By Sam Dawson
This post is a summary of a recently published article from the CaSH Lab:
Muise, A., Bergeron, S., Impett, E. A., Delisle, I., & Rosen, N. O. (2018). Communal motivation in couples coping with vulvodynia: Sexual distress mediates associations with pain, depression, and anxiety. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 106, 34-40.
Provoked vestibulodynia (PVD) is the most common cause of pain during sex in women1. Perhaps surprisingly, many affected women remain sexually active with their partners despite this pain1. We know from research that PVD negatively impacts both the woman and her partner’s sexual, relational, and psychological wellbeing. For example, couples affected by PVD report poorer sexual and relational wellbeing, and higher rates of negative mental health symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, and distress) compared to unaffected couples2,3. Given this, one might question what motivates women (and their partners) to continue to engage in sexual activity when it is painful? Qualitative studies have found that women with PVD report that satisfying and prioritizing their partner’s needs over their own, were key reasons for continuing to have sex despite pain4.
The aim of the current study was to examine associations between two types of motivation—sexual communal strength—being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs (e.g., engaging in a sexual activity your partner enjoys even if it is not your favourite) —and unmitigated sexual communion—prioritizing a partner’s sexual needs instead of one’s own needs (e.g., having sex because your partner is in the mood even though you don’t want to)—and women’s pain during intercourse and both partners’ psychological wellbeing and distress.
What they did? They asked 101 couples affected by PVD to complete surveys each day where they both reported on their sexual communal motivation, sexual distress, anxiety, depression, and women reported on their pain during intercourse.
What they found? On days when women with PVD were motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs (sexual communal strength), they reported lower anxiety and less pain; however, when they neglected their own sexual needs (unmitigated sexual communion), they reported higher anxiety, depression, and distress and greater pain. When women reported being solely focused on their partner’s needs, their partner’s reported higher depressive symptoms. Sexual distress explained the link between women’s unmitigated sexual communion and greater pain, depression, and anxiety.
What can we do with this knowledge? Given these findings, interventions for improving women’s pain and the emotional wellbeing of affected couples could target women’s motivations for engaging in sex, including focusing on balancing one’s own and one’s partner’s sexual needs.
- Reed, B. D. et al., (2012). Prevalence and demographic characteristics of vulvodynia in a population-based sample. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 206, 170–190.
- Nylanderlundqvist, E. & Bergdahl, J. (2003). Vulvar vestibulitis: evidence of depression and state anxiety in patients and partners. Acta Dermato-Venereologica, 83, 369–373.
- van Lankveld, J., Weijenborg, P. T. M., ter Kuile, M. M. (1996). Psychologic profiles of and sexual function in women with vulvar vestibulitis and their partners. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 88, 65–70.
- Elmerstig, E., Wijma, B., Bertero, R. N. T. (2008). Why do young women continue to have sexual intercourse despite pain? Journal of Adolescent Health, 43, 357–363.