July 7, 2011 -- Who says real men don't like to cuddle?
In a study that refutes gender stereotypes, researchers looking at couples in long-term relationships have found that men value cuddling and caressing as important for their relationship happiness more than women do.
For women, sexual functioning predicted relationship happiness, says researcher Julia R. Heiman, director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction and professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington.
The study included about 200 men ages 40 to 70 and their female partners from each of five countries, including the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Japan, and Spain. More than 1,000 couples participated.
The findings on gender differences in what made people happy and sexually satisfied were surprising, Heiman says.
"In longer-term relationships, we didn't expect a lot of differences between men and women," she tells WebMD.
But there were. ''Women reported significantly more sexual satisfaction than men, and men more relationship happiness than women, contrary to our hypothesis," she writes.
The study is published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Relationship Happiness and Sexual Satisfaction
The couples answered questionnaires separately about their relationship happiness and sexual satisfaction. Most of the couples were married, Heiman says. About 90% had children.
The men's median age was 55 (half were older, half were younger); the women's median age was 52. The median relationship length was 25 years.
"Most were happy sexually and in their relationship," Heiman says, so the results may not apply to the general population.
When the researchers looked at what predicted relationship happiness, they found distinct differences between men and women, Heiman tells WebMD.
What mattered for men? "Their partner's orgasm, kissing and cuddling often, being touched and caressed by their partner often, and their sexual functioning, as well as being in good health," she says.
In women, relationship duration and their sexual functioning predicted happiness in their relationship, Heiman found.
"The sexual functioning score was a combination of variables," she says. It included level of desire, frequency of arousal, frequency of lubrication, and frequency of orgasm.
When it came to sexual satisfaction, the other focus of the study, physical intimacy and sexual functioning were important for both men and women. For men, more frequent recent activity and fewer lifetime sexual partners was linked with more sexual satisfaction.
Heiman cannot explain the link between fewer partners and greater sexual satisfaction. She speculated it could be those who have had many partners are not typically sexually satisfied and are constantly searching for new partners.
For men, the longer they were in a relationship, the greater their relationship happiness and sexual satisfaction.
However, women in relationships of 20 to 40 years were less likely than men to report relationship happiness. Women tended to show lower sexual satisfaction early in the relationship and greater levels later.
"Women start out less sexually satisfied between years zero and 15, and are significantly more sexually satisfied at duration years 35 and above," Heiman says. That may have to do with the responsibilities of child-rearing earlier, she says.
"How long you have been with a partner may impact how happy and how sexually satisfied you are," she says of the findings.
The study was funded by Bayer-Schering.
Happiness in Relationships
The new research sheds some overdue light on a segment of people overlooked, says Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, Helen Thompson Woolley Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She reviewed the study findings for WebMD.
"Sexuality is a crucial aspect of quality of life," she tells WebMD, "but sex researchers have neglected midlife individuals, who are the focus of this study."
In her own research, Hyde says she has found that men and women are more alike psychologically than different, despite other research finding gender differences.
The take-home message for long-term couples? Even though Heiman found gender differences in such behaviors as cuddling, Hyde says she still believes it is the ''little things" in relationships that can help with happiness.