Sex is an important part of most romantic relationships – and when couples are not on the same page about their sex life, it can become a source of frustration. Research has found that couples have sex about 1 or 2 times a week, but about half of sexual advances between partners go unfulfilled.
A preprint uploaded recently to PsyArXiv sheds some light on how responses to sexual advances influence individuals’ feelings of sexual and relationship satisfaction. The study suggests that while having an advance accepted leaves partners feeling more content, this effect may be short-lived compared to the dissatisfaction of being rejected.
To get a peek into the bedrooms of 115 heterosexual couples (participants were aged between 19 and 64), Kiersten Dobson from the University of Western Ontario and colleagues asked them all to keep sex diaries. Every day for 3 weeks, both partners independently logged whether they or their partner had made a sexual advance, and if so, whether that led to sexual activity. They also recorded their daily levels of satisfaction with their sexual relationship, as well as their relationship generally, answering questions such as “How good is your relationship compared to most?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that accepting a sexual advance, or having an advance accepted by the partner, resulted in an increase in both sexual and relationship satisfaction that day compared to other days.
On the other hand, being rejected decreased sexual satisfaction. But intriguingly, if the participant themselves was the rejecter – that is, if they shunned an advance from their partner – their sexual satisfaction still increased. (Neither being rejected nor being the rejecter had any effect on general relationship satisfaction.)
Changes in sexual satisfaction could still be detected days after advances were made. The team found that the boost in satisfaction from having an advance accepted persisted for 24 hours, with the slump of being rejected lasting twice as long. And the gratification that came from being either an acceptor or a rejecter lasted a remarkable 72 hours.
It might seem especially surprising that rejecting a partner’s advances gives a boost in sexual satisfaction, particularly one that appears to last for three days. But rather than reflecting some pleasure derived from rejecting someone, the researchers suggest that being approached for sex leaves a person feeling desired, so enhances sexual satisfaction even when no actual sex ends up happening.
The fact that the negative effects of being sexually rejected by a partner last longer than the positive effects of being accepted mean that making an advance can be a risky move, the authors say. “The act of making a sexual advance may be a high-risk situation for romantic partners, which may in turn lead those who feel less sure of their partner’s response to an advance to take the risk of making an advance less often,” they write. This could ultimately lead to fewer opportunities to bolster intimacy through sex.
The study doesn’t reveal anything about whether there is a way to buffer against the negative effects of rejection, though, or how different individuals respond. For example, the same team previously found that men underestimate, and women overestimate, how often their partners make sexual advances – though gender didn’t seem to play a role in the new study. However, it would be interesting to know whether other individual differences might alter people’s responses to acceptance or rejection.
—Responses to sexual advances and satisfaction in romantic relationships: Is yes good and no bad? [this study is a preprint meaning it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version on which this report was based]