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How Important Is Sex in a Healthy Relationship?

A new study suggests the amount of sex a couple is having has more of an impact on the quality of a relationship than people want to admit.

| 3 min read

A new study suggests the amount of sex a couple is having has more of an impact on the quality of a relationship than people want to admit.

Does the amount of sex in a relationship directly correlate with how happy the couple is?

If you were to ask a group of researchers led by psychological scientist Lindsey L. Hicks of Florida State University, the answer might be,”it depends on how you ask.”

According to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), when Hicks and colleagues asked 216 newlyweds to rate various aspects of their relationships, the findings were in line with those of previous studies on the subject, which found no association between frequency of sex and self-reported relationship satisfaction.

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But in a test designed to identify positive and negative word associations after participants were shown a photo of their partner for 300 milliseconds, the results indicated that respondents are perhaps not being completely honest with themselves when it comes to self-reporting their satisfaction with their relationship and sex life.

The rationale behind the test is that participants’ response times indicate how strongly two items are associated at an automatic level. The faster the response time, the stronger the association between the partner and the word that appeared. Responding more slowly to negative words than to positive words that followed the picture of the partner would signify generally positive implicit attitudes toward the partner, according to an APS press release.

When researchers examined the results of the automatic association test they found participants' estimates of sexual frequency actually correlated with their automatic attitudes about their partners.

For both men and women, the more often the couple had sex, the more strongly they associated their partners with positive attributes, according to the study.

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“Our findings suggest that we’re capturing different types of evaluations when we measure explicit and automatic evaluations of a partner or relationship,” said Hicks. “Deep down, some people feel unhappy with their partner but they don’t readily admit it to us, or perhaps even themselves.”

Furthermore, the researchers found that over time the amount of sex a couple reported having was also linked with changes in the participant's automatic relationship attitudes.

“This is important in light of research from my colleagues demonstrating that these automatic attitudes ultimately predict whether couples end up becoming dissatisfied with their relationship,” said Hicks, who coauthored the study with James McNulty and Andrea Meltzer of Florida State University as well as Michael A. Olson of the University of Tennessee.

The researchers acknowledge that asking participants how often they remember having sex may not be the most precise measure of sexual frequency. And it remains to be seen whether the findings are applicable to all couples or specific to newly married couples like those they studied, but the research does illustrate the bias in self-reported surveys, particularly when it comes to sex and topics participants may not want to admit to, such as being sexually dissatisfied in their relationship.

“These studies illustrate that some of our experiences, which can be either positive or negative, affect our relationship evaluations whether we know it or not,” said Hicks.

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