Sex and marital satisfaction: A symbiotic relationship

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Marital satisfaction 101

Robert woke up on a Saturday morning, quietly got out of bed, and went downstairs to make some coffee. After the coffee was made, he sat back in his recliner and read a magazine. Soon, his wife Gina came downstairs.

“Good morning, sweetheart! How did you sleep?”

She yawned. “I slept fine. How about you?”

“Fine. Let me get you a cup of coffee.”

He poured the cup of coffee and took it to his wife. They sat down at the table.

“What do you have going on today?” he asked.

“Well, I have to go to the gym. I have some papers to grade. I was thinking of running out to the mall. I have a coupon for a free pair of panties at Victoria’s Secret.”

He growled. “I’d like to see you model them for me when you get back.”

“I’ll bet you would.”

“Just to make sure they fit well … I’m just trying to help you out.”


Robert and Gina took some time to finish their coffee and talk  Then, they went about their days.

Throughout the day, Robert noticed that Gina was extra snuggly. She came in for hugs, and sat down on the couch real close to watch some TV. He smelled her hair, and told her how nice it smelled. He complimented her when she came downstairs in her sweatpants.

“They’re just sweatpants,” she replied, puzzled at the compliment.

“Not when you’re in them, they’re not.”

Later that afternoon, the children were invited to play at a friend’s house. Within 15 minutes of their departure, Robert and his wife were upstairs, gettin’ busy. Afterwards, they both sighed long sighs of contentment, said I love you to each other, and took a nice post-coital nap. The best kind, really.

To anyone who has been in a happy relationship, this story likely sounds familiar. Emotional connectedness, spontaneous affection, and increased nonsexual intimacy create what a recent article about sex in marriages calls a “positive interpersonal climate.” Those little compliments, self-disclosures, and authentic conversations have an unsurprising influence on how often married couples engage in sexual play.

One of the questions the researchers who wrote the article wanted to know was whether or not a higher frequency of sexual encounters was connected to marital satisfaction. The answer is – yes, depending on the interpersonal climate of the marriage.

It seems that women in particular experience increased sexual desire when their spouses engage in positive behaviors (e.g. saying “I love you,” offering nonsexual physical affection, expressing approval, offering compliments) and decreased desire when their spouses engage in negative behaviors (e.g. dominating conversations, expressing anger, impatience, doing something to purposefully annoy her). Positive, “approach” behaviors make sex more likely, and negative “withdrawal” behaviors make it less likely.

Interestingly, for men, this relationship is not nearly as strong. Many men can still have sex, even if there is antagonism in the air. In fact, the antagonism may turn them on. This is rarely the case for women.

So, the pathway begins like this – Positive behaviors, like what Robert did in the morning when Gina came downstairs, open the door for sexual contact, thereby increasing sexual frequency. Increased sexual frequency, in turn, is related to increased sexual satisfaction, but only if the overall interpersonal climate of the marriage is positive. If the relationship is in turmoil, the sex may still happen, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into increased feelings of closeness. It is only when the marriage is “feeling right” that sexual activity can lead to those sighs of contentment.

To put the icing on the cake, the increases in sexual satisfaction, since they occur in the context of a marriage that feels strong, are then related to increased feelings of marital satisfaction. And round it goes. Partners who feel marital satisfaction are more likely to offer positive behaviors, and to try to minimize negative behaviors, which then leads to a higher quantity and quality of sexual activity, which improves sexual satisfaction, which then leads to greater marital satisfaction.

The road to a great romantic relationship begins with your gentle expressions of positive regard toward your partner. When the relationship is primed for success with those little behaviors, the sex life that follows can be infused with intimacy and passion.


Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at

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