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The Truth About Marriage and Sexual Satisfaction Today

Major challenges to traditional arguments.

Key points

  • Some studies have found that married couples are more sexually satisfied than singles are.
  • More recent studies have challenged the arguments that marriage serves as the best ecosystem for sexual satisfaction.
  • A recent analysis shows that married people are among the least sexually satisfied groups of people.
NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock
Source: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

Reality is changing and it is far from what we are used to. Misconceptions about marriage and sex are part of that.

Indeed, some studies have argued that marriage provides a better ecosystem for sexual satisfaction and that married couples are more sexually satisfied than singles are.1-3 Furthermore, some studies found that when comparing between married and single people, taking into account the gender aspect, both married men and married women tend to be more emotionally satisfied with sex, compared to cohabiting and single people and experience higher levels of physical pleasure.4, 5

These differences between the married and the unmarried (e.g. advantage of marriage over singlehood in the context of sexual satisfaction) are explained by three main arguments.

The first argument is that unmarried partners are less committed compared to married partners. This leads, the argument goes, to less motivation in partner-pleasing skills. In turn, it affects people's sexual satisfaction.1, 6

Second, there is a negative correlation between non-exclusive sex and sexual satisfaction due to worries such as being rejected or unloved.7, 8

Third, researchers show that sexual satisfaction increases with age.7 Put it another way since unmarried people are often younger and may not yet have a perspective that is informed by their life experience, they report being less sexually satisfied. Hence, married couples that are usually older are linked to more time spent in marriage. This, in turn, makes unions more stable and increases sexual fulfilment.7 ,9

Why do we need to rethink these arguments?

Since the mid-1960s, however, the sexual revolution has contributed to a shift in sex practices. The number of sex partners the average person has in a lifetime has increased, and sex outside of marriage has gradually been destigmatized.10

This revolution occurred alongside broader social, legal, and scientific changes. The introduction of the pill, the rise of feminism, and the legalization of abortion in the 1970s all combined to advance more liberal attitudes toward sex and promoted a growing social approval of premarital sexual relations, divorce, and non-marriage.11, 12

Therefore, the arguments that married couples enjoy a higher level of sexual satisfaction stands against the backdrop of a growing number of individuals choosing to meet their sexual desires outside of marriage.13 We thus need to re-evaluate the benefits of marriage.

Conceptual questions should be answered

More recent studies challenged the arguments that marriage serves as a better ecosystem. These new studies brought into research several questions. First, the studies that found marriage as a better ecosystem for sexual satisfaction compared very generally defined marital groups (e.g. married vs. single). This comparison ignored the nuances that exist within relationship-status groups. They did not take into account groups such as living apart together couples (LAT) and cohabitating couples.14, 15

This is very important since living apart together (LAT) couples are more prevalent nowadays and tend to stay in this status for longer periods of time than before.16 They do so in order to maintain their independence and due to practical reasons. For example, they do not marry due to the costs of the wedding event or because major events such as the recent pandemic do not allow them to officially marry.

Cohabitation is also on the rise. Cohabitating couples are considered a midpoint category between singlehood and marriage. On the one hand, cohabitation is close to marriage both socially and legally, with laws providing cohabiting partners rights that are similar to those granted to formal marriages in many countries.17 On the other hand, cohabitation is close to singlehood as it is also based on the increasing frustration from the marriage institution, on the fear of marital commitment, and on the aversion to the risk of divorce.18, 19

Recent research, therefore, calls us to focus on these groups when comparing sexual satisfaction between different relationship status groups. In particular, one cannot argue that marriage per se is responsible for sexual satisfaction.15, 20 A better comparison may contradict the assumption that marriage is good for being more sexually satisfied.

No wonder, then, that a recent analysis shows surprising results in this regard. In fact, the married group is among the least sexually satisfied groups of those tested. Marriage is apparently not a determinant for sexual satisfaction or sex frequency. In fact, the group that generally showed the highest levels of sexual satisfaction is that of unmarried couples living apart (LAT).

We must be careful when using misconceptions about marital status these days. While social norms still push many to wedlock, the reality is changing fast.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


1 Linda Waite, and Kara Joyner, 'Emotional Satisfaction and Physical Pleasure in Sexual Unions: Time Horizon, Sexual Behavior, and Sexual Exclusivity', Journal of Marriage and Family, 63 (2001), 247-64.

2 Samuel Stroope, Michael J McFarland, and Jeremy E Uecker, 'Marital Characteristics and the Sexual Relationships of Us Older Adults: An Analysis of National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project Data', Archives of sexual behavior, 44 (2015), 233-47.

3 Linda Waite, and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 260.

4 Bethany Butzer, and Lorne Campbell, 'Adult Attachment, Sexual Satisfaction, and Relationship Satisfaction: A Study of Married Couples', Personal relationships, 15 (2008), 141-54.

5 F Scott Christopher, and Susan Sprecher, 'Sexuality in Marriage, Dating, and Other Relationships: A Decade Review', Journal of Marriage and Family, 62 (2000), 999-1017.

6 Edward O Laumann, John H Gagnon, Robert T Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1994); Judith Treas, and Deirdre Giesen, 'Sexual Infidelity among Married and Cohabiting Americans', Journal of marriage and family, 62 (2000), 48-60.

7 Willy Pedersen, and Morten Blekesaune, 'Sexual Satisfaction in Young Adulthood: Cohabitation, Committed Dating or Unattached Life?', Acta Sociologica, 46 (2003), 179-93.

8 Katarzyna Adamczyk, and Jamila Bookwala, 'Adult Attachment and Relationship Status (Single Vs. Partnered) in Polish Young Adults', Psihologijske teme, 22 (2013), 481-500.

9 Lynne M Casper, and Suzanne M Bianchi, 'Change and Continuity in the American Family', (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002).

10 Andrew Cherlin, Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Gui Liu, Susan Hariri, Heather Bradley, Sami L Gottlieb, Jami S Leichliter, and Lauri E Markowitz, 'Trends and Patterns of Sexual Behaviors among Adolescents and Adults Aged 14 to 59 Years, United States', Sexually transmitted diseases, 42 (2015), 20-26.

11 Ted Joyce, Ruoding Tan, and Yuxiu Zhang, 'Abortion before & after Roe', Journal of health economics, 32 (2013), 804-15.

12 Tom W Smith, 'Attitudes toward Sexual Permissiveness: Trends, Correlates, and Behavioral Connections', in The John D. And Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation Series on Mental Health and Development: Studies on Successful Midlife Development. Sexuality across the Life Course, ed. by A. S. Rossi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 63-97; Arland Thornton, 'Changing Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States', Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51 (1989), 873-93.

13 Ron Lesthaeghe, and Lisa Neidert, 'The Second Demographic Transition in the United States: Exception or Textbook Example?', Population and Development Review, 32 (2006), 669-98; Ron Lesthaeghe, 'The Unfolding Story of the Second Demographic Transition', Population and Development Review, 36 (2010), 211-51.

14 Laura M Funk, and Karen M Kobayashi, 'From Motivations to Accounts: An Interpretive Analysis of “Living Apart Together” Relationships in Mid-to Later-Life Couples', Journal of Family Issues, 37 (2016), 1101-22.

15 Julia Carter, Simon Duncan, Mariya Stoilova, and Miranda Phillips, 'Sex, Love and Security: Accounts of Distance and Commitment in Living Apart Together Relationships', Sociology, 50 (2016), 576-93.

16 Luis Ayuso, 'What Future Awaits Couples Living Apart Together (Lat)?', The Sociological Review, 67 (2019), 226-44.

17 Brienna Perelli-Harris, Monika Mynarska, Caroline Berghammer, Ann Berrington, Ann Evans, Olga Isupova, Renske Keizer, Andreas Klärner, Trude Lappegard, and Daniele Vignoli, 'Towards a Deeper Understanding of Cohabitation: Insights from Focus Group Research across Europe and Australia', Demographic Research, 31 (2014), 1043-78; Tim B Heaton, and Renata Forste, 'Informal Unions in Mexico and the United States', Journal of Comparative Family Studies (2007), 55-69; Teresa Castro Martin, 'Consensual Unions in Latin America: Persistence of a Dual Nuptiality System', Journal of comparative family studies, 33 (2002), 35-55.

18 Anke C Zimmermann, and Richard A Easterlin, 'Happily Ever After? Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Happiness in Germany', Population and Development Review, 32 (2006), 511-28; Matthew D Bramlett, and William D Mosher, 'Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States', Vital health statistics, 23 (2002), 1-32; Andrew J Cherlin, 'The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage', Journal of Marriage and Family, 66 (2004), 848-61.

19 Jane Lewis, 'The End of Marriage?', Books (2001); Patricia M Morgan, Marriage-Lite: The Rise of Cohabitation and Its Consequences. Vol. 4 (London: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 2000); James A Sweet, and Larry L Bumpass, 'Young Adults Views of Marriage Cohabitation and Family', (1990).

20 Vicky Lyssens-Danneboom, and Dimitri Mortelmans, 'Living Apart Together: Longing for the Couple, Enjoying Being Single', Family Science, 6 (2015), 11-22.

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