Research Article: Sexual communal motivation in couples coping with low sexual interest/arousal: Associations with sexual well-being and sexual goals

Date Published: July 17, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jacqueline V. Hogue, Natalie O. Rosen, Amanda Bockaj, Emily A. Impett, Amy Muise, Julia Velten.


Women coping with female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD) report lower sexual and relationship satisfaction compared to healthy controls. In community samples, high sexual communal strength (i.e., the motivation to meet a partner’s sexual needs) is associated with higher sexual desire and satisfaction, but high unmitigated sexual communion (i.e., the prioritization of a partner’s needs to the exclusion of one’s own needs) is associated with lower sexual satisfaction. People higher in sexual communal strength report engaging in sex for approach goals (i.e., to enhance intimacy in their relationship), but not for avoidance goals (i.e., to avert conflict or a partner’s disappointment) and this is one reason why they report greater sexual desire. In the current sample of 97 women diagnosed with FSIAD and their partners we investigated the association between sexual communal strength and unmitigated sexual communion and sexual well-being (i.e., sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and sexual distress) and sexual goals (i.e., approach and avoidance goals). Women who reported higher sexual communal strength were more likely to pursue sex for approach goals and their partner reported greater sexual satisfaction. When partners reported higher sexual communal strength, they reported higher sexual desire, but when they reported higher unmitigated sexual communion, they reported higher sexual distress. Additional associations emerged for couples who engage in sex more (compared to less) frequently. Our findings demonstrate that being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs is associated with greater sexual well-being for couples coping with FSIAD, but when this motivation involves neglecting one’s own needs, people do not report greater sexual well-being and instead, partners report higher sexual distress.

Partial Text

Low sexual desire is a common complaint, particularly among women [1]. In large scale, nationally representative surveys, nearly a quarter of women report low sexual desire lasting several months over the past year, and for 7% to 30% of women, low sexual desire is accompanied by significant distress [2–4]. Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD) is the clinical diagnosis for a female sexual dysfunction characterized by low sexual desire and/or arousal accompanied by distress, and which is not better accounted for by another medical or psychiatric condition [5]. For a diagnosis of FSIAD, women must report reduced or low levels of at least three of the following symptoms during at least 75% of their sexual encounters and for at least six months: desire for sex, sexual fantasies/thoughts, initiation and receptivity of sexual activity, sexual pleasure, desire elicited by sexual stimuli, and/or genital or non-genital sensations [5]. Etiological models of FSIAD acknowledge the importance of interpersonal factors [6] in the maintenance of low desire and associated distress, and couples therapy is frequently a first-line intervention [7]. However, we know very little about the interpersonal factors that might be protective for women’s low desire and FSIAD couples’ associated difficulties.

In the current study, we recruited a sample of couples coping with FSIAD to investigate the role of SCS and USC in the sexual well-being (i.e., dyadic sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, sexual distress) and sexual goals (i.e., approach and avoidance sexual goals) of both women with FSIAD and their partners. We expected that when women or their partners were higher in SCS, both partners would report greater sexual well-being and stronger approach goals for sex, but that when women and partners were higher in USC both partners would report lower sexual well-being and stronger avoidance goals for sex. Previous research testing links between sexual communal motivation and well-being has been conducted with community couples who engaged in sex once a week or more, on average (e.g., [16]) or specifically on days when couples engaged in sex (e.g., [20, 36, 37]). In fact, people higher in SCS are more likely to engage in sex even when their desire is low [18], and sexual frequency is associated with relationship and sexual satisfaction [38,39]. But, many women coping with FSIAD avoid sex with their partner [7,40]. It is possible that in couples coping with FSIAD, the associations between SCS and USC and sexual well-being might be driven by how frequently the couple reports engaging in sex. Therefore, we conducted additional, exploratory tests of whether any associations were moderated by how frequently the couple engaged in sex. Given that very little is known about evidence-based targets for intervention in the treatment of FSIAD and no studies have focused on the interpersonal factors that are associated with the well-being of both members of couples coping with FSIAD, the current study will provide novel insight into factors that might protect couples coping with chronic low desire from lower sexual well-being.

The current research adds to a growing body of literature highlighting the role of interpersonal factors in how women and couples cope with a sexual dysfunction [10,20,32,34,39,53–56]. In the current study, we demonstrate that being communally motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs was associated with greater sexual well-being in a sample of couples coping with FSIAD. When women coping with FSIAD were higher in SCS they reported having sex more for approach goals and both they and their partner report higher sexual satisfaction. Partners who were higher in SCS also reported higher sexual desire and sexual satisfaction (although the association between partner’s higher SCS and their own sexual satisfaction was only retained for couples who engaged in more frequent intercourse). We also found preliminary evidence that when women with FSIAD report higher SCS, they also report higher sexual desire and their partner report higher approach sexual goals, and when partners reported higher in SCS, they report lower distress and higher approach goals. However, although consistent with theory and prior research with community samples [16] and other populations of couples coping with sexual problems [20,37], these effects were not retained with the multiple comparison correction, suggesting that there is a greater chance of these effects being false positives and more evidence is needed.

In sum, our results suggest that when couples coping with FSIAD report higher SCS, they also experience greater sexual satisfaction and desire and have intercourse more for approach goals, but when sexual communal motivation is not mitigated by the person’s own agency (high unmitigated sexual communion), this is not associated with greater sexual well-being and instead is associated with higher sexual distress and lower sexual satisfaction (findings for sexual satisfaction were only for couples who engaged in more frequent intercourse). The results suggest that promoting SCS, while maintaining a focus on one’s own needs, might be a target for improving the sexual well-being of couples with FSIAD. The findings of the present study contribute to an emerging body of research on sexual dysfunction and sexual motivation [65], and point to novel interpersonal variables that could inform the development of empirically based interventions for couples coping with FSIAD.