderation findings suggest that stress accelerates this process,” the researchers added.
This study took important steps into better understanding the relationship between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that the study utilized individuals, rather than couples, leaving it unable to study both partners and their similarities or differences in satisfaction. Additionally, most of the participants were White and female from English-speaking countries; future research could utilize a more expansive sample.
The study, “Evidence of a Bidirectional Association Between Daily Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction That Is Moderated by Daily Stress“, was authored by Charlene Zhao, James K. McNulty, Jordan A. Turner, Lindsey L. Hicks, and Andrea L. Meltzer.