In hindsight, almost any finding (or its opposite) can seem like plain old common sense—a phenomenon we know as hindsight bias (a.k.a. the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon). Likewise, the outcomes of most elections, wars, and sporting events seem, in hindsight, explainable and predictable. As Dr. Watson said to Sherlock, “Anything seems commonplace, once explained.”
It may therefore seem unsurprising that new studies—reported in a forthcoming article by Florida State psychologists Jessica Maxwell and James McNulty—reveal a “bidirectional relationship” between relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. A loving relationship enhances sex. And good sex, with a lingering “afterglow,” enhances a loving relationship.
Even if the love-sex interplay does not, in hindsight, feel surprising, it does seem a lesson worth teaching in an age of sexual hook-ups and delayed marriage. As I explain in an upcoming essay for the Association for Psychological Science Observer,
When a romantic relationship is sealed with a secure commitment—when there is minimal anxiety about performance, and when there is an experience-rooted sensitivity to one another’s desires and responses—intimacy can flourish. “Satisfying relationships [infuse] positive affect into sexual experiences,” say Maxwell and McNulty. And when confident of a partner’s acceptance, low body self-esteem is a diminished barrier to sexual frequency and satisfaction.
The researchers’ evidence comes from tracking relationships through time. Higher marital satisfaction today predicts increased sexual satisfaction seven months later. And higher sexual satisfaction today predicts increased marital satisfaction seven months later. Moreover, it’s true for both newlyweds and long-term couples, and for both men and women.
Earlier studies found that when sex begins after commitment, couples win twice—with greater relational stability and better sex (see here and here). (In hindsight, we surely could rationalize an opposite finding: Perhaps test-driving sexual compatibility prior to commitment would make for better sex, and thus better relationships? But this does not seem to be the case.) And when sex happens in the context of a committed relationship, there is more pleasure and less morning-after regret (see here).
The take-home lesson: Our romantic bonds both enable and feed off sexual intimacy. We humans have what today’s social psychologists call a “need to belong.” We are social creatures, made to connect in close relationships. We flourish when embracing and enjoying secure, enduring, intimate attachments.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com.)