Upfront

The scenarios play out in bedrooms across America: A man indulges his wife's desire for sex because he doesn't want to disappoint her on their anniversary; a woman accepts her boyfriend's advances because she'd rather avoid conflict than decline sex; a tired man responds to his partner's touch because he'd feel guilty if he didn't.

Such "avoidance-motivated goals" for sex — or having sex to avoid a negative outcome, rather than in pursuit of a positive one, such as cultivating closeness — are associated with lower sexual and relationship satisfaction for the reluctant partner. But new research in the October issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests such behavior makes the eager partner less satisfied, too.

Psychologists in Ontario, Canada, conducted three studies. First, they asked participants to rate the relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction and level of sexual desire of a hypothetical person who engaged in sex with his or her partner for either positive or negative reasons. Next, they evaluated the daily diaries of young dating couples who for two weeks rated their motivations for and feelings about each sexual interaction. Participants also recorded daily how they felt about their own relationships. Finally, the researchers tracked similar diaries of married or co-habitating couples to see how the associations played out over time.

The team found that a partner's motivations for sex have implications for both partners' satisfaction — beyond the other partner's own reasons. "What we didn't know was if my partner wants to have sex, does he or she really care why I'm having sex, or is he or she just happy to be getting the sex they want to be having?" says Amy Muise, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, who led the study with psychology professor Emily Impett, PhD. "We found, yes, it does matter. The partner is somehow picking up on this."

Muise and her colleagues also found that people who more frequently listed avoidance-related reasons for sex were more likely to experience a drop in sexual satisfaction and desire four months later. Ditto for their partners, who also felt less committed to the relationship four months out.

So, is grudging sex worse for a relationship than no sex? Probably not, says Muise, who notes that participants reported higher relationship satisfaction on the days they had sex than on the ones they didn't — no matter the reason. But, she says, "if this is what you're chronically doing, it could build up over time and have negative outcomes."

— Anna Miller