Platitudes say it hurts. Most studies say it helps. New research clarifies.
An old joke asks: What’s the quickest way to destroy sexual satisfaction in a relationship? Get married. The punch line reflects the tendency among “old married couples” to fall into boring sexual ruts and develop the #1 sex problem in long-term relationships, desire differences, which are always a challenge and may poison sex for some couples.
But a great deal of research shows the opposite. These studies generally agree that compared with people who are single, cohabiting, or separated/divorced, those who are married generally report greater happiness, more emotional contentment, more spiritual fulfillment—and greater and sexual satisfaction.
So, which is it? The punch line? Or the research?
Recently, an Israeli researcher analyzed a rigorous ongoing German study of 3,207 individuals, and concluded that marriage, per se, isn’t necessarily the expressway to greater sexual satisfaction.
What Previous Studies Have Shown
As anyone who’s ever been married knows, wedlock is no bed of roses. Every married couple must contend with myriad conflicts, some quite challenging. Many marriages end in divorce. Many that remain intact are unhappy and/or sexless or nearly so. Some spouses cheat. Other check out emotionally. Still, considerable evidence shows that for greater satisfaction with life in general and sex in particular, marriage is the way to go:
- Researchers at Arizona State and Illinois State Universities reviewed a dozen studies from the 1990s that compared relationship status and sexual satisfaction. They concluded that compared with singles, on average, married couples enjoy significantly greater sexual satisfaction.
- Investigators at NYU and the University of Western Ontario surveyed 116 people age 21 to 75 and found that compared with singles and those who cohabitated, the ones who were married tested happier and reported greater sexual satisfaction.
- And in The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, a University of Chicago sociologist argues that compared with singles or cohabitating couples, married couples are happier and more sexually satisfied.
The New Study
It’s based on data from 3,207 participants in the ongoing German Pairfam study (Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics). The researcher divided study participants into seven groups:
- Single, never married, living alone, and not in a relationship.
- Single, never married, living alone, and in a relationship.
- Single, never married, and cohabiting.
- Married and living together.
- Separated/divorced and living alone.
- Separated/divorced and living alone but in a new relationship.
- Separated/divorced and cohabiting with a new partner.
Then the researcher analyzed how those in each group felt about four issues that previous studies have shown contribute substantially to sexual satisfaction:
- Sexual Assertiveness. Ability to discuss one’s sexual needs and desires.
- Sexual Communication. Ongoing discussions about sexual frequency and repertoire.
- Sexual Frequency.
- Life satisfaction. Overall feelings about one’s well-being and quality of life.
Sexually Speaking, Marriage Has Been Oversold
The researcher found that except for those who were single, never married, and living alone, married individuals reported LESS sexual satisfaction than every other group. Singles in relationships or cohabiting, and all separated/divorced folks scored as high or higher on sexual satisfaction as those who were married. Contrary to many previous findings, in this study, marriage, per se, was not the ticket to sexual satisfaction.
Then why have so many earlier studies shown such a clear link between marriage and sexual satisfaction? According to this researcher, largely because marriage boosts life satisfaction. Independent of sexual assertiveness, communication, and frequency, as life satisfaction increases, sexual satisfaction usually follows—even if the sex isn’t wonderful. Marriage confers many nonsexual benefits that tend to spill into the erotic realm and increase sexual satisfaction: general mental health, family acceptance, religious approval, financial advantages from (usually) two incomes, (usually) better credit scores, access to spouse’s health insurance and retirement benefits, and the feeling of “completeness” that comes from having a mate.
Sexual Satisfaction Doesn’t Depend on Marriage. Lovers Create It
A wedding ring doesn’t magically deliver happiness between the sheets. Sexual satisfaction is something lovers create. Independent of relationship status, it usually depends on these 10 ingredients:
- Genuine mutual consent.
- Physical fitness is sufficient to enjoy sex, or if medical conditions or disabilities limit fitness, creative accommodations that compensate.
- An appreciation of pleasurable touch, solo and with a partner, that allows working up to orgasm.
- Gentle, leisurely, playful, mutual whole-body massage for at least 20 minutes before reaching between partners’ legs, especially women’s.
- An understanding that the large majority of women do not have orgasms from intercourse alone, but need direct clitoral caresses from hands, mouths, and/or toys.
- Ongoing, mutual coaching so lovers clearly communicate what they enjoy, and learn what their partners enjoy.
- Routine use of lubricants for insertive sex—saliva or commercial lubes.
- Generous oral sex—both fellatio and cunnilingus.
- Ongoing novelty. Making a point of enjoying sex in new ways.
- Relaxed acceptance of one’s sexual fantasies, whatever they may be, including the single most prevalent fantasy—doing it with someone other than your regular partner.
Unfortunately, after a while—typically a year or two—many married couples forget the 10 ingredients of sexual satisfaction. They fall into sexual ruts that limit—or torpedo—their satisfaction. But married or not, it doesn’t have to be that way. No matter what your relationship status, embracing the 10 ingredients of sizzling sex, can transform lovemaking from “eh” to ecstatic. For more on the 10 ingredients of satisfying sex, see my book, Sizzling Sex for Life.