My wife and I are always so busy during the week that we’ve decided to save sex for the weekends. But since we started this six months ago, I’ve noticed that we argue quite a lot more and are more snippy with each other.”
You have identified something that I believe to be 100% true, although it is not something that is easily verifiable. It is extremely difficult for psychological research to attribute mood changes to the absence of anything; much easier to explain them as a response to exposure, or a reaction to something.
Mood, in particular, is affected by so many variables that it would be impossible to make a direct connection between, say, sex on a Saturday morning and grumpiness on a Wednesday evening. Still, I am convinced that you are right because there is a wealth of research to show that having sex makes people happy, so it is hardly a stretch to suggest that the same might be true in reverse.
The relationship between happiness and sex is complex, but psychologists Amy Muise and Emily Impett, from the University of Toronto have collaborated on several studies in the past few years that explore those complexities. Their research has found that for people in relationships, sex is positively associated with wellbeing, but there is no additional benefit in terms of happiness and wellbeing at frequencies greater than once a week. Your weekend sessions mean that you are already meeting that threshold, so it may not be the absence of sex, but the presence of stress that is making you both so grumpy in the week.
Stress has a particularly deleterious effect on couple relationships because it is contagious. When one person is feeling tired and irritable, their bad mood has a direct impact on their partner. Even if they consciously try to hide how they are feeling, it manifests in their demeanour and their energy levels. Stress and irritation hang in the air like static, creating tension and souring the atmosphere. Inevitably, stressed-out couples end up fighting more frequently, and if they don’t find ways to neutralise those negative feelings, they can end up withdrawing from each other completely.
There are, of course, lots of great ways to combat stress - yoga, swimming, mindfulness meditation, wine etc - but sex is probably the fastest and most powerful antidote of all. Studies from all over the world have shown that physical intimacy, including touching, kissing, cuddling, sex and orgasm, can increase relational satisfaction, boost mood, decrease stress and make it easier to get to sleep. More broadly, couples who have regular sex have better immune systems, and better heart health. If there was a pill that promised all those benefits, we’d be queueing for a prescription, but because sex is free and completely natural, we don’t value it as much as we should.
The perception that sex is time-consuming means that it can get consigned to weekends and holidays, but couples who feel that they don’t have time for midweek sex can compensate by remembering to be more tactile and loving. In a recently published study, Muise and Impett established that the association between sex and positive emotions is mediated by affection. With minimal investment, a kind word, a hand held, a gentle touch, an empathic hug, or even just a warm smile, can become disproportionately powerful tools in your marital toolkit. They are non-verbal ways of saying “I love you, I am on your side and you can trust me.”
Ultimately, there probably isn’t much you can do about the amount of work you have to do, or the stress you are both under, but this week, when the pressure begins to build, instead of fighting it out, try kissing it better.
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