Do You Need to be Sexually Satisfied to be Relationally Satisfied?

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Sexual and relationship satisfaction: Can you have one without the other?

Intertwined

Photo: Foto Iervolino on Flikr

Research has consistently shown that sexual and relationship satisfaction are related, it is the nature of this relationship that is less understood.

Do you need to be sexually satisfied to be satisfied in your relationship? This question has led many researchers to try and understand the intertwined nature of satisfactions in romantic relationships.

Also, it is a question that is quite applicable to real life. Should you break off a relationship with a less-than-spicy sex life? Or should you stick it out and hope the sexual chemistry blooms as the relationship develops? Alternatively, if the sex is hot but the relationship is not, should you keep it going?

The Research

Research has consistently shown that sexual and relationship satisfaction are related, it is the nature of this relationship that is less understood. Unsolved is the causal direction – the issue of what came first – the chicken or the egg?

Understanding whether there is a causal direction for this relationship requires longitudinal research. Which, as implied by the name, takes extra effort on behalf of the researcher as you are following people over time. Researchers have to deal with drop-out rates (in addition to break-up rates) in their sample.

In 2005, Canadian sex researcher Sandra Byers published a paper in the Journal of Sex Research that examined sexual and relationship satisfaction longitudinally. After measuring sexual and relationship satisfaction in a sample of 87 people twice over the course of 18 months, Byers concluded that more complex models are necessary (e.g.: longer time period, more measurement points, larger sample, dyadic sample) to examine this complex relationship but that sexual and relationship satisfaction do change concurrently.

In 2002, Sprecher published a study that used couples, and found that as one satisfaction increased so did the other, and vice versa, but did not solve the directionality issue. Also, most of this research has been conducted in heterosexual samples, certainly limiting the generalizability of the results.

Therapeutic Implications

There are entire books and theoretical frameworks based upon sexual and relationship satisfaction being interconnected. Constructing the Sexual Crucible is a book that was written by Schnarch years ago (1991) and discusses how to apply this concept to couples therapy. Sex therapists often use this framework by using the sexual context as a window into the relationship functioning.

The Separation of Sex from Relationships

Although all of this research supports that sexual and relationship satisfaction are heavily intertwined, what about those people who are able to separate their sexual experiences from their relationship contexts?

For some, sex is not a big deal, and it is way more about being in tune with your partner relationally. For others, their preference is to have sex without a relationship. Different dynamics work well for different people.

One thing is clear, sexual and relationship satisfaction are intertwined, and the way they function together seems to be incredibly complex and perhaps context dependent.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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