Quick, dim the lights: A large-scale study of sexual satisfaction and overall happiness in long-term couples found that the happiest couples do two things better than you: fuck and talk (about fucking). They also do lots of different sex moves, including oral, and give each other orgasms. And when these things are standard in the relationship, people report greater happiness over the long haul, even after getting totally used to each other.
Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein reports on a study to be released later this month in the Journal of Sex Research. Researchers at a handful of universities including Cal State and the Kinsey Institute surveyed nearly 40,000 married and/or cohabitating people back in 2006—average age 40 for women, 46 for men, to determine sexual satisfaction and happiness.
They rated current sexual satisfaction on a scale of one to seven, then sexual satisfaction when they were just six months into the relationship. This won’t shock anyone: 83 percent said they were satisfied for the first six months, but only 43 percent of men and 55 percent of women said they would call themselves satisfied now. Everyone else was neutral or dissatisfied (more so men, at 41 percent dissatisfied, compared to women, at 27).
About 80 percent of both satisfied men and women said they have sex about once or twice a week, whereas less than a quarter of men and women who weren’t satisfied said they did it that much. The notion that the happiest couples tend to have sex about twice a week has been studied before, but researchers aren’t clear what makes that the magic number. Do they have that much sex because they’re happy, or are they happy because they have that much sex?
That very tension—which comes first, sexual happiness or sexual frequency—is posited in the WSJ piece as a chicken or egg question, but it really seems like an inextricably linked aspect of good chemistry: “Couples who are more satisfied are driven to have sex more often, which gives them more satisfaction and leads to more frequency,” David Frederick, the study’s lead author, told Bernstein.
And the factors that lead to that sexual frequency and satisfaction seem inextricable, too. When men and women ranked their “strongest predictors” of satisfaction, it looked like this:
- mood setting
- sexual variety
- mood setting
Note that having an orgasm for a man is such a given that he doesn’t even have to rank it as a predictor. However, learning that setting the mood is important to men, who are typically portrayed as being able to fuck in a building full of burning shit because they are so singularly devoted to getting off, is refreshing. Wanting to change it up sexually is totally understandable. And sure, talking is least important to dudes—cue laugh track.
For women, I am willing to bet that just knowing you are going to get off at all probably makes that building full of burning shit look like a weekend at Sandals. But talking? I think most women might agree that if you’re taking care of everything, who needs to talk that much?
That said, proof that there are no shortcuts to a good relationship: Talking was still everything, even when the fucking was right on the money. Bernstein writes that there were five types of communication that were most central to having the good sex life that leads to the greater happiness.
In order of importance, both satisfied men and women say they praise their partner for something they did in bed; are asked by their partner for something they want; ask for something they want from their partner; talk on the phone or email with their partner during the day to tease about something they want; ask for feedback on how something felt.
It’s so basic and obvious that openness and communication make sex, and therefore relationships, better, so what is wrong with any of us if we can’t do that? And when it came to happy couples ranking mood variables that mattered, that was pretty no-duh, too:
- Saying I love you during sexual encounter
- Engaging in sexy talk
- Laugh about something funny that happened during sex
- They light candles or dim the lights
- They play background music
Then, men and women who were happiest ranked the top 5 acts that they felt were most essential to a good sex life. Bernstein:
They both say that trying a new sexual position is what makes them happiest. After that, women say they are most satisfied by taking a shower or bath with their partner, getting or giving a massage, incorporating sexy lingerie into their sex life, and talking about or acting out fantasies. For men, the order was slightly different. They were most satisfied, in order, by incorporating lingerie, taking a shower or bath, talking about or acting out fantasies and getting or giving a massage.
I think most of us agree that everything revealed here is what any of us might’ve guessed would lead to a better relationship. But such studies should, I think, always be caveated with the idea that just because what makes people happy is simple and obvious doesn’t mean getting it is. It’s just that in hindsight, what makes people happy in a relationship is fairly universal, particularly in hindsight.
You still need a kind of ineffable chemistry, but beyond that, you have to want to make effort. This is a study that basically proves that good matches involve intimacy and attraction. And when two people want a great match to last, they do everything they can to keep that spark alive. But people are people: We get used to each other, take each other for granted, and typically insist on seeing things in much more myopic ways.
It’s why you can’t really reverse engineer happiness—it’s why in a way, finding the right person is probably far more about simple luck than many of us are wiling to admit. But getting lucky will only take you so far. After the gods bless you, it’s up to you to write the narrative. It just takes both of you, all the time, day in, day out. That probably doesn’t sound all that sexy—unless you’re in a happy relationship.
Image via Screen Gems.