Why You Have Sex Matters for Your Desire and Satisfaction

By Amy Muise  (Note:This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships)


Think about a time when you engaged in sex with your partner in an effort to promote a positive outcome in your relationship, such as to feel closer to your partner or enhance intimacy in your relationship. Now think about a time when you had sex to avoid a negative outcome, such as disappointing your partner or experiencing conflict in your relationship. As it turns out, the reasons why we have sex in our relationships have important implications for how much sexual desire we have for our partners and how satisfied we are with the sexual experience and with our relationship overall.

In a recent set of studies1, we asked people to reflect on and write about a time when they had sex with their partner to either: 1) pursue a positive outcome in their relationship (approach-motivated sex) or 2) avoid a negative outcome (avoidance-motivated sex). We also had a group of people simply write about the room they were currently in (to act as a comparison group). People who reflected on approach-motivated sexual experiences reported feeling more desire for their partner, more satisfied with their sex life, and happier with their overall relationship compared to people who reflected on avoidance-motivated sexual experiences or people in the control group.

Previous research has shown that people’s goals or reasons for engaging in sex are associated with their desire and satisfaction (discussed here and here). But the current set of studies is the first to show that altering people’s focus towards approach-motivated sex can lead to higher desire and satisfaction. In addition to having people recall past experiences, we also wanted to test whether we could alter people’s goals for future sexual experiences and ultimately enhance their desire and satisfaction.

In our second study, we asked half of our participants to read about the benefits of engaging in approach-motivated sex and we then instructed them to try and focus on approach-motivated reasons for having sex over the next week. That is, we asked them to think about the positive outcomes that they might expect to gain from having sex with their partner. One week later we followed up with them and asked them to report on their sexual experiences and relationship over the past week. People who focused on approach-motivated reasons for having sex (compared to people who were not given any information or instructions about approach-motivated sex), reported having sex more to pursue positive relationship outcomes and ultimately reported more satisfying sexual experiences during that week and felt happier with their overall relationship.

These results are promising for couples who are hoping to reap more benefits from sex and suggest that why a person has sex with their partner is important for their desire and satisfaction. In a relationship, aiming to focus on the positive aspects of a sexual experience, such as feeling closer to a partner or enhancing intimacy in a relationship, may enhance sexual and relationship satisfaction.

1 Muise, A., Boudreau, G. K., & Rosen, N. O. (2016). Seeking connection versus avoiding disappointment: An experimental manipulation of approach and avoidance sexual goals and the implications for desire and satisfaction. The Journal of Sex Research. Advanced online publication.