A couple in a kitchen, looking at each other

By Stephanie Raposo, PhD

This blog is a summary of our published article: Raposo, S., Rosen, N. O., & Muise, A. (2020). Self-expansion is associated with greater relationship and sexual well-being for couples coping with low sexual desire. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37, 602–623. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519875217

Sex has lasting benefits for many people’s well-being [1], but low sexual desire is common, especially for women [2]. In fact, up to 39% of women report low desire for sex [3], and for many, this can be personally distressing and can detract from their relationship happiness [4]. In a recent study, we aimed to understand how couples might maintain their sexual and relationship connection when coping with low sexual desire [5]. One factor that has been linked to higher sexual desire and happiness in relationships is self-expansion—gaining novelty, excitement and a greater awareness of the world through shared experience with a romantic partner [6]. For some couples, self-expansion might mean road tripping to a new city, but for other couples, it could be as simple as trying a new activity or taking up a new hobby together (e.g., cooking a new recipe, following a Bob Ross painting tutorial). This sounds like a great way for couples to bolster their relationships, right? Here’s the catch: most of what we know about self-expansion has been about couples who are typically very happy in their relationships.

What did we want to know?

Would the benefits of self-expansion also apply to couples coping with a challenging sexual issue such as low sexual desire?

 

What did we do?

To test this, we recruited 97 women with clinically low sexual desire and their partners to complete a survey about their relationships [5]. On average, these couples were about 32 years of age, in a relationship for almost 8 years, and most were married or living together. Both partners responded to several questions about self-expansion with their partner, how happy they were with their relationship and sex life, their level of sexual desire, and how often they were affectionate as a couple. It’s possible that self-expansion might also buffer against the negative outcomes of a sexual issue [4], so people were also asked to rate how distressed they felt about their sex life, as well as how much conflict they tended to have with their partner.

 

two people cycling with a sunset in the background

What did we find?

When women with low desire experienced more self-expansion in their relationship—in other words when they experienced more novelty, excitement and broadening from their experiences with their partner—they desired sex more, were happier with their relationship and sex life, and were more affectionate with their partner.

When their partners experienced more self-expansion in the relationship, those partners were happier with their relationship and sex life (and so were the women with low desire) and couples reported more affection.

Uniquely for the partners, they also felt less distressed about their sex life and reported less conflict with their partner when they felt the relationship was more self-expanding.  

 

What does it mean?

So, to answer our question, self-expansion does have benefits for couples coping with low desire, and it might even help offset the negative aspects of coping with a sexual problem. However, given the nature of this study, it is not clear whether self-expansion predicts greater well-being, or if greater well-being predicts more self-expansion in the relationship. Future experimental research would better address this question. In line with what we know about self-expansion, trying new and exciting things with your partner (e.g., going on that vacation you have always dreamt of) or broadening your sense of self through experiences with your partner (e.g., taking a cooking class or seeing a documentary) has benefits for your relationship and sex life—even if you don’t desire sex as much as you would like to.

References

[1] Diamond, L. M., & Huebner, D. M. (2012). Is Good Sex Good for You? Rethinking Sexuality and Health. Social and Personality Psychology Compass6, 54– https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00408.x

[2] Shifren, J. L., Monz, B. U., Russo, P. A., Segreti, A., & Johannes, C. B. (2008). Sexual Problems and Distress in United States Women: Prevalence and Correlates. Obstetrics & Gynecology112, 970– https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0b013e3181898cdb 

[3] Rosen, R. C., Shifren, J. L., Monz, B. U., Odom, D. M., Russo, P. A., & Johannes, C. B. (2009). Correlates of sexually related personal distress in women with low sexual desire. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 1549–1560. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01252.x

[4] Rosen, N. O., Dubé, J. P., Corsini-Munt, S., & Muise, A. (2019). Partners experience consequences, too: A comparison of the sexual, relational, and psychological adjustment of women with sexual interest/arousal disorder and their partners to control couples. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16, 83–95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2018.10.018

[5] Raposo, S., Rosen, N. O., & Muise, A. (2020). Self-expansion is associated with greater relationship and sexual well-being for couples coping with low sexual desire. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37, 602– https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519875217

[6] Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L., Bacey-Giles, C., Gere, J., & Impett, E. (2018). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116, 237–258. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000148

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