Why do married couples have sex? And how can they ensure that they keep enjoying the sexual relationship throughout their marriage? This weekend I read through a pair of recent studies from the University of Toronto that offer some intriguing, though not shocking answers.
A study called “Keeping the Spark Alive,” begins with the distinction between communal and exchange relationships. In communal relationships a spouse is motivated to meet the needs of the other partner, giving benefits of various kinds without demanding anything in return. In contrast, exchange relationships are built on the expectation that when benefits are given, other benefits will be returned. Not surprisingly, researchers have long found that communal relationships tend to be healthiest. They use “communal strength” as a measure of how much a person is willing to give for the sake of the other, so that the woman who is willing to uproot her life for the sake of her husband’s career is said to have a very high communal strength. Research shows that higher communal strength predicts greater satisfaction and longer-lasting relationships.
Keep that communal-exchange distinction in your mind. I suspect that your marriage is largely communal, at least when you are at your best. In fact, the Bible demands this kind of relationship when it describes a marriage in which a wife joyfully submits to her husband’s leadership while he joyfully imitates Christ through other-focused, self-sacrificing servant-leadership.
“Keeping the Spark Alive” grouped all sexual motivations into the two broad categories of approach and avoidance, so that every time a husband or wife participates in sex it is for one of these two motives. Here is the difference between them: Approach goals are focused on obtaining positive outcomes while avoidance goals are focused on avoiding negative outcomes. The spouse motivated by approach is looking for a positive outcome such as deeper relational intimacy or physical pleasure. The spouse motivated by avoidance wishes to avoid a negative outcome such as relational conflict or feelings of guilt.
Pause for a moment and think about your own marriage. How often is sex motivated by the desire for a positive outcome, and how often is sex motivated by the desire to avoid a negative outcome? I am quite certain that most marriages show plenty of evidence of both. The approach and avoidance terminology provides useful terms for common experiences.
Now the study gets just a little bit more complicated. Both approach and avoidance goals can be subdivided into self-focused and partner-focused. Here is how it works: A person engaging in sex for approach goals may be self-focused (I want to feel sexual pleasure) or partner-focused (I want my partner to feel sexual pleasure). A person engaging in sex for avoidance reasons may also be self-focused (I don’t want to feel guilty) or partner-focused (I don’t want my spouse to be angry).
I will not go into the details of the study which is full of riveting details like this: “In turn, partner-focused approach goals were positively associated with daily sexual desire, b= .33, t(80) = 3.52, p = .001, and this partially accounted for the link between sexual communal strength and daily desire, indirect effect 95% CI [.07, .39]; direct effect = .73, t(80) = 3.35, p = .002.” Like all studies, it is short and limited and undoubtedly flawed in some ways. But still, common grace tells us it may well have something to show.
What did the study find? It found exactly what you would expect if you believe that God is the creator of human sexuality and that he has revealed his will to us in the Bible. The researchers determined that approach partner-focused sexual goals within communal relationships were most likely to lead to sexual satisfaction in both spouses and maintain the strength of a relationship over time. Not only that, but approach partner-focused goals actually fuel sexual desire over time. The motivation to pursue the partner’s sexual satisfaction was good for both spouses and for the relationship, a win-win-win.