Married couples who have sex frequently have increased 'unconscious' relationship satisfaction, researchers have discovered. A study has found that while couples who have sex often do not appear more satisfied with their relationship, they are more likely to experience positive spontaneous gut feelings towards their partners.

Many studies have focused on how sex shapes the relationship between two partners, and how sexual frequency relates to couples' happiness. So far, none have conclusively identified a significant association between sex frequency and relationship satisfaction.

The latest study, published in Psychological Science, confirms this, but takes the investigations a step further. Instead of only asking couples to explicitly evaluate the quality of their relationship, the authors also tested their unconscious, spontaneous reactions to their partners. These measures suggest there is a link between how much sex someone has and the way he or she feels about the relationship.

Gut feeling and unconscious perceptions

Two hundred and sixteen newlyweds completed a survey to describe the quality of their relationships and their levels of satisfaction. They also estimated how many times they had had sex in the previous four months. Their answers highlighted no differences in satisfaction between the couples who had frequent sex and those who did not.

They then completed a task which was meant to test their gut feelings towards their partners. Researchers think these automatic attitudes do not require conscious deliberation, and have the potential to tell them a lot about the implicit, unconscious perceptions people have of their relationship.

The participants were instructed to react to words on a screen, and decide if they were positive or negative. Before the word appeared, a photo of their partners popped up. According to the scientists, gut feelings imply that the association between the partner and the word is stronger, when reaction time is faster.

Therefore, responding more slowly to negative than to positive words after seeing the picture suggested generally positive implicit attitudes toward the partner. More of these positive implicit attitudes were observed in couples who had frequent sexual intercourse.

"We found that the frequency with which couples have sex has no influence on whether or not they report being happy with their relationship, but their sexual frequency does influence their more spontaneous, automatic, gut-level feelings about their partners," said lead author Lindsey L. Hicks of Florida State University. "This is important, these automatic attitudes ultimately predict whether couples end up becoming dissatisfied with their relationship," she added.

Not satisfied "deep down"

The scientists then conducted a three-year longitudinal study which followed 112 newly-weds. They discovered that frequency of sex was in fact linked to changes in participants' automatic relationship attitudes over time, not to their explicit relationship.

"Our findings suggest that we're capturing different types of evaluations when we measure explicit and automatic evaluations of a partner or relationship," concluded Hicks. "Deep down, some people feel unhappy with their partner but they don't readily admit it to us, or perhaps even themselves."