August 4, 2011

Guest Blog: Can Sex Make A Challenging Partner Tolerable?

Grad Student Chelsea Heaven challenges research claiming that frequent sex overrides the problems of being married to a 'neurotic' personality

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Unconventional advice to be sure – but a recent study conducted by Russell & McNulty (2011) from the University of Tennessee titled Frequent Sex Protects Intimates From the Negative Implications of Their Neuroticism is currently making headlines in the sexuality blogosphere because it suggests that “frequent sex” may be the missing link that could reduce the negative effects of a neurotic personality trait in a marriage. The negative effects the authors are referring to are marital dissatisfaction, separation, and divorce. Wow – that sure sounds great – but unfortunately this is yet another study that has fallen victim to sensationalism.

The biggest problem I have is with the title of the study. The title states that frequent sex protects intimates from negative implications of their neuroticism. I understand that headlines need to attract attention – but one of the first things I learned in high school about conducting scientific research is that you never make absolute claims about your results. I would expect a headline such as this from a popular magazine, not the authors of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. This title is even more troubling because in the actual paper, the authors state that their results should be interpreted with caution because the study is based on mostly correlational data – yet the authors themselves make a very bold statement about their results. Definitely not a great omen for the rest of the paper.

To conduct the study, Russell & McNulty recruited 72 newlywed couples to report on their marital satisfaction, sexual frequency, and the level of neurotic tendencies of both partners during the first 4 years of their marriage. The data suggested that neuroticism was related to reduced martial satisfaction on average, but for couples who had frequent sex, neuroticism had no effect on marital satisfaction. Wow. This is an intriguing find, especially because the authors ruled out pre-existing circumstances in the relationship, and effectively controlled for external factors such as the pre-existing quality of the relationship. However, after controlling for other facets of the relationship the authors found that the relationship between sexual frequency and the effects of neuroticism became marginally significant. In my experience, it is very uncommon for researchers to publish statistical results that are only marginally significant. Because of this unconventional use of statistics, the results should be interpreted with even more caution.

Regardless of these limitations, I’m looking forward to this finding being explored in future research. A very important question would be why frequent sexual activity may have such a miraculous effect on the marriages of couples who have neurotic tendencies. What do you think, readers? Is it because increased intimacy may alleviate stress which may increase overall feelings of well-being and reduce neurotic tendencies? Is the construct of “neuroticism” too broad and thus invalid to be evaluated in this manner? Any other criticism? Share your thoughts!

P.S. This post ( at PsySociety provides an excellent commentary of this study using an example from “Everybody Love’s Raymond” –  worth checking out!

Citation: Russell, V. M., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Frequent sex protects intimates from the negative implications of their neuroticism. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2 (2), 220-227.

Chelsea Heaven muses about research as a Graduate Student in Public Health at Indiana University.