Sex and the Newlywed

Why is being happily married more important to sexual satisfaction than lost of sex? UT psychologist James McNulty shares his findings about sex and recently married couples

There's no sexual tension in the air at the brick, arched Austin Peay psychology building on the University of Tennessee campus. In the halls, there are no suggestive posters or romantic brochures, no signs directing anyone to the "sexology" division, just white walls and dark brown banisters.

Even psychologist James McNulty's office is brown-paper-wrapper plain—no candles, no pillows, just two desks, one tweed couch, and six jumbo lateral file cabinets, all full of questionnaires and data from two studies of newlyweds.

And that's where the sexual stuff is lurking, waiting for the quietly confident McNulty, various co-authors across the country, and grad assistant Carolyn Wenner to extract conclusions and share them with the scientific world. The bulk of the papers are results from a concluded six-month study of 82 newly married couples McNulty led in his time at Ohio State University. That data has already served as the basis for McNulty's co-authorship of papers like "Neuroticism and Relationship Satisfaction" and "Gender Differences in Response to Sexual Expectations and Changes in Sexual Frequency," both "in press" and expected to be published soon. And he's got more analysis in the works.

The cabinets house papers from a second study, too—this time McNulty and company's in progress, four-year look at 135 Knoxville area newlyweds, aimed at detecting what makes relationship satisfaction last (or at least fade less).

In February, McNulty got a burst of publicity as the lead in a study that concluded matches where the wife is better looking than her mate tend to be more positive and supportive than those where the reverse is true (forget that song about "make an ugly woman your wife"). That might have something to do with sex, too, he says, just one of the many sexual topics he covered in a recent interview with MP.


What are you trying to prove, sex-wise, with this data?

We're trying to understand, does being happy with my marriage make me happier with my sex life? How does my sex life make me happier with my marriage?

And it's probably different for the two genders...

Surprising, not so much. We have data from these people when they first got married, six months later, six months after that—ultimately we'll have reports of how happy they are in their marriage and with their sex lives eight times. We're using the initial reports to see if their happiness with marriage predicts how happy they are with their sex life six months later and vice versa. And the early take is that it seems to be both. There is a snowballing effect, positive and negative.

So if your sex life is more and more satisfactory, so is your marriage, and if you're less and less satisfied with sex, your marriage satisfaction also sinks?

Right. And it's not particularly surprising that how happy we are with our sex life in our marriage predicts how happy we are with our marriage. But what was a little startling is that, controlled for what people actually do—how much they have sex, and we know that, because they tell us on the surveys—the people who are happiest seem to be the ones who use their marital happiness to interpret their sexual satisfaction. And that's regardless of whether they're having sex every day or once a month.

What about the ones who aren't satisfied with their marriages?

People who are not so happy with their marriage, they maintain some degree of independence between their sex life and their marriage. Marital satisfaction seems to bleed over into sexual satisfaction most often when people are happy. If they're unhappy, they don't necessarily say, "I'm unhappy with my marriage so I'm also unhappy with my sex life."

Does their unhappiness with marriage in any way correlate with infrequent sex?

I don't think we saw that. We saw that frequency does predict how happy they are with their sex lives, but it does not predict how happy they are with their marriages. People who are happy with their marriages do not necessarily have more sex. People who are happy with their sex lives have more sex, though. The frequency part does not go both ways—the satisfaction does.


Are there other aspects of the newlywed studies that do show differences between men and women?

A gender difference from the Ohio sample is the role of expectation in sexual satisfaction, and I co-published a paper about that (with T.D. Fisher). We found that while the men's satisfaction with their sexual relationship depended on how often they had sex, frequency didn't make a difference for women. What mattered was whether they expected their sex life to be good. Even if a woman expected a so-so sex life, and then reported sex every day, she would still feel so-so about her sex life.

What about men?

Men's expectations didn't make any difference. What mattered with them was how much sex they had. But with women, when we asked them how satisfied they expected to be with sex, their answer predicted how satisfied they were six months later, independent of how much sex they actually had. On average, the higher their expectations for sexual satisfaction, the more satisfied they were with their sex lives.


You're studying 135 local couples... how did you convince them to participate?

Some of them are very interested in their relationship. They think they can celebrate their marriage through the study. Some are just into research in general. And we pay them!

A lot?

Well, around $50 per couple per session, so it can add up to $400 or more over the course of the study. But unfortunately we do miss some people who can't afford to participate, and we also miss the type of people who don't want to have their marriage examined in a study. One of the criticisms that people levy on us is that our studies aren't representative. Well, they're not representative, but they're not meant to be. Because what we want to know is, of all the people who do come in, who are relatively happy, what differentiates the ones who stay happy from the ones who become unhappy? So long as they're similar at the beginning, and we observe the phenomena, that's much more important than getting a diverse group.

You work by having couples come to the office and be taped in discussions. Do people ever come in and get in a big fight in front of the cameras?

We don't actually watch the recorder while they're in the session. But when we review later, we don't see big fights—but we are pretty confident that they forget about the cameras.

Now that you're on year two of the study, how many couples have gotten divorced?

Some couples are still back on the second report we do after one year, because it took us 16 months to collect the sample. So far, seven of the 135 have divorced, about 5 percent of the total. Divorced people must drop the study, but then we look at all their data and try to understand what the difference was between them and the couple who's still happy.


You recently released a study that said beautiful women married to less good-looking men have the most supportive and successful relationships. How does that come about?

While physical attractiveness is important to women, it isn't as important to them as it is to men. So a less attractive man with a gorgeous woman is very satisfied with the breakdown of the attractiveness in the relationship. He behaves in a more supportive way, because he feels like he's getting more than he gives. She's on a higher level of attractiveness—perhaps better than he could do somewhere else—so he works harder to hold on to that by being supportive, which makes her happier in the relationship. And she responds to that support with supportiveness of her own.

Does it relate to sex and survival of the species at all?

Maybe so. In earlier times, if I'm a man and I'm attracted to not-so-nice looking women, back then they were probably unhealthy and not fertile, so I don't get to pass on my genes. For women, though—men can produce sperm regardless of how old and unhealthy and ugly they are. Of course, that's the argument for how we ended up where we are now. It's not how men and women think today.

Didn't you also find something about women caring much more about looks when they're just out for a fling?

The scientific terminology for that is "short term mating strategy," and that's the one time women are just as interested in physical attractiveness as the men.


Are you married?


Do you see any irony in that?

Well, I've thought about that. This work does make you a little more gun-shy. We're not as biased looking at other people's relationships as we would be our own. We sit here and watch people and code them for negative behavior, saying to ourselves, "They shouldn't do that!" and then go out and do the very same thing ourselves. It takes a lot of work, a lot of resources, to be good at marriage.

So, do people ever ask you for advice, like at parties?

It's more like they want to give you advice. Everyone wants to tell me what I should be studying, because everyone's an expert on relationships.

Do you get Too Much Information about other people's sexual relationships when you're not at work?

All the time. I just smile and keep nodding politely and stay quiet.

Are you ever referred to as a "sexologist?" What is that, anyway?

A sexologist is a scientist who studies sex. So that would be me!