Contrary to popular belief, new research indicates that mismatches in sexual desire between partners are not associated with poorer relationship outcomes. Instead, couples with higher overall levels of desire tend to be more satisfied — even if there is a mismatch between partners.
The results from the new study appear in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“Sex plays an important part in couples’ lives, but couples often have differing levels of sexual desire,” said study author James Kim, a postdoctoral fellow at Western University and member of the Relationship Decisions Lab.
“Conventional wisdom and evidence from past research suggests that partners who are more similar (i.e., match) in their levels of sexual desire are also more satisfied. However, the past research on this topic has not disentangled the extent to which satisfaction is actually due to partners specifically matching on desire, or due to partners’ overall level of desire.”
In the study, 366 heterosexual couples individually completed assessments of sexual desire, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction.
Previous research has measured mismatches in desire by subtracting one partner’s self-reported desire from the other partner’s score. But for the new study, Kim and his colleagues used a statistical method known as dyadic response surface analysis to test whether satisfaction was higher for couples who matched versus mismatched at all levels of sexual desire.
“For example, if Mary has much lower desire than her partner and is unhappy in her relationship, is her unhappiness because of her desire being highly different from her partner’s, or because she simply has lower desire? We wanted to explicitly test whether matching on sexual desire actually has a unique effect in predicting couples’ satisfaction,” Kim explained.
Using this method, the researchers found no evidence that couples who matched in sexual desire were more satisfied than those who were mismatched. Rather, the overall level of sexual desire appeared to be the most important factor.
“Contrary to prevailing beliefs, we did not find that couples who were more closely matched on desire were significantly happier with their relationship or sex life than couples who were mismatched: there was no unique effect of matching,” Kim told PsyPost.
“Instead, we found that what really matters for couples’ relationship and sexual satisfaction is partners having higher levels of sexual desire. This suggests that rather than trying to align partners’ levels of sexual desire to be more similar, couples can build a more satisfying sexual relationship by focusing on strategies to manage these differences (e.g. communicating effectively when sexual desire is low) or finding ways to boost or reignite sexual desire in the relationship.”
However, the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“In this study, we looked at each partner’s self-reported levels of trait sexual desire, so couples were determined to be matched or mismatched based on these variables. However, we didn’t assess people’s perceptions of matching. People may perceive there to be discrepancies in desire when in fact there are none, and vice versa,” Kim explained.
“Thus, one remaining question that would be important to address is whether partners are aware of differences in their levels of desire, especially since previous work finds that perceptions of desire discrepancy are a stronger predictor of lower satisfaction than actual discrepancies between partners.”
The study, “Are Couples More Satisfied When They Match in Sexual Desire? New Insights From Response Surface Analyses“, was authored by James J. Kim, Amy Muise, Max Barranti, Kristen P. Mark, Natalie O. Rosen, Cheryl Harasymchuk, and Emily Impett.