There are few things in this world that I truly loathe. One of those things is the show Everybody Loves Raymond.
Why, you might ask?
First of all, it’s actually quite hard to really ‘love’ Raymond. From what I’ve seen of the show (which is admittedly not much), he seems to care about three things: golf, trying (in vain) to have sex with his wife, and placating his intrusive family.
But there’s another problem – Debra isn’t innocent either.
For those who have never seen the show, Debra – the wife of the eponymous Raymond – manages to embody practically every negative stereotype about middle-aged, suburban, married women with children. She is cold towards her husband, her moods swing at the drop of a hat, and she only seems interested in having sex when she can use it as a negotiation tactic or the means to some sort of manipulative end.
As you can see in the video above, Debra is prone to mood swings, where she might cry about how much she loves her husband in one second and then shove him away as she storms upstairs in the next.
Personality psychologists would describe Debra’s temperament as highlyneurotic – commonly known in everyday parlance as emotionally unstable. Neurotic people are more likely than their non-neurotic counterparts to experience negative emotions (such as anxiety or depression) and frequent mood swings, and would likely agree strongly with personality questions like “I change my mood a lot” or “I get irritated easily.”
Unfortunately, neuroticism isn’t cute. It’s not an adorable personality trait that we can laugh off because it’s funny that ‘women are crazy.’ First of all, the sexism inherent in that assumption is cringe-inducing. And secondly, neuroticism isparticularly bad for your marriage. In fact, neuroticism is the one personality trait that best predicts marital dissatisfaction, separation, and divorce. If you want to know if a couple will still be together in 10 years, you might want to start by looking at how often both partners feel irritable or experience mood swings.
Logically, this makes sense. Neuroticism, by definition, makes a person more likely to experience negative emotions. If someone is prone to feeling sad, anxious, or irritable, this person will most likely also feel sad, anxious, or irritable about his/her relationship – and this person’s partner will likely feel less satisfied as well. After all, it’s easier to be happy when you’re around a happy person.
But there’s a catch.
Think now about Phil and Claire Dunphy, one of the couples from the current sitcom Modern Family. For those not familiar with the show, Claire is also quite neurotic; she is prone to overwhelming amounts of anxiety and has frequent bursts of extreme irritability. Yet the Dunphys generally seem much more satisfied with their marriage than Ray and Debra Barone. So what’s the difference? Both couples have been married for 20+ years. They’re both middle-aged. They both have three children.
Well, first read this quote from the Everybody Loves Raymond Wikipedia page:
Now, contrast this depiction of Ray and Debra’s sexual relationship with this clip from Modern Family, in which Phil and Claire discuss some..."playful" plans for their Valentine's evening.
As it turns out, this might be where (some of) the answer lies –
Phil and Claire have sex.
They’ve been married for 20 years, yet they still have excited, we-still-really-want-each-other, dress-up-as-strangers-and-pick-each-other-up-in-the-hotel-bar-on-Valentine’s-Day sex.
According to recent research, sex might be the golden ticket. After newlywed couples were surveyed several times during the first four years of their marriages, the couples who didn’t have sex frequently showed the same old pattern – the more neuroticism there was in the marriage, the more dissatisfied the partners were. However, within the couples who frequently had sex, neuroticism didn’t seem to matter at all. In fact, when neurotic couples were having a lot of sex, they were exactly as satisfied with their marriages as the non-neurotic couples.
(You may want to argue that studying newlyweds does not say much about what that couple would be like after 20 years. However, in the original studies, neuroticism levels only predicted initial satisfaction, which in turn predicted later satisfaction and/or divorce. Neuroticism does not predict anything about how a marriage will change over time, the likelihood that an initially happy couple may become unhappy, or the different rates at which partners might reach ‘unhappiness.’ It’s safe to say that any impact of neuroticism on marital dissatisfaction in the original studies was also there when the couples were newlyweds).
Of course, this finding begs some questions. First of all, the authors don’t specify exactly what “a lot of sex” is. However, if they used the fairly conventional approach of forming categories based on the overall mean and standard deviation, they may have defined “low frequency” as 2 times per month (or less frequent) at the very beginning, and one time every two months (or less frequent) by the 4th year of marriage. “High frequency,” on the other hand, was likely defined as around 14 times per month (or more) at the very beginning, and 12 times per month (or more) by the 4th year of marriage. But people are individual creatures, with different sex drives, wants, and needs, and each person probably has a different idea of what “a lot” or “a little” actually means – while 14 times per month might seem woefully inadequate for one person, it might be far too often for another. So what matters more – the actual number of times that you have sex per month, or feeling like you have it often enough?
Secondly, the authors make sure to control for a lot of possible objections. The time-lag design that they used convincingly rules out the possibility that being happier in the first place leads couples to have more sex as a result, and the link between sex frequency and satisfaction in neurotic couples remains even after they control for several important variables (like the quality of “nonsexual” relationship domains such as trust/communication/affection, gender, and attachment insecurity). It truly seems that the frequency of sex is what leads neurotic couples to feel happier – not the other way around, and not due to a theoretically plausible third variable.
But if this is true, the really compelling question is why? Why does sex make emotionally unstable partners more satisfied with their relationships? Does sex create a greater sense of intimacy between relationship partners, leading them to feel more ‘stable’? Is it purely neurochemical, with the frequent dopamine rushes from sex making these partners consistently happier? After all, sexual behavior one day does lead to fewer negative moods the next day.5 Are any of these differences in self-reported marital satisfaction simply biased responses based on perceived cultural norms (“We have sex more often than my friends have sex with their husbands, so we must be happy”)?
Well…here’s another intriguing twist. Sex frequency didn’t make any difference in the marital satisfaction of the non-neurotic couples – it only brought the previously-less-happy neurotic couples up to the non-neurotic couples’ satisfaction level. So, it doesn’t seem to be a general effect of sex making married couples happier – it specifically impacts neurotic couples. This makes me wonder – is there something about being ‘emotionally unstable’ that leads neurotic people to actually get more out of sex than those who are more stable? Does having a brain wired for strong emotionality make neurotic people respond to sex in a way that’s simply different from others? Is sex an effective physical outlet for the extreme emotionality that accompanies neuroticism, such that people who experience erratic mood swings can release these strong emotions through sex instead of taking them out on their loved ones?
We can’t know the hows or whys quite yet. All I can say is that Debra Barone’s tactic of withholding sex when she was upset might not have been as good for her marriage as she thought.
Costa, P., & McCrae, R. (1992). Normal personality assessment in clinical practice: The NEO Personality Inventory. Psychological Assessment, 4, 5-13.
Karney, B.R., & Bradbury, T.N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, method, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 3-34.
Karney, B., & Bradbury, T. (1997). Neuroticism, marital interaction, and the trajectory of marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1075-1092.
Russell, V. M., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Frequent sex protects intimates from the negative implications of their neuroticism. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 220-227.
Burleson, M.H., Trevathan, W.R., & Todd, M. (2007). In the mood for love or vice versa? Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 357-368.
Featured Image of wedding rings available via Wikipedia; photograph by Jeff Belmonte.
This post originally appeared on my old PsySociety blog in May 2011. You can see the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the left.