Is Sex Enough to Keep a Relationship Going?
Frequency matters less than personality.
Posted October 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- The frequency of sexual activity is directly correlated with an individual's happiness.
- Intercourse increases happiness, but it is an increase in emotional intimacy and affection that makes that happiness last.
- Research suggests that sex may be able to save a marriage if one or both partners suffer from neuroticism.
In case you missed it...Paul Newman and his mistress-turned-life-long companion, Joanne Woodward, had a lot of sex, according to the publicity surrounding Newman's upcoming posthumous memoir.
A lot of sex.
If your only association with Paul Newman is salad dressing, you are probably unaware of the chaos that permeated his marriage. The two met while Paul was married and a father of three young children, with a drinking problem he could only keep hidden for so long before it took over his life and threatened to ruin his career.
Which begs the question: Can sex save a marriage?
Sex With Your Partner Can Make You Both Happier
In 2015, an article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reported a study of the daily journals of heterosexual couples over a three-week period in which the couples reported on sexual activity (both masturbation and sexual activity with their partner), the happiness of the individual, and the perceived happiness of their partner.
Not surprisingly, both men and women reported being happier after intercourse with their spouse. But, while women's happiness was related more to their relationship, men's happiness was reported to be about both their relationship and their overall personal mood. This difference was even more pronounced the day after the sexual encounter, when women were still feeling more optimistic about their overall relationship and the way they perceived their spouse's behavior the following day.
Sex → Happy self → Happy spouse → Happy relationship
Seems pretty simple, yes?
Interestingly, when it came to the issue of masturbation within a marriage, males were more likely to view masturbation as a sign of negativity in their relationship. Women, however, seemed to view masturbation as separate sexual pleasure, unrelated to sex with their spouse.
What Saves the Day, Sex or Intimacy?
In a 2017 study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the authors sought to tweeze apart the marital sex and happiness correlation to figure out exactly why this occurs. Their prediction was that it was the experienced affection more than the climax itself that improved feelings of closeness, which lead to happiness.
But, testing their hypothesis was an enormous undertaking that consisted of combining the results of four separate, smaller studies. The first two studies examined the relationship between sex and well-being in more than 400 couples. In the first study, the couples were asked to report their rate of affectionate touching, frequency of sex, and life satisfaction.
The second two studies were dependent on participants keeping self-report journal entries for 10 days. These daily diaries demonstrated an increase in happiness immediately after intercourse as well as 10 hours later. However, because participants recorded their mood as positive or negative at regular intervals, these diaries were also able to distinguish something quite interesting:
- Sex increases positive mood.
- However, positive mood is not statistically more likely to lead to sex.
For all participants, it was clear that an active sex life correlates with a more positive outlook on life and general life satisfaction. However, if you statistically subtract the affectionate touching, the relationship between the frequency of sex and life satisfaction is nearly insignificant. Also, there are long-term effects of sex and happiness.
To be clear:
- More sex doesn't mean a happier relationship unless there is physical and emotional affection that accompanies the coital connection.
- Six months after this 10-day experiment, the couples who felt more positive emotions, specifically joy and optimism, reported higher relationship satisfaction—but only if they had experienced positive emotions after sex.
The assumption in this study is that it is the post-coital interactions that are important, whether it be physical, such as cuddling or laying close to each other, or verbal, like sharing intimate thoughts and feelings—or even simply details from a busy work day that otherwise might not have had the opportunity to be spoken about.
What if You or Your Partner Suffer From Neuroticism?
Although there is a great deal of research that supports the idea that sex, and the emotional intimacy that follows, can improve the level of happiness in a marriage, it is still a slight stretch to state that sex can actually "save" an unhappy marriage.
After all, people who are already unhappy in their marriage may be less likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to engage in physical intimacy in a relationship in which they have already lost faith.
But, there is a partial answer to the question of whether or not sex can actually save a marriage—at least for some people, some of the time.
In a 2010 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers Russell and McNullty sought to specifically understand the role sex might play in happiness in married individuals who suffer from neuroticism. Although we use the term "neurotic" quite casually, the definition of a neurotic individual is clearly defined as an individual who is easily upset or irritated, quick to experience a (negative) change in mood, and worries more often than other people.
Not surprisingly, neurotic individuals are also less satisfied in romantic relationships and more likely to get divorced.
Russell and McNullty followed 72 couples over the first four years of marriage. Every six months, they would separately interview both individuals about their marital satisfaction and their frequency of sex.
Russell and McNullty found that marital satisfaction was not associated with the frequency of sexual activity, except for marriages in which one or both spouses qualified as "neurotic" as determined by independent assessment.
The researchers, quite eloquently, posited that perhaps the frequency of sexual activity—and possibly the affection and emotional intimacy that follow—helps to fill the "happiness deficit" that neurotic spouses usually have.
Can You Sex Your Way to a Successful Marriage?
It appears that, for most people, the question of whether sex can save a marriage is less about quantity and more about the quality of the interactions that follow. However, for those suffering from neuroticism and perhaps similar issues such as anxiety, hypersensitivity, insecurity, and certain mood disorders, it appears that the emotional and physical connection provided by an active sex life may contribute to a happier, longer-lasting marriage.
Facebook image: bbernard/Shutterstock
Dewitte, M., Van Lankveld, J., Vandenberghe, S. & Loeys, T. "Sex in Its Daily Relational Context," The Journal of Sexual Medicine,
Volume 12, Issue 12, 2015, 2436-2450,
Debrot, A., Meuwly, N., Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Schoebi, D. (2017). "More Than Just Sex: Affection Mediates the Association Between Sexual Activity and Well-Being." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(3), 287–299.
V. M. Russell, J. K. McNulty. "Frequent Sex Protects Intimates From the Negative Implications of Their Neuroticism." Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010;