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How Older Couples Deal with Differences in Sexual Desire

The role of emotional intimacy in sexual satisfaction.

  • Sexual satisfaction is crucial for a happy marriage, but research shows that more sex doesn't necessarily lead to greater satisfaction, and vice versa.
  • New research on older heterosexual couples found that men desired greater sexual frequency than women, and that both men and women reported higher levels of emotional intimacy than of sexual satisfaction.
  • For these couples, sexual satisfaction didn't correspond to partners' actual differences in desire, but to perceived differences.

Plenty of research shows that sexual satisfaction is one of the keys to a happy marriage. Sexual satisfaction, in turn, depends on frequency of sex, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that more sex leads to greater satisfaction. Instead, it’s about getting as much as you want. Thus, a person with high libido who has sex once a week may be less satisfied than a person with low libido who has sex once a month.

It’s also widely demonstrated that men on average desire more sex than women do. This is true at all ages, and the gap only widens as men and women get older.

For example, when Barbara and Allen were first married, her sex drive was almost as high as his, and this didn’t cause much friction in their marriage. Now that they’re in their sixties, though, the gap between their levels of sexual desire has become a chasm. Even though Allen doesn’t have the stamina he did in his twenties and thirties, he still wants a lot more sex than he’s getting. Meanwhile, Barbara finds intercourse more of a bother, and would much rather cuddle with Allen instead.

At the same time, Barbara and Allen both say they’re happily married, and view each other as their closest friend and confidant. How exactly does emotional intimacy affect couples’ perceptions of sexual satisfaction, even when they differ in levels of sexual desire? This is the question that Norwegian psychologist Nantje Fischer and her colleagues explored in a study recently reported in the Journal of Sex Research .

The researchers recruited 677 heterosexual couples between the ages of 60 and 75. The couples were from Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and Portugal. Each member of each couple individually responded to a survey that assessed the following:

  • Sexual satisfaction. Respondents indicated how happy they were with their sex life on a scale ranging from 1 (“completely dissatisfied”) to 5 (“completely satisfied").
  • Own level of sexual interest. Respondents rated their level of sexual interest on a five-point scale ranging from “very low” to “very high.”
  • Perceived partner’s level of sexual interest. Respondents estimated their partner’s level of sexual interest on the same five-point scale.
  • Emotional intimacy. Respondents assessed the level of emotional support they received from their partner by indicating how much they agreed with statements like “My thoughts and feelings are understood and affirmed by this person,” again on a five-point scale.

Past research has shown that sexual satisfaction is associated with the degree of sexual desire discrepancy that a couple experiences. However, it’s unclear whether sexual satisfaction depends on the actual discrepancy between spouses or their perceived level of mismatch. Because of the data that Fischer and her colleagues collected, they could calculate each couple’s actual level of sexual desire discrepancy as well as how much discrepancy each partner believed there was in the relationship.

  • Actual sexual discrepancy. Let’s say Allen indicated that his level of sexual interest was 4 and that Barbara indicated that hers was 2. The actual sexual discrepancy is the difference between the husband’s and the wife’s score. For this couple, it’s 2.
  • Perceived sexual discrepancy. This is the difference in desire each partner believes there is in the marriage. Let’s say Allen believes Barbara’s level is 3. Since his own level is 4, that means his perceived sexual discrepancy is 1. Likewise, we would look at the difference between Barbara’s own level of sexual desire and what she believes Allen’s to be.

Among these couples, sexual satisfaction was just above the midline, with an average rating of 3.4 for the men and 3.6 for the women, on a range from 1 to 5. However, both the men and the women rated their emotional intimacy at 4.3. In other words, while the couples were only moderately satisfied with their sex lives, they nonetheless felt a deep emotional bond with their spouses.

When the researchers compared actual and perceived discrepancy in sexual interest, they found an interesting pattern: Overall, actual discrepancy was greater than perceived discrepancy. So while Barbara and Allen actually differed by 2 points, each believed they only differed by 1 point.

Although the current data set cannot tell us why this is the case, previous research suggests a reason. It's well established that spouses tend to project their own thoughts and feelings onto their partners. Thus, Allen simply assumes that Barbara’s sex drive is nearly as high as his, while Barbara believes his is almost as low as hers.

Although projection can lead to misunderstandings in a relationship, it has some benefits as well. That is, spouses may be cognitively motivated to perceive their partner as being more similar to them than they really are, because doing so promotes feelings of security and intimacy, and this can positively influence their sense of how happy they are with their relationship in general and their sex life in particular.

An interesting pattern also emerged when the researchers looked at how actual and perceived sexual desire discrepancy were related to sexual satisfaction. As it turned out, each partner’s sexual satisfaction wasn’t related to the couple’s actual discrepancy in sexual desire, only to their perceived discrepancy.

In other words, sexual satisfaction only went down when spouses believed they had a large sexual desire discrepancy in their marriage. Otherwise, they were unaffected, regardless of what their partner’s actual level of sexual desire was. As is so often the case in psychology, perception is more important than reality.

For these couples, the best predictor of whether they were sexually satisfied was their level of emotional intimacy. That is, even when they weren’t having as much sex as they’d like, they were still happy in their relationship as long as they had a partner they could rely on to meet their emotional needs. While this doesn’t mean that sex is no longer important for older couples, it does suggest that companionship takes on an even more important role in senior marriages.

Facebook image: Zhur_Sa/Shutterstock

References

Fischer, N., Stulhofer, A., Hald, G. M., Carvalheira, A., & Traeen, B. (2021). Sexual satisfaction in older heterosexual couples from four European countries: Exploring the roles of actual and perceived discrepancy in sexual interest. Journal of Sex Research, 58, 64-73. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2020.1809615

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