Sex with a stranger or a new flame can be thrilling, but there’s something to be said for the kind of intimate, comfortable, deeply connected sex you can have with a committed partner you’ve been with for years. A lot of research has demonstrated that commitment is associated with higher sexual satisfaction, such that a person enjoys sex more when they’re having it with a person they’re committed to.
Here’s the question, though: Does commitment make sex better, or does good sex make you more committed?
For a new study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, a team of researchers surveyed 366 couples about their commitment levels and sexual satisfaction over the course of their first five sessions of couples therapy. The researchers wanted to understand whether an increase in commitment one week would predict an increase in sexual satisfaction the following week, or vice versa.
“Partners may be more committed to a relationship which offers them more sexual benefits,” they write in the paper on their findings. “Partners who are satisfied with the extent to which their sexual needs are met may be more devoted to the future of their relationships.”
But the opposite could also be true: “As partners’ commitment to each other grows, they may be more likely to devote more time and energy into the sexual component of their relationship, thus enhancing each partner’s sexual satisfaction,” the researchers hypothesize. “With a foundation of strong commitment, couples may develop a sense of safety in their relationships that leads partners to engage in more sexual exploration and thus enjoy more satisfying sexual lives together. Conversely, lower levels of commitment may inhibit partners from communicating about or enjoying their physical intimacy to the fullest extent.”
So which was it? Well…both.
When they analyzed the data, they found a bidirectional relationship between commitment and sexual satisfaction—more of either during one week led to more of the other the following week.
That said, after the first three sessions, these effects plateaued. Between the two directions, sexual satisfaction continued to predict commitment longer into the five weeks than the other way around. The researchers surmise that as time goes on, “the benefits of sexual satisfaction are important in improving commitment, but the safety and investment of commitment is less important in predicting sexual satisfaction.”
There are many ways to interpret these findings. The biggest take-away is that the two really are linked: When you improve your overall relationship and stability as a couple, your sex life will indirectly improve as well. And when you improve your sex life, your overall relationship will probably also get a boost. It may be that after a certain commitment threshold is met, being more and more dedicated to or in love with each other stops increasing the pleasure you get out of sex. Fair enough.
But the general principle definitely still stands: Want better sex? Work on strengthening your relationship. Want to strengthen your relationship? Sex is a great place to start.
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