Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why We Have Sex

We're always saying it around here, sex is marital glue. But it isn't always.

New study, University of Toronto, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, summed up in last week's WSJ. Worth a look.  What you learn:

We have two ways of dealing with this particular bodily function, sex.  We participate because either:
(1) we want to feel good, make our partner feel good, or
(2) we want to avoid a bad feeling about ourselves or about our partner or relationship-- the negative consequences of not participating.

Whereas it might seem that our motivations to approach or avoid are relatively circumscribed and few, a previous study at the University of Texas (2007) found 237!!! motives to have sex, everything from spiritual closeness to the Old Mighty to retaliation for a partner's affair. That retaliation could be sex with the partner, or with someone else. These are mind-boggling motives no matter how they shake out, and great fodder in therapy, they reveal so much about us.

There probably really are precisely 237 reasons to have sex because the Texas inquiry had to be qualitative, meaning social scientists interviewed enough people for a long enough period of time to literally saturate the category, reasons to have sex.

And we're not even talking about the reasons for not even bothering with sex, another study altogether which surely would include the intimacy fears-- those fears of exposure, annihilation, suffocation, rejection, etc.,-- as well as our personal mental status problems, i.e., depression, and let's not forget our physical laments, marvelous, valid, at least for awhile, excuses-- as in menopause, peri-menopause, pain, fatigue, hunger, etc. Such are among the reasons we literally, physically, but mentally, too, avoid having sex.

But avoidance in the University of Toronto and Texas studies is about avoiding psychological thoughts and feelings by having sex, not physically avoiding it.
See how confusing it is to be an academic?
The University of Toronto team divided responses into two categories. Self-motivated or partner motivated reasons for having sex. (Interesting that sex becomes the object of a preposition, not a verb here, and we're always saying that love is a verb.  Self-motivated and partner motivated reasons look like this. Try to figure out which are which:
If I do it, I'll start my day out right.
If I don't do it, he might find someone else and I'll be alone.
If I do it, he'll start his day right, and I want him to feel good.    
If I don't do it, he might think I don't really love him, might even look for someone else.
It isn't easy, sorting all of this out.

And yet, two basic, important findings:

(a) Partner motivated approaches are the most telling predictors of couple satisfaction. So it's okay, you see, to be selfless to a point.
(b) Whether or not it is for me or for my partner, if the reason is positive, there is higher relationship satisfaction overall. You feel like a better team.

That's the marital glue we're talking about.

It also means we shouldn't be having sex for negative reasons. (Obviously, the reasons are always wrong in any type of sexual abuse that isn't consensual or in which consent is coerced). But to make a seemingly good relationship (we have sex!) truly good, much better, the job would be to work out the negative reasons. Work them out and the relationship is more emotionally intimate.

And when that's how it is defined, truly emotionally intimate, it likely that sex will be marital glue. I would go so far as to say, only then.

I'm truly grateful for that study, because it makes it much easier to explain to my patients.  I mean it.



Unknown said...

This has been a great blog. Thanks for sharing. I have been wanting to do something like this. therapy pools

Carolyn said...

Very interesting. My boyfriend once told me about his ex-wife that it was only the "amazing sex" that kept them together (until they were divorced). Good sex and nothing else can only last for a certain amount of time. When you put love, respect, and sex together, you get the marital glue :)

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