Want a Satisfying Sex Life? Try Being a Better Parent

Data suggest that splitting childcare duties often produces happier, more sexually satisfied couples

Learning the value of sharing. (4x6/iStock)
smithsonian.com

Attention parents: If you want to improve your sex life, try spending more time with your kids. That's one takeaway from a recent study suggesting that when couples split childcare duties evenly, they often enjoy higher quality relationships, including greater sexual satisfaction.

Many studies have examined the social shift toward a more egalitarian division of work, earnings or household chores in marriage—and the findings haven't always agreed. For example, in a much-publicized 2013 study from American Sociological Review, both husbands and wives reported more sex in marriages where they tackled the chores or roles traditionally assigned to their gender. In that case, you'd expect more sexually satisfied couples when women are primarily responsible for childcare.

But there hadn't yet been a study that looked specifically at raising children as a household responsibility, says sociologist Daniel Carlson of Georgia State University. To conduct one, his team mined data from the 2006 internet-based Marital and Relationship Survey, which looked at 487 heterosexual, low- to moderate-income couples. The survey rated relationship quality based on reported levels of satisfaction and conflict between the partners, as well as the frequency and quality of sex.

The study also looked at childcare in three ways: physical/emotional, interactivity and passive actions like supervision or monitoring. Specifically, it asked who made the rules, who enforced the rules and handed out punishment, who praised kids for their successes and who played with them the most.

The team's analysis shows that both men and women who equally shared parenting duties reported the highest levels of satisfaction in all categories. Carlson says his team actually expected that result, because there's a growing body of research suggesting that most people today expect to have a partnership in which they will share the workload equally inside and outside the house. But other survey responses surprised the sociologists.

When mom is responsible for most or all of the childcare responsibilities, both relationships and sex lives suffer—and not just for the women. Wives and husbands in such couples reported lower quality relationships and worse sex than those sharing equitably.

It's not obvious why many of the men were unsatisfied with such an arrangement, which would seem to benefit them from a workload standpoint. It may be because many of them placed high value on being involved with their children's upbringing, Carlson suggests. It may also be because relationships are a two-way street, and if one partner is unhappy, the other is too.

When fathers became primarily responsible for childcare, the quality of the relationship was not impacted negatively for either partner, the team reports this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago. But sex became a mixed bag for such couples. While they reported just as much sex as others, those men who handled the majority of childcare reported the lowest satisfaction with their sex lives—while their wives rated the highest satisfaction.

“There is nothing in our analysis that can really explain that. There could be issues of resentment or unfairness among the men, or even extra workloads on them making them so tired it impacts their sex life,” Carlson speculates.

While the 2006 data set was the best he could find for the topic, it contains some notable omissions that beg for future study, Carlson says. Those include some of parenting's less glamorous tasks, like feeding kids and changing diapers, so it's unknown what the effects of splitting such chores would be.

Another caveat is the limited socioeconomic status of the participants, who were couples earning a combined $50,000 a year or less. At present, Carlson can only speculate how the responses might look across a more diverse group of Americans. But his study does hint at one key element that may be universal.

“I think the one large mediating factor that stood out was simple satisfaction with one's arrangement,” Carlson says. “Are you happy? That really predicted all of the outcomes we looked at, from conflicts to sexual intimacy, and I think it speaks to what many people want.”

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