Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sexual Frequency and the Stability of Marital and Cohabiting Unions

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sexual Frequency and the Stability of Marital and Cohabiting Unions

Article excerpt

Prior research found that lower sexual frequency and satisfaction were associated with higher rates of divorce, but little research had examined the role of sexual activity in the dissolution of cohabiting unions. We drew upon social exchange theory to hypothesize why sexual frequency is more important in cohabitation: (a) cohabitors' lower costs of finding sexual alternatives, (b) cohabitors' lower barriers to ending the relationship in the form of unionspecific economic and noneconomic capital, and (c) cohabitors' higher expectations for sexual activity. Using the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 5,902), we examined the relationship between sexual frequency and union dissolution. Results indicated that low sexual frequency was associated with significantly higher rates of union dissolution among cohabitors than married couples.

Key Words: cohabitation, dissolution, divorce, marriage, sexual frequency.

Prior research finds that sexuality within marriage is an important component of marital quality and stability. Typically, studies found that higher sexual satisfaction or frequency is positively associated with marital stability (Edwards & Booth, 1994; Oggins, Veroff, & Leber, 1993; Veroff, Douvan, & Hatchett, 1995; White & Keith, 1990; Yeh, Lorenz, Wickrama, Conger, & Elder, 2006). The relationship between sexual activity and union stability in cohabitations has received less research attention, but the existing research found that sexual satisfaction in nonmarital unions also promotes stability (Sprecher, 2002).

Although it was previously established in separate studies that sexual activity was associated with union stability for both marriage and cohabitation, no studies compared the importance of sexual activity across marital and nonmarital unions. Because partners in these two types of unions have different expectations, histories, and responsibilities (Giddens, 1992), there is good reason to believe that sexuality within these unions may have differential stabilizing roles. The role of sexual frequency in relationships is an important area of study, as recent research found that sexual relations ranked as the second most problematic issue (after balancing job and family) among a national sample of young married couples (Risch, Riley, & Lawler, 2003).

In this paper, we develop a theoretical framework that links sexual activity to union stability. We examine how the importance of sexual activity varied across marital and cohabiting unions. To empirically test our hypotheses, we used the first and second waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH).


It has been well established in the literature that positive, healthy sexuality within marriage is associated with several dimensions of marital well-being, including marital satisfaction and happiness (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Edwards & Booth, 1994; Henderson-King & Veroff, 1994; Perlman & Abrahmson, 1982; Yeh et al., 2006). Research has also found that low sexual satisfaction can promote marital instability (Edwards & Booth; Oggins et al., 1993; Veroff et al., 1995; White & Keith, 1990). For example, Edwards and Booth found that declines in sexual satisfaction among married couples from 1980 to 1983 were associated with a higher likelihood of divorce 5 years later. White and Booth (1991) wrote that reports of sexual problems among married couples increased the likelihood of divorce, net of other relationship quality variables. Fewer studies focused on the role of sexual satisfaction in cohabiting or dating relationships. One exception was Sprecher' s (2002) study of the quality and stability of dating couples. She found that couples who reported higher sexual satisfaction scores were more likely to stay together than couples with lower scores.

Social and Biological Factors Linking Sexual Frequency and Dissolution

There are several explanations for the link between lower sexual frequency or lower sexual satisfaction to higher rates of union dissolution. …

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