Skip to main content

Sexual Closeness Discrepancies: What They Are and Why They Matter for Sexual Well-Being in Romantic Relationships

Abstract

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, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

References

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corp/Harper & Row Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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:10.1037/0022-3514.63.4.596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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:10.1037/0022-3514.60.2.241.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.1999.17.2.140.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 155–159.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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:10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.933.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Haavio-Mannila, E., & Kontula, O. (1997). Correlates of increased sexual satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26(4), 399–419. doi:10.1023/A:1024591318836.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hassebrauck, M., & Fehr, B. (2002). Dimensions of relationship quality. Personal Relationships, 9(3), 253–270. doi:10.1111/1475-6811.00017.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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:10.1037/0022-3514.79.3.367.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P. (1989). Intimacy: The need to be close. New York, NY: Doubleday & Co.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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:10.1037/0022-3514.92.3.434.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. New York, NY: Harper.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schnarch, D. M. (1991). Constructing the sexual crucible: An integration of sexual and marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Sprecher, S., & McKinney, K. (1993). Sexuality. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. doi:10.4135/9781483326252.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David M. Frost.

Ethics declarations

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.

Ethical Approval

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

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

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

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-0960-2

Keywords

  • Sexual satisfaction
  • Orgasm
  • Closeness discrepancies
  • Self-expansion theory