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Friday, December 28, 2018

The Secret Reason Why Sex Is So Crucial in Relationships

New research on sex in relationships shows the real reason it can benefit yours.

We associate good relationships with sexuality, assuming quite naturally that happy couples seemingly have sex more often than their miserable counterparts. But have you ever considered just what it is about sex that makes it so beneficial to a couple’s relationship? A new and extremely well-conducted investigation by Anik Debrot and colleagues (2017) points to the surprising role not of the sex itself, but of the affection that accompanies sexuality between partners. Over a series of four separate studies, Debrot and her fellow researchers were able to pinpoint the way that everyday kissing, hugging, and touch between partners contributes uniquely to relationship satisfaction and overall well-being.

Let’s break this sex-happiness equation down for a moment before looking at the details of the study: Debrot et al. began with the well-established finding that individuals experience higher levels of well-being when they have an active and satisfying sex life. As they noted, the results of previous research demonstrated that “the size of the difference in well-being for people having sex once a week, compared with those having sex less than once a month, was greater than the size of the difference in well-being for those making US$75,000 compared with US$25,000 a year” (p. 287).

Is it the sex itself, or something about sexual activity that is so good for our happiness? You might argue that people who are happier are more likely to have sex more often, because they’re in a good relationship and are satisfied with it. The good sex, then, would simply follow the good relationship dynamics. It’s also possible that people who are more positive in general are more likely to get involved in a close relationship which, in turn, benefits their well-being. Such a cyclical process would imply that the happy just get happier.

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The authors believed that the key ingredient in the sex-happiness relationship is positive affect, or being on an emotional high. As they note, however, it’s extremely difficult to examine this possibility through the typical questionnaire method, which is subject to memory bias, or in the lab, where the situation is artificial. Debrot’s work was completed while she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto; at the time, she was at Switzerland’s University of Fribourg. The investigation she completed with her colleagues included a series of studies on adult couples involving increasing levels of control including, in the last study, not just a one-shot set of correlations, but more sophisticated across-time analyses. The international scope of the paper adds to its generality, as does the fact that the sample was composed not only of the usual college student participants, but of adult couples, studied both online and through in-person recruitment.

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The fourth, and most telling, of the series of studies used a daily diary method and involved a sample of 58 heterosexual couples averaging 25 years of age and in a relationship, on average, for four years. Though relatively young, most of the couples were married. The researchers gave the participants smartphones to use for recording their responses, all of which were collected when the participants received a signal from the phone to complete the assessment. The study lasted two weeks, and participants received either course credit (if they were students) or $50 USD. 


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