Sex and friendship in marriage can be a lot like the chicken and the egg.
Do you have sex to build friendship, or does building friendship lead to more sex.
The answer? Yes.
Yes to both.
That’s what we found in our survey results for The Great Sex Rescue, as Joanna talked briefly about in her segment on the Bare Marriage podcast last week about orgasms. Marital satisfaction and sexual satisfaction are closely linked.
Today I wanted to pull out just a few of our results and point you to THREE quick things that are important to know about this chicken and egg phenomenon. So let’s jump in!
Point 1: Great sex and a great marriage do go hand in hand.
We definitely found that people with strong marriages tend to have better sex. Women in the top 20% of marital satisfaction were four times more likely to reliably orgasm than women in the bottom 20%! And when women feel that their opinions matter in marriage just as much as his do, they’re roughly 7 times more likely to say he does enough foreplay and roughly 4 times more likely to say that she feels comfortable talking to him about what she wants in bed (plus a ton of other findings that are in a pretty chart in The Great Sex Rescue!). But you can also read those results the other way–when she feels comfortable telling him what she wants in bed, she’s also more likely to say that her opinion matters in marriage!
We definitely found that people with great sex lives tend to have great marriages–and people with great marriages tend to have great sex lives! They go hand in hand, because sex is not only physical. It’s also about emotional and spiritual connection. When you feel as if you have that outside the bedroom, then inside the bedroom is more likely to rock!
And then, when the bedroom does rock, you build this sense of closeness, like “we’re in this together”, and that, in turn, feeds your marriage.
For sex to feel intimate, it needs to be about saying, “I want you,” not just “I want sex.” It needs to be about saying, “I see you. I choose you. I want to experience something with you, and only you. I want to know you better.”
You is the key word. You are the focus. Sex is not just about me; it’s about me knowing you and building us.
Point 2: Sex can smooth over problems and help healthy couples feel close, but it cannot fix a bad relationship.
However, when we talked with our focus groups and did interviews, and reviewed other research, it’s clear that a great marriage can help build a great sex life, but a great sex life can’t fix a bad marriage. When you work on your marriage, and work on your communication, and help each other feel valued, sex will tend to get better. When you build better sex, you don’t necessarily grow a better marriage.
You can smooth over problems, though. You can help build goodwill in the marriage so that it’s easier to tackle small communication issues, or bring up issues that might be bugging you (I’d love it if you’d give me more of a hand with the kids at night rather than sitting in front of a screen; I’d love to spend time on the weekends doing something fun instead of always hanging out with your mom). When you have that foundation that says, “I like having fun with you and experiencing this with you together,” then you solidify that relationship and you can talk about things.
In fact, sex can be a shortcut to rebuild closeness when there’s been tension. How many times have you been picking at each other all day, and then you make love at night, and you just sigh this comfortable sigh of relief and snuggle in each other’s arms, and all is forgotten? It’s like a way of saying, “It’s okay. We really are good.”
But if you’re not really able to talk outside the bedroom, or if your marriage is marred by some major issues, sex can’t fix it. And, in fact, if the problems are big enough, having sex can prolong those problems, because when you do have sex, you tell your spouse, “we’re okay. We’re together. We’re on the same page.” So if you’re regularly having sex with someone who is wounding you emotionally or betraying you, you actually tell them, “this behaviour of yours is actually acceptable.” What we found in many interviews and emails is that spouses often didn’t take a big, marriage endangering problem seriously until the sex stopped.
(That’s not saying that you should stop having sex whenever something is bugging you, but in cases of porn use, addictions, or any form of abuse, having sex can solidify the issue).
Point 3: Frequency matters less than sexual quality when it comes to building the relationship.
Sex where she doesn’t orgasm and where she doesn’t feel particularly emotionally close to him during sex is not going to build the relationship in the long term. In fact, if she keeps having sex with him when she’s not orgasming and when she’s not feeling particularly close, and you may find that in a decade or two she just gives up on sex altogether. In fact, you’re 7 times more likely to end up in a sexless marriage!
If he doesn’t spend enough time on foreplay she’s twelve times less likely to say that he makes her pleasure a priority. When she feels as if her pleasure doesn’t matter to her husband, she’s far less likely to feel emotionally close during sex.
At the same time, when she feels as if sex is about them together, and it isn’t only about him, she’s five times more likely to reliably orgasm.
When she has really bad sex where she feels as if her pleasure is not a priority, she feels more emotionally distant, not less. So if sex is going to build your friendship, it has to be good sex! Intercourse alone doesn’t do it.
Okay…so which is it? The chicken of the egg?
After all of that, I’d say that in relatively healthy marriages, where you have regular disagreements–have sex as much as you can and make it awesome! It’s a great way to invest in the relationship, keep that relationship strong, and keep you feeling happy and cherished. Couples who have frequent sex that’s awesome also tend to build marriages that are awesome. And that feeling of closeness in the bedroom does transfer outside of the bedroom!
But make sure it’s REAL sex, not just one-sided intercourse. Sex biblically is supposed to be INTIMATE, PLEASURABLE, and MUTUAL–it’s not just about “doing the deed”. It’s about both of you together. If you’re not receiving much pleasure from sex, check out The Orgasm Course!
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And finally, if there are big issues in your marriage, then deal with those issues, don’t expect sex to fix them. Often we’re told that having more sex is a magic elixir that makes everything better, but that’s not necessarily true. For small problems, more frequency is likely a good thing. For big problems, it can actually backfire.
Really, one of our big findings in The Great Sex Rescue is that we use frequency of sex as a measure for good marriages far too often, when frequency of sex is actually a poor measure.
If we concentrated on two different measures–do you feel emotionally close during sex, and does she feel pleasure?–we’d likely get to WHY sex builds friendship, and to the KIND OF SEX that builds friendship, a lot more quickly!
That was actually one of the big messages of our book–that we need a much more nuanced conversation about sex, because too often we think intercourse fixes everything. The truth? Sex can be awesome, and it can be a balm, and it can help build the relationship. But not all sex is the same. So we have to talk about this well. And if you want to join that conversation, then, of course, check out The Great Sex Rescue!
What do you think? Has having sex ever made you feel closer, even during a period of tension in your marriage? Or has sex made you feel further apart? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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