Even though there are very happy men and women who do not have much interest in sex, I think that one’s sexual satisfaction can be a very important factor in whether or not some people feel happy with their romantic relationships; married or not. To directly answer your question, my opinion is that some marriages do fail because one or both partners are unhappy with their sex life. However, the reasons behind such unhappiness can have a variety of sources, including past sexual experiences, communication issues, and even the loss of sexual attraction toward one’s partner. Let’s start by examining how often married people actually have sex and their levels of sexual satisfaction, what sexual difficulties they may experience, and then explore what societal and gender-based factors may be exerting influence.
The average frequency of sex per month is around “7 times” for most men and women in the USA; which equates to 1 to 2 times per week. Although married/partnered men and women in the United States report similar levels of sexual satisfaction in their coupled relationships (around 85% are generally satisfied), men report “always” having an orgasm nearly 3 times as much as women. Men also report being “extremely physically pleased” and “extremely emotionally satisfied” more often than women do. Additionally U.S. men report less sexual difficulties than women. The two areas where men report greater sexual difficulties than women, are climaxing too early and having performance anxiety during sexual intercourse. Another primary sexual difficulty reported by men is having trouble keeping an erection. U.S. women report a lack of interest in sex, being unable to orgasm, feeling that sex was not pleasurable, and experiencing pain during sex at least double the rate reported by U.S. men. And nearly a third more women report having trouble lubricating than the percentage of men reporting having difficulties keeping erections.
Now let’s switch countries and examine marital sexual frequency and satisfaction in China. According to the book “Sexual Behavior in Modern China,” Chinese men and women report engaging in sexual intercourse an average of 5 times per month; or about once per week. On average 61% of Chinese couples reported having at least a “good” sex life. When we break it down the data looks like this: 26% of Married Chinese couples reported having a “very good” level of sexual satisfaction; 35% reported having a “good” level of sexual satisfaction; and about 26% reported a “fair” level of sexual satisfaction. When the data was separated by gender, women were generally less satisfied than their husbands/partner with men reporting higher percentages of having a “very good” level of sexual satisfaction (M=28% vs. F=17%); a “good” level of sexual satisfaction (M=49% vs. F=42%); whereas women reported having a “fair” (F=34% vs. 19%) or “poor” (F=2% vs. M=1%) amount of sexual satisfaction more often than men. Regarding sexual difficulties among Chinese couples, only sexual pain was examined by the study cited above. It was found for Chinese females, sexual pain was occasionally experienced 36% of the time, with 2.5% experiencing frequent pain.
One cannot determine which comes first, a lack of happiness or lack of sex, but research has found the two to be related. According to the research behind the book “Sex in America: A Definitive Survey,” happiness with partnered sex (married or dating) is linked to overall happiness with life. In general, happy people experience physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction in their sex lives. Happy people also reported having sex more often than unhappy people; most extremely happy people reported having sex at least once a week (72%), whereas only 27% of unhappy people could say the same. This same trend was found in the Chinese sexual survey study; with increasing rates of sexual satisfaction reported as the monthly frequency of sexual activity increased. This was true for both Chinese men and women.
So what could be some of the factors behind unhappy sex lives? In general, unhappy people tend to report greater disinterest in sex, have trouble having orgasms, may experience pain during sex, do not find sex pleasurable, and often feel anxiety during sexual activity. Some people have suffered sexual assault, were sexually abused as children, or have had other harmful sexual experiences. Such experiences often have deleterious effects on the way people view sexuality, how their body responds to sexual activity (ex., experiencing pain, having difficulty achieving orgasm, or difficulty with erections or vaginal lubrication) how they form and maintain intimate relationships, and may negatively impact their overall well-being and trust toward others.
Although sexual dissatisfaction can be related to negative past experiences for some individuals, the most significant factor related to sexual dissatisfaction for both U.S. and Chinese men, besides erectile problems, is how often they actually engage in sex. However, for both U.S. and Chinese women, the data paints a different picture. Although more sex throughout the month generally equals greater sexual satisfaction for both genders in both countries, women from both the USA and from China are less physically and emotionally satisfied in their sexual relationships. So what’s the problem? The problem is communication and foreplay; or more specifically the lack of communication and foreplay. In China, around 15% of women report having never engaged in any act of foreplay (i.e., embracing, caresses, kissing, teasing, etc.). Women from both countries rate foreplay (and after-play) far more important for their overall sexual satisfaction than do men; and would like it to last much longer than it typically does. Even though there is a significant positive correlation for both men and women regarding sexual satisfaction and communication, women express a greater need to feel that their partner can communicate and cooperate with them during sex. In other words, women want to feel that their sexual needs and satisfaction is equally as important to their partner.
So in conclusion, yes, I do feel that some marriages fail because one or both partners are unhappy with their sex life. However the reasons behind that sexual unhappiness can be due to negative sexual experiences from the past, physiological problems (i.e., erectile difficulties, pain during intercourse, lack of proper lubrication, etc.), or are simply the result of an unequal and unsatisfying personal relationship between two partners. I feel it’s important to stress the fact that marital satisfaction is not always directly related to sexual satisfaction. Many married couples are happy with their marriages due to the family networks they have, the children they’ve brought into their lives, the mutual support they feel from each other, their shared life-goals, and their similar morals and values. Sex for some couples just isn’t all that important. For the couples that do see sex as an important part of their relationship, what seems to be the keys to the kingdom of sexual satisfaction is frequency (with most preferring to have sex at least once a week), a sense of egalitarianism (gender equality), communication, and foreplay/after-play (i.e., emotional and physical intimacy).
I’d like to end with some advice for the men reading this. If you’re concerned with your partner’s sexual satisfaction, don’t spend your time worrying about how big your penis is, or how many sexual positions you know. Instead, spend more time asking your partner what they like and what turns them on. Spend far more time engaged in acts of foreplay (and no, fondling her breasts is not enough!). Women’s bodies take longer to warm up to sex than men’s bodies do. The vagina needs much more time to adequately lubricate than a penis needs to become engorged. If sexual activity begins before her body is ready to, she is far more likely to experience sexual pain. And if you’re a man who ejaculates much quicker than you’d like, don’t let the sexual experience end there. Sex doesn’t have to end when a man ejaculates, and shouldn’t. Often a woman doesn’t experience an orgasm during sexual activity, simply because the man she was having sex with gave up after he ejaculated. So if you come too quick, keep the sexual action going by stimulating your partner with your fingers, through oral sex, or simply by kissing and caressing her body while she stimulates herself with her fingers or a vibrator. In my experience (and throughout the literature on the topic), sexually happy women equals very sexually happy men:)
Guo, Y. N., Ng, E. M. L., & Chan, K. (2004). Foreplay, orgasm and after-play among Shanghai couples and its integrative relation with their marital satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 19(1), 65-78.
Liu, D., Ng, M. L., Zhou, L. P., & Haeberle, E. J. (1997). Sexual behavior in modern China: Report on the nationwide survey of 20,000 men and women. New York, NY: Continuum.
Luo, S., Chen, H., Yue, G., Zhang, G., Zhaoyang, R., & Xu, D. (2008). Predicting marital satisfaction from self, partner, and couple characteristics: Is it me, you, or us? Journal of Personality, 76(5), 1231-1265.
Michael, R. T., Gagnon, J. H., Laumann, E. O., & Kolata, G. (1994). Sex in America: A Definitive survey. Boston, MA: Little Brown & Company.
Stander, V. A., Hsiung, P., & MacDermid, S. (2001). The relationships of attributions to marital distress: A comparison of mainland Chinese and U.S. couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 15(1), 124-134.