Broadening horizons key to romantic satisfaction, new research finds

Young African-American couple
Young African-American couple loading/unloading a car. Putting backpacks in open trunk.

Thirty-eight per cent of today’s marriages end in divorce, according to Statistics Canada. Keeping the romance alive over the months, years and decades is a formidable task for most couples, particularly when set against the backdrop of day-to-day life – the stresses of work and childrearing, the routine nature of monogamy, the struggles of long-term commitment.

What can be done to keep the spark alive? This is what psychology Professor Amy Muise, York Research Chair in Relationships and Sexuality, has spent her career investigating. Most recently, she led a research team that included academics from the University of Toronto, Carleton University and Kent State University, and undertook three interconnected studies.

Research led by York University’s Amy Muise found that novel activities, like spontaneous road trips to new cities, are associated with sexual and romantic satisfaction

The team of researchers discovered that self-expansion – that is, novel, creative, inspiring activities with a partner – is the key. Examples include learning to swing dance, cooking unique cuisine or taking a road trip to an exciting new destination.

Amy Muise

“We found that doing self-expanding activities that broaden a person’s sense of self and perspective of the world is associated with higher sexual desire,” says Muise. “Self-expansion is also associated with an increased likelihood that couples will engage in sex and feel more satisfied with their sexual experiences.”

The results of this work were published in the high-impact Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2018.

This line of inquiry was never before investigated

Muise is very skilled at presenting a comprehensive overview of what has been published to date in this area. The research article offers a succinct literature review to set the stage for its three original studies.

In the studies, they sought to test the idea that engaging in self-expanding activities with a partner contributes to increased feelings of sexual desire. They hypothesized that higher levels of self-expansion will be associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in sex, and when couples do engage in sex, both partners will feel more satisfied with the sexual experience.

This line of inquiry had never been undertaken to date. “We had evidence that self-expansion was associated with relationship quality, but this had not been linked to sexual desire or sexuality specifically,” Muise clarifies.

Study 1: Mixed-sex couples from ages 19 to 67

This Brainstorm article profiles Study 1 (of three) in greater depth because it is arguably the foundational study. In this study, the team recruited 122 mixed-sex couples, in exclusive relationships for more than two years, through ads posted in five Canadian cities.

Participants ranged from 19 to 67 years of age. Eighty-six per cent identified as heterosexual, seven per cent as gay/lesbian, five per cent as bisexual and two per cent as “other.” Fifty-six per cent were married and 22 per cent were engaged. About one-quarter had children living at home. Seventy-eight per cent identified as white/European, seven per cent as Latin American, four per cent as East Asian, three per cent as South Asian, two per cent as Black/African and six per cent were bi- or multi-ethnic/-racial or self-identified as “other.”

Study 1 participants were asked a series of questions via a survey for 21 days. They were asked about self-expansion, sexual desire and relationship satisfaction each day. Their answers were rated on a seven-point scale. Questions included the following:

  • “How much did being with your partner expand your sense of the kind of person you are?”
  • “How much did your partner provide you with a source of excitement?”
  • “Did you and your partner have sex today?”

The researchers analyzed the data, and found that on days when a person self-expanded more with their partner, they reported higher sexual desire and, in turn, both partners felt more sexually satisfied. They also found that engaging in self-expanding activities can lead to increases in relationship satisfaction from one day to the next.

Study 2 sought to replicate the findings of Study 1, and Study 3 sought to test whether the researchers could increase people’s participation in self-expanding activities with their partners and, in turn, boost their sexual desire.

Key findings for all three studies connect self-expanding activities to long-term satisfaction

Summing up the findings of all three studies, the team was able to make some interesting discoveries. The key findings were:

  • Engaging in self-expanding activities with a partner is associated with higher sexual desire in daily life.
  • Higher desire, fuelled by self-expansion, is associated with greater relationship satisfaction.
  • Self-expansion is associated with an increased likelihood that couples will engage in sex, and when they do engage in sex, they feel more satisfied with their sexual experiences.
  • The benefits of self-expansion for relationship satisfaction are sustained over time, and the effects cannot be attributed solely to increases in positive affect, time spent interacting with the partner or closeness during the activity.
The benefits of self-expansion for relationship satisfaction are sustained over time

Research provides rich descriptive information and broadens our understanding

Muise emphasizes that this research has extended self-expansion theory to broaden our understanding of how couples can maintain sexual desire in their relationships. It went beyond existing work by following romantic couples over time. “Our work provides rich, descriptive information about the kinds of activities in which couples actually engage in their daily lives that provide them with a sense of self-expansion,” she says.

She emphasizes that more work is needed to understand individual differences and how couples can enhance self-expansion to benefit their sex lives and relationships.

To read the article, “Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships,” visit the journal’s website. To learn more about Muise’s research, visit her faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,