This study examined the impact of sexual closeness on sexual well-being. We developed a nuanced and multifaceted conceptualization of sexual closeness in the form of a constellation of ideal sexual closeness with a partner, actual sexual closeness, and the discrepancy between the two. Data were obtained from a diverse sample of N = 619 participants who took part in the Lives and Relationships Study: A longitudinal survey of men and women in relationships living in the U.S. and Canada. Increases in sexual closeness discrepancies over a period of 1 year predicted concomitant decreases in two indicators of sexual well-being: sexual satisfaction and orgasm frequency evaluations. Decreases in sexual closeness discrepancies resulted in improvement in sexual well-being. Individuals who reported no sexual closeness discrepancies and experienced no changes in sexual closeness discrepancies tended to have the highest levels of sexual well-being. Importantly, sexual closeness discrepancies were robust predictors of sexual well-being, above and beyond individuals’ actual sexual closeness, general relationship closeness, and other demographic and relationship characteristics known to be associated with sexual well-being. The present findings demonstrate that how close people feel sexually to their relationship partners is part of a general constellation of factors related to relationship closeness that, only when considered together, sufficiently explain the ways in which experiences of closeness impact sexual well-being in romantic relationships.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. J., Le, B., & Goodfriend, W. (2004). Thinking close: Measuring closeness as perceived self-other inclusion. In D. J. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 103–116). Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
Alfonso, V. C., Allison, D. B., Rader, D. E., & Gorman, B. S. (1996). The Extended Satisfaction with Life scale: Development and psychometric properties. Social Indicators Research, 38(3), 275–301. doi:10.1007/BF00292049.
Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corp/Harper & Row Publishers.
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 596–612. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1996.
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 241–253. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52.
Aron, A., & Fraley, B. (1999). Relationship closeness as including other in the self: Cognitive underpinnings and measures. Social Cognition, 17(2), 140–160. doi:10.1521/soco.19184.108.40.206.
Aron, A., Mashek, D. J., & Aron, E. (2004a). Closeness as including other in the self. In D. J. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 27–42). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Mashek, D., Lewandowski, G., Wright, S. C., & Aron, E. N. (2004b). Including others in the self. European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 101–132. doi:10.1080/10463280440000008.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. doi:10.1177/0146167297234003.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., & Aron, E. N. (2001). Shared self-expanding activities as a means of maintaining and enhancing close romantic relationships. In J. Harvey & A. Wenzel (Eds.), Close romantic relationships: Maintenance and enhancement (pp. 47–66). Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
Ben-Ari, A. (2012). Rethinking closeness and distance in intimate relationships: Are they really two opposites? Journal of Family Issues, 33(3), 391–412. doi:10.1177/0192513X11415357.
Ben-Ari, A., & Lavee, Y. (2007). Dyadic closeness in marriage: From the inside story to a conceptual model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(5), 627–644. doi:10.1177/0265407507081451.
Berscheid, E., Snyder, M., & Omoto, A. (1989). The Relationship Closeness Inventory: Assessing the closeness of interpersonal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 792–807.
Birnbaum, G. E. (2010). Bound to interact: The divergent goals and complex interplay of attachment and sex within romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(2), 245–252. doi:10.1177/0265407509360902.
Birnie-Porter, C., & Lydon, J. E. (2013). A prototype approach to understanding sexual intimacy through its relationship to intimacy. Personal Relationships, 20(2), 236–258. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01402.x.
Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock.
Bridges, S. K., & Horne, S. G. (2007). Sexual satisfaction and desire discrepancy in same sex women’s relationships. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 33(1), 41–53. doi:10.1080/00926230600998466.
Brunell, A. B., Pilkington, C. J., & Webster, G. D. (2007). Perceptions of risk in intimacy in dating couples: Conversation and relationship quality. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(1), 92–119. doi:10.1521/jscp.2007.26.1.92.
Byers, E. S. (2005). Relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction: A longitudinal study of individuals in long-term relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 42(2), 113–118. doi:10.1080/00224490509552264.
Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 155–159.
Davies, S., Katz, J., & Jackson, J. L. (1999). Sexual desire discrepancies: Effects on sexual and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28(6), 553–567. doi:10.1023/A:1018721417683.
Davis, D., Shaver, P. R., & Vernon, M. L. (2004). Attachment style and subjective motivations for sex. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(8), 1076–1090. doi:10.1177/0146167204264794.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2014). Autonomy and need satisfaction in close relationships: Relationships motivation theory. In N. Weinstein (Ed.), Human motivation and interpersonal relationships (pp. 53–73). Dordrecht: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-8542-6_3.
Edwards, J. N., & Booth, A. (1994). Sexuality, marriage, and well-being: The middle years. In A. S. Rossi (Ed.), Sexuality across the life course (pp. 233–259). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Ferreira, L. C., Narciso, I., Novo, R. F., & Pereira, C. R. (2014). Predicting couple satisfaction: The role of differentiation of self, sexual desire and intimacy in heterosexual individuals. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29(4), 390–404. doi:10.1080/14681994.2014.957498.
Fisher, W. A., Donahue, K. L., Long, J. S., Heiman, J. R., Rosen, R. C., & Sand, M. S. (2015). Individual and partner correlates of sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife couples: Dyadic analysis of the International Survey of Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(6), 1609–1620. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0426-8.
Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions, and evaluations in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 933–940. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.113.
Frederick, D. A., Lever, J., Gillespie, B. J., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). What keeps passion alive? Sexual satisfaction is associated with sexual communication, mood setting, sexual variety, oral sex, orgasm, and sex frequency in a national US Study. Journal of Sex Research, 54, 186–201. doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1137854.
Frost, D. M., & Eliason, M. J. (2014). Challenging the assumption of fusion in female same-sex relationships. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(1), 65–74. doi:10.1177/0361684313475877.
Frost, D. M., & Forrester, C. (2013). Closeness discrepancies in romantic relationships: Implications for relational well-being, stability, and mental health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(4), 456–469. doi:10.1177/0146167213476896.
Haavio-Mannila, E., & Kontula, O. (1997). Correlates of increased sexual satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26(4), 399–419. doi:10.1023/A:1024591318836.
Hassebrauck, M., & Fehr, B. (2002). Dimensions of relationship quality. Personal Relationships, 9(3), 253–270. doi:10.1111/1475-6811.00017.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681.
Henderson-King, D. H., & Veroff, J. (1994). Sexual satisfaction and marital well-being in the first years of marriages. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 509–534. doi:10.1177/0265407594114002.
Higgins, E. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319–340. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.94.3.319.
Impett, E. A., Muise, A., & Peragine, D. (2014). Sexuality in the context of relationships. In D. Tolman & L. Diamond (Eds.), APA handbook of sexuality and psychology (pp. 269–315). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14193-010.
Kashdan, T. B., Volkmann, J. R., Breen, W. E., & Han, S. (2007). Social anxiety and romantic relationships: The costs and benefits of negative emotion expression are context-dependent. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21(4), 475–492. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.08.007.
Kelley, H. H., Berscheid, E., Christensen, A., Harvey, J. H., Huston, T. L., Levinger, G., & Peterson, D. R. (1983). Analyzing close relationships. In H. H. Kelley, E. Berscheid, A. Christensen, J. H. Harvey, T. L. Huston, G. Levinger, & D. R. Peterson (Eds.), Close relationships (pp. 20–67). New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.
Kiefer, A. K., & Sanchez, D. T. (2007). Scripting sexual passivity: A gender role perspective. Personal Relationships, 14(2), 269–290. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2007.00154.x.
Knee, C. R., Hadden, B. W., Porter, B., & Rodriguez, L. M. (2013). Self-determination theory and romantic relationship processes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4), 307–324. doi:10.1177/1088868313498000.
La Guardia, J. G., Ryan, R. M., Couchman, C. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Within-person variation in security of attachment: A self-determination theory perspective on attachment, need fulfillment, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(3), 367–384. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247.
Mark, K. P. (2012). The relative impact of individual sexual desire and couple desire discrepancy on satisfaction in heterosexual couples. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 27(2), 133–146. doi:10.1080/14681994.2012.678825.
Mashek, D., Le, B., Israel, K., & Aron, A. (2011). Wanting less closeness in romantic relationships. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 33(4), 333–345. doi:10.1080/01973533.2011.614164.
Mashek, D. J., & Sherman, M. D. (2004). Desiring less closeness with intimate others. In D. J. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 343–356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
McAdams, D. P. (1989). Intimacy: The need to be close. New York, NY: Doubleday & Co.
McClelland, S. I. (2010). Intimate justice: A critical analysis of sexual satisfaction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(9), 663–680. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00293.x.
McClelland, S. I. (2011). Who is the “self” in self-reports of sexual satisfaction? Research and policy implications. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 8(4), 304–320. doi:10.1007/s13178-011-0067-9.
McClelland, S. I. (2014). “What do you mean when you say that you’re sexually satisfied?” A mixed methods study. Feminism & Psychology, 24(1), 74–96. doi:10.1177/0959353513508392.
Mirgain, S. A., & Cordova, J. V. (2007). Emotion skills and marital health: The association between observed and self–reported emotion skills, intimacy, and marital satisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(9), 983–1009. doi:10.1521/jscp.2007.26.9.983.
Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Keeping the spark alive: Being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs sustains sexual desire in long-term romantic relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 267–273. doi:10.1177/1948550612457185.
Pascoal, P., Narciso, I., & Pereira, N. M. (2012). Predictors of body appearance cognitive distraction during sexual activity in men and women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(11), 2849–2860.
Patrick, H., Knee, C. R., Canevello, A., & Lonsbary, C. (2007). The role of need fulfillment in relationship functioning and well-being: A self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(3), 434–457. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1994.
Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. New York, NY: Harper.
Philippsohn, S., & Hartmann, U. (2009). Determinants of sexual satisfaction in a sample of German women. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(4), 1001–1010. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00989.x.
Reis, H. T., & Patrick, B. C. (1996). Attachment and intimacy: Component processes. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 523–563). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Robinson, B. B., Bockting, W. O., Rosser, B. R., Miner, M., & Coleman, E. (2002). The sexual health model: Application of a sexological approach to HIV prevention. Health Education Research, 17(1), 43–57. doi:10.1093/her/17.1.43.
Rosen, R. C., & Bachmann, G. A. (2008). Sexual well-being, happiness, and satisfaction, in women: The case for a new conceptual paradigm. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 34(4), 291–297. doi:10.1080/00926230802096234.
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.
Sanchez, D. T., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Crocker, J. (2011). Relationship contingency and sexual motivation in women: Implications for sexual satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(1), 99–110. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9593-4.
Santtila, P., Wager, I., Witting, K., Harlaar, N., Jern, P., Johansson, A., & Sandnabba, N. K. (2007). Discrepancies between sexual desire and sexual activity: Gender differences and associations with relationship satisfaction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 34(1), 31–44. doi:10.1080/00926230701620548.
Schachner, D. A., & Shaver, P. R. (2004). Attachment dimensions and sexual motives. Personal Relationships, 11(2), 179–195. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00077.x.
Schnarch, D. M. (1991). Constructing the sexual crucible: An integration of sexual and marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Schoenfeld, E. A., Loving, T. J., Pope, M. T., Huston, T. L., & Štulhofer, A. (2017). Does sex really matter? Examining the connections between spouses’ nonsexual behaviors, sexual frequency, sexual satisfaction, and marital satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 489–501. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0672-4.
Smith, A., Lyons, A., Ferris, J., Richters, J., Pitts, M., Shelley, J., & Simpson, J. M. (2011). Sexual and relationship satisfaction among heterosexual men and women: The importance of desired frequency of sex. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 37(2), 104–115. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2011.560531.
Sprecher, S., & McKinney, K. (1993). Sexuality. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. doi:10.4135/9781483326252.
van Anders, S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities via sexual configurations theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(5), 1177–1213. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0490-8.
Waite, L. J., & Joyner, K. (2001). Emotional satisfaction and physical pleasure in sexual unions: Time horizon, sexual behavior, and sexual exclusivity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 247–264.
Willoughby, B. J., & Vitas, J. (2012). Sexual desire discrepancy: The effect of individual differences in desired and actual sexual frequency on dating couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(2), 477–486. doi:10.1007/s10508-011-9766-9.
Conflict of interest
David Frost declares that he has no conflict of interest. Sara McClelland declares that she has no conflict of interest. Miranda Dettmann declares that she has no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
About this article
Cite this article
Frost, D.M., McClelland, S.I. & Dettmann, M. Sexual Closeness Discrepancies: What They Are and Why They Matter for Sexual Well-Being in Romantic Relationships. Arch Sex Behav 46, 2353–2364 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-0960-2
- Sexual satisfaction
- Closeness discrepancies
- Self-expansion theory