It’s not a new concept that husbands and wives often don’t agree on how often to have sex. But recently, I read a fascinating academic study that did have some new information to offer.
In 2007, researchers Bodenmann, Ledermann, and Bradbury were studying what stress can do to marriages. And, they were specifically interested in a certain kind of stress–the kind most toxic to marriages.
Contrary to what might seem obvious, it’s not the big, out-of-the-blue, cataclysmic short-term stressors that have the biggest negative influence on marriage. The biggest hit comes from the daily hassles of life.
It’s the little stresses of our everyday routines that can accumulate into big relationship roadblocks. Studies show that divorced couples often see this “mountain of many molehills” as the main reason they could not stay together.
I know that it’s old news that stress can impact your sex life. But this may be a new twist–stress could impact your desire for sex in the opposite way it impacts your spouse’s.
Bodenmann assessed the couples in his study to find out how satisfied they were with their marriages. Then, he assessed couples for stress “outside” their marriage, especially those daily hassles and stressors I mentioned earlier.
When all the results were in, the research showed that when satisfaction in the relationship is low, and outside stress is high, men want more sex, and women want less.
Having been a relationship coach for seven years, I have no trouble believing these researchers. For women, sex often feels like the “destination of connection.” For her, sex is the outcome of genuine emotional closeness. So, if the relationship is strained and stressed, sex may be the last thing she feels she needs. For men, sex often feels like the “doorway to connection.” For him, those moments of physical closeness and release cause him to feel relaxed, open, and safe with her. So, in moments when the relationship is stressed, sex may be the first thing he feels he needs.
It’s clear that stress isn’t the only reason why couples might disagree on how often to have sex. But it’s just as clear that stress–especially the combination of stress inside and outside the relationship–can make any existing disagreement much worse.
So how do you fight back against what stress could be doing to your sex life? Here’s a good first step: start by opening a discussion with your spouse about their stress and relationship satisfaction. Let me give you two quick questions you can use to get that dialogue going:
How’s your VU? (pronounced “View”)
I teach couples to ask this question as a fast way to assess how satisfied they both are in the relationship.
The V stands for valued, and the U stands for understood.
Try asking your spouse: “On a scale of 1-10, how valued do you feel in our relationship?”
And then, you can follow that by asking: “On a scale of 1-10, how understood do you feel in our relationship?”
While there are other nuances to satisfaction in marriage, I think this will give you a very reliable indicator, very quickly.
How’s your stress level?
Here’s how I ask people about their stress level when they come to see me for life coaching. I’ll tell them:
I’m going to give you a scale, and I’d like to ask you to rate your level of stress over the past two weeks. Here’s how it works:
“1” represents no stress at all. “1” might represent how you would feel lying on a beach in Jamaica, enjoying the warmth of the sun and listening to the waves gently rolling on to the shore.
“3” represents a little stress, but, it’s so little that you’re kind of bored with it. You find yourself wanting a bigger challenge.
“5” represents your idea of a normal stress load for a normal individual. You definitely feel challenged with life’s tasks, but most of the time you don’t feel overwhelmed. You are confident you can manage life’s demands; you’re “firing on all eight cylinders.”
“7” represents stress that is so significant, you aren’t sure you can sustain the load indefinitely. You’re noticing that parts of you aren’t functioning as well as they do when you’re less stressed. You may feel a bit more edgy lately. You might also sometimes struggle with working memory (for instance, you take out your phone to make a call, but before you can dial, you forget who and why you were calling). Or you may notice you tend to be more impulsive than usual. You may also recognize you’re feeling a little down and/or anxious.
“10” represents the most stress you can imagine a person experiencing. This level of stress is physically painful, and can cause you to “check out” emotionally. At a “10,” you feel you’re shutting down on the inside. Both at work and at home, you’re struggling to just put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps we could call a “10” by it’s old-school term: a nervous breakdown.
Using a 1-10 question like this is a great way of getting on the same page with your spouse about their stress.
You don’t have to give them my long instructions, you can just ask your spouse “on a scale of 1-10, how stressed out have you been feeling lately?” You might be surprised at the answer.
Here’s the bottom line: if your spouse has very different ideas about how often you should have sex, one of the first things to discuss is how stressed each of you are, and how satisfied in the relationship each of you are. Those issues may not be the only things causing your disagreement, but dealing with them is a great place to start.
Bodenmann, G., Ledermann, T., & Bradbury, T. N. (2007). Stress, sex, and satisfaction in marriage. Personal Relationships, 14(4), 551-569.