A recent University of Toronto study explores the real reasons couples have sex. U of T post-doctoral fellow Amy Muise led the study, in which motivations for sexual activity were broken down into two broad categories. The study, “Getting it on vs. getting it over with: Approach-avoidance sexual motivation, desire and satisfaction in intimate bonds,” was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.



Unlike most animals, humans use sexuality to shape levels of happiness in a romantic relationship. Sex is an act that goes beyond reproduction, and a healthy sex life is often considered a key part of a healthy relationship.  According to the study, romantic couples engage in sexual activity more often than those who have sex with one-off partners.

There are many reasons why couples engage in sex. A 2007 University of Texas study identified 237 distinct motivation for sex, which ranged from the simple ­— stress reduction, physical satisfaction — to the complicated — revenge-cheating. The University of Toronto study was able to significantly simplify the number of motivations; only two were described, “avoidance” and “approach.”

An avoidance motive is a motive that seeks to avoid a negative outcome for the couple’s status, such as feelings of guilt in one part of the partnership or a certain conflict that may transpire if sex does not happen. Conversely, an approach motive seeks a positive outcome for the relationship. This approach often results in feelings of intimacy or a desire to be closer with the special person.

What this study found was that on days in which the couples were having sex for approach reasons, the sex was better, the relationship was stronger, and the level of satisfaction was much higher. On days in which couples had sex for avoidance reasons, the opposite was true ­— the relationship was less healthy, the sex was not as good, and overall satisfaction was much lower. Avoidance motivations were believed to be more common in older relationships than in newer relationships, in which couples are beginning to explore their sexual tendencies.

Of course, this does not imply that couples do not enjoy the sex in an avoidance situation, but only that it is more of an “in-the-moment” satisfaction with negative psychological outcomes coming later. It is apparent that approach motivation leads to healthier and stronger relationships.

In order for couples to engage in approach-motivated sex, as opposed to avoidance-motivated sex, the study found that there needs to be more meaningful communication between couples. This communication needs to be much more in-depth than small talk — it must explore new and challenging emotional connections. It becomes apparent, as couples begin to build a relationship outside of the bedroom, that the sex becomes better as well — a win-win scenario.