You’re going through a dry spell with your partner, but you’re still deeply committed and in love. Do you really need frequent sex to maintain a happy relationship?
It’s a hot-button question that researchers have asked couples before. The thing is, scientists are relying on honesty in couples’ self-reporting. So while couples might say they don’t need regular sex to stay connected – and even believe the sentiment — their visceral responses may say the opposite, according to new research out of Florida State University (FSU).
There, social psychologists tried to pull away the frills to get instant, gut responses to how couples really felt about their partners. Turns out, how often you have sex may shape how you feel about your loved one.
“We found that the frequency with which couples have sex has no influence on whether or not they report being happy with their relationship, but their sexual frequency does influence their more spontaneous, automatic, gut-level feelings about their partners,” Lindsey Hicks, the study’s lead author, said.
Hicks is a graduate student in social psychology at FSU where she’s conducting a series of longitudinal studies with the help of newlywed couples. She recruited them within the first few months of marriage and will follow their relationships’ trajectories for four years.
Hicks focuses on “gut level” feelings couples have about each how and how they may be different from what they say they feel out loud.
Sex, for example, is vital for humans’ survival and an action we’re driven to biologically, yet there are societal beliefs that it isn’t important in a relationship, Hicks said. The same goes for physical appearance: while we may say we aren’t drawn to a partner based on looks, biologically we’re attracted to those who we think would help us make healthy, handsome offspring.
“If we’re going to find discrepancies between what people are feeling at a gut level and what they say they feel out loud, it’s going to be sex. There are different viewpoints between biology and culture,” Hicks told Global News.
“You have to figure out how people feel without them telling you how they feel,” she said.
To pull the curtain back on what 216 newlywed couples were really thinking, she employed what’s called an automatic attitude test.
First, the volunteers saw a snapshot of their partners for about 300 milliseconds. Then, they were presented with a word – positive words, such as excellent, wonderful and charming, or negative words, such as horrible, awful or disturbing. The volunteers had to categorize the words as positive or negative as fast as they could.
While couples across the board reported marital bliss no matter how much sex they were having, the test results suggested otherwise.
Couples who were having regular sex tended to categorize positive words faster, while couples who weren’t spending much time in the bedroom fared better at classifying the negative words.
Keep in mind, other studies relying on automatic attitude tests suggest that faster reaction times to feel-good words and a slower response to negative words tends to point to positive feelings for the image that was shown before the task and vice-versa.
The couples who were having sex frequently – about two or three times a week – tended to do well on identifying positive words compared to their peers who weren’t doing it as much.
“I can’t say everyone should be having more sex, but this research shows us there are some things influencing our attitudes that we may not necessarily be aware of. We may have a gut attitude that’s different from how we think we feel,” Hicks said.
Some couples may truly believe they don’t need to have more sex to feel more fulfilled in their relationship. If it turns out they may be dealing with negative gut attitudes, there is a way to work on that, Hicks suggested.
Forge “positive experiences” with your partner even if you’re stressed, tired or dealing with family drama. You need to carve out time to share a meal or snuggle in front of the television at home, for example.
And when you make it to the bedroom, save time for post-sex cuddling. This is especially important for new parents in keeping a happy sex life and strong relationship, according to Canadian researcher, Dr. Amy Muise.
In the University of Toronto professor’s work, she found that kissing, cuddling and pillow talk is just as important as carrying out the deed when it comes to building intimacy. Don’t head straight for the shower or get dressed right away.
She told Global News there are ties between how often couples have sex and healthy relationships.
“We actually find very consistent associations between sexual frequency and well-being,” she said. But there is an important detail for time-strapped couples: sex at least once a week seemed to be enough to reap the benefits.
“So this suggests that couples don’t necessarily have to engage in sex every day for their well-being but it does seem that regular sex is associated with greater happiness,” she said.
Hicks’ full findings were published in Psychological Science.