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Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 2014

Vol. 29, No. 2, 229244, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2013.870335

Emotional intimacy, sexual desire, and sexual satisfaction among


partnered heterosexual men
a

Aleksandar Stulhofer
*, Luana Cunha Ferreirab and Ivan Landripeta
a

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb,


Zagreb, Croatia; bDepartment of Clinical Systemic Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, University
of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal
(Received 17 June 2013; accepted 25 November 2013)
In spite of a mostly positive impact of emotional intimacy on sexual desire and
satisfaction, emotional merging and the safety and comfort of emotional closeness
have been linked with diminished sexual desire. Aiming at a better understanding of
the role of intimacy in male sexuality, this paper explored (1) a likely mechanism
behind the association between emotional intimacy and sexual satisfaction and (2)
whether there is empirical evidence of a negative impact of intimacy on sexual desire.
Among 506 heterosexual Croatian men (M 38.2 years, SD 8.43) currently living
with their partners who participated in a large-scale online survey carried out in 2011,
sexual satisfaction was dependent on both intimacy and sexual desire. Emotional
intimacy was strongly associated with the partner-centered component of personal
sexual satisfaction, pointing to a possible mechanism through which intimacy affects
sexual well-being. Despite employing different analytical approaches and controlling
for age and the length of intimate relationship, no evidence was found of a negative
association between relationship intimacy and male sexual desire. Our study supports
the notion that intimacy has an important and positive role in male sexuality.
Keywords: emotional intimacy; sexual desire; sexual satisfaction; men; relationships

Introduction
Emotional intimacy plays an important role in human sexuality, and it appears to be associated with different sexual dimensions, such as sexual motivation, responsivity, and sexual satisfaction. However, the specific impact of intimacy on male sexual desire and
sexual satisfaction is yet to be accounted for. Although it is often used indistinguishably
from emotional closeness or sexual involvement, intimacy has been mostly conceptualized as a multidimensional construct, or process, that includes mutual self-disclosure, personal validation, trust, and love or affection (Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Hook,
Gerstein, Detterich, & Gridley, 2003). A number of beneficial individual and dyadic processes have been positively associated with emotional intimacy, such as adjustment and
psychological well-being (Prager, 1995), mental health and relationship quality (Frost,
2012), marital satisfaction (Patrick, Sells, Giordano, & Tollerud, 2007), trust (Larson,
Hammond, & Harper, 1998), and sexual satisfaction (Moret, Glaser, Page, & Bargeron,
1998).
Though previous research suggests that male sexual desire tends to be more spontaneous
and focused on physical pleasure, in contrast to a more responsive and relationship-oriented
*Corresponding author. Email: astulhof@ffzg.hr
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female sexual desire (for a review, see Leiblum, 2002), a more recent study pointed to a
more significant role of emotional intimacy and relational factors for men (Patrick & Beckenbach, 2009). In this study, we explored the specific role of intimacy in mediating the association between sexual desire and sexual satisfaction among heterosexual men who are
married or living in a cohabiting relationship with a partner.
Defining the core constructs
Although intimacy is a much researched subject, some inconsistencies in its definition
still permeate scholarly literature. Not surprisingly, psychometric assessments of intimacy reflect this diversity, which makes in-depth comparisons a challenge (see Ferreira,
Narciso, & Novo, 2012, for a review). Most definitions of intimacy, however, encompass some of the following dimensions: mutual self-disclosure, personal validation, trust,
favorable attitudes, and mutual expression of affection (Baumeister & Bratslavsky,
1999; Hook et al., 2003). Because some definitions of intimacy include sexuality (cf.
Schaefer & Olson, 1981), in this study we specifically focus on emotional intimacy
defined, following Sinclair and Dowdy (2005, p. 194), as a perception of closeness to
another that is conducive to the sharing of personal feelings, accompanied by expectations of understanding, affirmation, and demonstrations of caring. There is a consensus
that emotional intimacy is important for adjustment and psychological well-being and a
characteristics of a healthy relationship that buffers daily stress (Miller & Lefcourt,
1982; Prager, 1995).
The definition of sexual desire carries many methodological, clinical, and even political implications (cf. Brotto, 2010). Routinely defined as a motivational state that directs
individuals toward sexual activity, sexual desire has also been conceptualized through
emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal lenses (Meana, 2010; Regan & Berscheid, 1999).
According to the more recent descriptions, desire is a complex interplay of motives, perceptions, and sensations that neither easily fits into the standard sexual cycle, nor serves
an exclusively sexual function. According to Basson (2002), sexual desire is a subjective
experience that can be concomitant with and reinforced by other sexual (e.g., arousal, sexual satisfaction) and non-sexual experiences (intimacy, emotional satisfaction, etc.).
Unsurprisingly, maintaining a satisfactory level of sexual desire has been found to contribute to couple satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and relationship stability (Chao et al.,
2011; Hinchliff & Gott, 2004; Impett, Strachman, Finkel, & Gable, 2008). Sexual desire
seems to decrease with age (Eplov, Giraldi, Davidsen, Garde, & Kamper-Jrgensen,
2007) and relationship duration (Sprecher & Regan, 1998), regardless of the factors that
contribute to the clinical diagnosis of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (Brotto, 2010;
Nobre, Pinto-Gouveia, & Gomes, 2006).
Sexual satisfaction is currently conceptualized as a complex construct consisting of
emotional, relational, physical, and cultural dimensions (Carpenter, Nathanson, & Kim,
2009; Christopher & Sprecher, 2000). It contributes to the individuals well-being, quality
of life, mental health, and is also positively related to relationship stability and satisfaction (Ade-Ridder, 1990, Chao et al., 2011; Henderson-King & Veroff, 1994; Sprecher,
2002). Young adults, people with sexually permissive beliefs, and individuals in the first
years of a committed relationship tend to report higher rates of sexual satisfaction than
older adults, less permissive individuals, or those in longer relationships (Haavio-Mannila
& Kontula, 1997; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Waite & Joyner, 2001).
However, a recent cross-cultural study found longer relationships associated with greater
sexual satisfaction among partnered men in five countries, suggesting a more complex

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relationship between the length of relationship and male sexual satisfaction (Heiman
et al., 2011).
In regard to gender differences, men tend to report lower levels of emotional intimacy
(Heller & Wood, 1998) and higher intensity and frequency of sexual desire (Eplov et al.,
2007; Peplau, 2003; Regan & Atkins, 2006) than women. The evidence on sexual satisfaction is, however, mixed. Some studies reported higher levels of sexual satisfaction
among men (Haavio-Mannila & Kontula, 1997; Laumann et al., 1994; Waite & Joyner,
2001), while other noted lower levels when compared to womens sexual satisfaction
(American Association for Retired Persons, 1999; Carpenter et al., 2009; Dunn, Croft, &
Hackett, 2000; Moret et al., 1998).
Associations among intimacy, sexual desire, and sexual satisfaction
Intimacy has been found to be associated with sexuality in a mostly positive manner.
Higher levels of intimacy have been linked to greater sexual satisfaction (Haning et al.,
2007) and positive changes in intimacy predict heightened sexual satisfaction, sexual
frequency, and relationship passion with ones partner (Rubin & Campbell, 2012).
Although very few studies have explicitly explored the relationship between intimacy
and sexual desire, particularly among couples, several have suggested a positive association. Rubin and Campbell (2012) found intimacy and relationship passion correlated on
daily basis, while Impett et al. (2008) reported that having strong relationship approach
goals such as the pursuit of positive relational experiences with the partner, which
relates to emotional intimacy is associated with higher and more resilient sexual
desire.
Direct evidence of the positive association between emotional intimacy and sexual
satisfaction and/or sexual desire is still scarce. One notable exception is the Haning et al.
(2007) study, which reported a significant positive association between emotional intimacy and sexual satisfaction in the sampled participants. Indirect evidence of this relationship may be found in studies that documented higher sexual satisfaction among
married individuals than cohabitating individuals and singles (Laumann et al., 1994), and
a higher level of sexual satisfaction among committed daters compared to unattached but
sexually active individuals (Pedersen & Blekesaune, 2003). However, empirical support
for the assumption that emotional intimacy increases with the relationship duration is
mixed (Acker & Davis, 1992; Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999). Relationship quality has
also been associated with sexual satisfaction (Christopher & Sprecher, 2000; HendersonKing & Veroff, 1994; Sprecher, 2002).
Can intimacy have a negative impact on sexual satisfaction and desire? Again, there is
little, if any, direct evidence. Intimacy has a tendency to increase with relationship duration (Hatfield & Rapson, 1993) and relationship duration may be negatively associated
with sexual satisfaction (Pedersen & Blekesaune, 2003; Waite & Joyner, 2001). Being in
an intimate relationship usually involves risks. They can be related to personal vulnerability, including the fear of rejection, exposure, loss of control or betrayal (Hatfield, 1984;
Patrick & Beckenbach, 2009), or to the boredom and routine that characterize many longterm relationships (Pedersen & Blekesaune, 2003; Sims & Meana, 2010). In the clinical
context, emotionally fused or poorly differentiated intimate relationships, characterized
by overreliance on other-validation and a lack of autonomy, have been proposed as being
particularly damaging to sexual desire (Perel, 2007; Schnarch, 2009). In his conceptualization of the relationship between sexual desire and the dyadic processes of intimacy
building, Schnarch (2009) emphasized the importance of differentiation of self, as the

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ability to maintain an integral and authentic self while in an intimate relationship and the
capacity to tolerate occasional anxiety and strain related to being in a close relationship.
In contrast to poorly differentiated partners, a well-differentiated couple does not trade
passion for emotional safety (Schnarch, 1997, 2009). A different but compatible perspective was recently suggested by Perel (2007) who highlighted the importance of the concept of otherness in preventing couples de-eroticization. The concept of otherness
conveys the idea of acknowledging and appreciating the familiar and safe romantic partner as someone not fully known, as someone with thoughts, feelings, and experiences
that are independent from our own a notion markedly different from the romantic ideal
of emotionally merged partners, in which otherness is intentionally obliterated. According
to Perel (2007, 2010), emotional intimacy that has eradicated otherness puts couples at
risk for a diminished sexual desire. Domestication might negatively affect desire, but the
effect may be gender-specific. In a recent study, mens sexual desire was not associated
with relationship duration (Murray & Milhausen, 2012).
Study aims
Researchers have been advocating the need to further investigate mens definitions and
expressions of emotional intimacy, particularly as most studies have used a conceptualization of intimacy that favors communication and expression of affection which are traditionally the domains of womens relational expertise possibly ignoring the specific
meanings of intimacy among men (Ferreira et al., 2012; Patrick et al., 2007; Patrick &
Beckenbach, 2009). Interestingly, a recent study found relational factors stronger predictors of male than female sexual satisfaction (Carpenter et al., 2009). An additional issue
is clinical suggestions that high levels of intimacy may have a negative impact on sexual
desire, possibly through the processes of familiarity/habituation or lack of autonomy
(Perel, 2007; Schnarch, 1997, 2009). To the best of our knowledge, this concern has not
been addressed either in clinical or non-clinical research.
The lack of systematic and comparable research regarding the role of emotional intimacy in male sexuality satisfaction is challenging for research, clinical interventions, and
sex education. Aiming to contribute to the literature, this study explored the following
three research questions:
(1) Does intimacy contribute to mens sexual satisfaction? Compared to desire, how
well does intimacy predict male sexual satisfaction?
(2) If intimacy is (robustly) associated with sexual satisfaction, what may be the
underlying mechanism (Hedstr
om & Swedberg, 1996)? In other words, what is a
plausible explanation for the contribution of intimacy to male sexual satisfaction?
(3) Finally, is there empirical evidence to support clinical insights about a negative
impact of intimacy on sexual desire? Are higher levels of intimacy associated
with a reduced or lower sexual desire?
The conceptual rationale underlying our assessment was based on the observation that
intimacy and sexual desire may not have a clear temporal sequence (see Figure 1). In
some cases, erotic interest may be instrumental in generating intimacy, while in other
cases increasing intimacy may enhance sexual desire (Rubin & Campbell, 2012;
Schnarch, 1997). Furthermore, based on the literature (Carpenter et al., 2009; Jannsen,
McBride, Yarber, Hill, & Butler, 2008), it was assumed that both emotional intimacy and
sexual desire predict male sexual satisfaction.

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Addressing the above research questions has clear educational and clinical implications. That male sexual desire and sexual satisfaction are closely related to emotional intimacy and go against the popular stereotype, which asserts that men unlike women
have no need for mixing sex and emotions (Zilbergeld, 1999). This widely perceived
truth affects sexual socialization and may have consequences for common assumptions
about sexual dynamics in long-term relationships. In the clinical context, it has been suggested that intimacy may sustain erotic passion (Schnarch, 1997), but also that excessive
closeness and emotional merging can cripple sexual desire (Perel, 2010). Further empirical evidence regarding this link between intimacy and desire is needed, both to clarify the
role of relationship intimacy in male sexuality and to increase the therapeutic resources
for dealing with clients understanding of the complex interplay between eroticism, sex,
and couplehood.

Method
Participants and procedures
From September to October 2011, an online survey focusing on male sexual desire was
carried out in Croatia. The study banner, which called for participation in a study focusing
on mens sexual health, was featured on several websites dedicated to general health
information, mens health, and online dating. Of the 2408 individuals who accessed the
survey site, 1578 were men over 18 years of age who completed the questionnaire
(65.5%). Participants who had more than 10% of missing information were excluded
from analyses. The final sample was reduced to 506 participants in the 2168 age range
after the following six inclusion criteria were applied: (1) being in a relationship or married for at least two years; (2) currently living together with this partner/spouse; (3) having exclusively female sexual partners in the past five years; (4) not taking
antidepressants at the time of the survey (cf. Higgins, Nash, & Lynch, 2010; Phillips &
Slaughter, 2000); (5) not being treated for a mental health problem in the past two years
(Meuleman & van Lankveld, 2004; Zemishlany & Weizman, 2008); and (6) never being
diagnosed with erectile dysfunction.
The average age in the sample was 38.2 years (SD 8.43). Over three quarters of
men (77.3%) were married and 72.9% reported being fathers. Most participants had a college education (61.8%) and an above average income (55.0%). A majority of men
included in this study (68.4%) participated in religious services up to twice per year.
The questionnaire, which consisted of 169 items, was hosted on a commercial online
surveying site. On average, it required about 20 minutes to complete. Despite the risk of
duplicate surveys, IP addresses were not permanently recorded to ensure anonymity. Subsequent data set scanning did not reveal identical response patterns. Information about
the study that was needed for informed consent was provided on the first survey screen.
Prospective participants were asked to confirm that they are of legal age (18 years) and
that they agree to participate in the study. All study procedures were approved by the Ethical Review Board of the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia.

Measures
Current levels of sexual desire were assessed by two strongly correlated items (r .84,
p < .001): How would you rate the degree of your current sexual interest (i.e., sexual

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thoughts and fantasies, motivation to have sex, being receptive to have sex, etc.)? and
How would you rate your current desire for sexual activity? The same 5-point scale
with response options 1 very high, 2 high, 3 moderate, 4 low, and 5 very low
or non-existent was used to anchor answers to both questions. To assess concurrent
validity of the sexual desire measure, the summed indicator was correlated with the
reported frequency of sexual intercourse in the past 3 months (answers were anchored
using a 6-point scale ranging from 1 never to 6 daily or more often). As expected, a
moderate association was found (r .34, p < .001).
Decreased sexual interest was indicated by affirmative answer to the following question: Did you notice a decrease in your sexual interest (i.e., sexual thoughts and fantasies, motivation to have sex, being receptive to have sex, etc.) during the past six
months? To assess whether the reported decrease corresponded to sexual interest at the
time of data collection, we compared the summed levels of current sexual desire among
men who reported a decrease in their sexual desire in the past 6 months and those who
did not. Participants who reported decreased sexual desire also reported significantly
lower current levels of sexual desire and interest (t(251.9) 13.2, p < .001) in comparison to men who did not experienced recently decreased desire (M 6.5, SD 1.9 and
M 8.8, SD 1.5, respectively). The difference had large effect size (Cohens d 1.34;
cf. Cohen, 1988).
Sexual satisfaction was measured using a short, 12-item version of the New Scale of

Sexual Satisfaction (Stulhofer,
Busko, & Brouillard, 2011). Participants were asked to
rate their satisfaction with the quality of their orgasms during the past 6 months, the pleasure they provide to their partner, the partners sexual creativity, the frequency of sexual
activity, etc. The scale had high internal consistency (Cronbachs a .94). Higher scores
indicate more sexual satisfaction. Principal component analysis extracted two factors
with eigenvalues larger than one (the two components explained 71.4% variance in

items). Based on this analysis, two composite indicators were constructed (cf. Stulhofer,
Busko, & Brouillard, 2010): (1) the six-item ego-centered sexual satisfaction scale (e.g.,
satisfaction with The way I sexually react to my partner, My mood after sexual
activity, The balance between what I give and receive in sex) and (2) three-item partner-centered sexual satisfaction scale (personal satisfaction with My partners emotional
opening up during sex, My partners sexual creativity, and My partners ability to
orgasm). Both measures had satisfactory internal consistency (Cronbachs a .90 and
.86, respectively).
Finally, emotional intimacy was assessed with the five-item Emotional Intimacy Scale
(Sinclair & Dowdy, 2005). Each of the included items (This person completely accepts
me as I am, I can share my deepest thoughts and feelings with this person, This person cares deeply for me, etc.) assessed a different aspect of emotional intimacy: acceptance, self-disclosure, caring, support, and affirmation. The total score was calculated as a
sum of scores across the items, with higher scale scores reflecting a higher level of emotional intimacy. In this study, Cronbachs a for the scale was .92.
Analytical strategy
Path analysis was carried out using path analysis option in AMOS 17 statistical software
(Arbuckle, 2008); missing information on the key indicators were replaced by mean values. Possible moderation effects of age and length of relationship were assessed by multigroup analysis, in which all paths were assumed to be invariant between the groups.
Finally, a non-linear association between intimacy and sexual desire was explored using

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multivariate logistic regression (two models were built), in which the effect of age, length
of relationship, and their interaction were controlled for. To reduce multicollinearity, the
interaction term was created from the centered scale scores.

Results
The role of emotional intimacy
Our first research question asked was whether emotional intimacy contributes to mens
sexual satisfaction. Path analysis revealed that both intimacy (b .48, p < .001) and sexual desire (b .31, p < .001) moderately predicted sexual satisfaction (Figure 1). As
expected, the predictors were weakly albeit significantly correlated (r .24, p < .001).
The model accounted for almost 40% of the variance in sexual satisfaction.

Mechanism underlying the association between intimacy and sexual satisfaction


The assumed structure of associations between the studied constructs being confirmed, we
next explored a possible mechanism behind the intimacy sexual satisfaction link.
Informed by the literature on the role of emotional intimacy in couples sexuality (Rubin
& Campbell, 2012; Schnarch, 1997), we expected that intimacy would affect sexual satisfaction by increasing the importance of partners sexual reactions, enjoyment, and pleasure for ones sexual satisfaction. The partner-centered facet of sexual satisfaction
(PCSS) was thus assumed to be more influenced by intimacy than the ego-centered component (ECSS). The opposite pattern a stronger association with ECSS than with PCSS
was expected in the case of sexual desire.
The analysis presented in Figure 2 supported the hypothesis. Emotional intimacy was
moderately associated with ECSS (b .33, p < .001) and strongly with PCSS (b .53,
p < .001). While sexual desire had a substantially stronger direct effect on the ego-centered component of sexual satisfaction, intimacy was more strongly associated with the
partnered-centered component. The finding that sexual desire was moderately to strongly
associated with ECSS (b .46, p < .001) but only weakly, though significantly, with
PCSS (b .09, p < .05) supported the notion that intimacy-related increase in the importance of partners sexual pleasure for male sexual satisfaction may be a mechanism underlying the relationship between intimacy and sexual satisfaction.

Figure 1. Relationship intimacy and sexual desire as predictors of sexual satisfaction among
partnered heterosexual men (N 506). Standardized path coefficients are presented: p < .001.

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Figure 2. Relationship intimacy and sexual desire as predictors of ego-centered and partnercentered sexual satisfaction among partnered heterosexual men (N 506). Standardized path
coefficients are presented: p < .05; p < .001.

Emotional intimacy and the suppression of male sexual desire?


Different analytical strategies were used to address the third research question which
focused on a specific risk of intimacy (Can high emotional intimacy negatively affect sexual desire?). First, a bivariate analysis was used to explore whether intimacy was related
to a self-reported recent decrease in sexual interest. The association between intimacy
(the composite scale was transformed into quartiles) and reduced sexual interest in the
past 6 months was significant in this community sample (x2(3) 33.31, p < .001), but
the findings pointed to a positive direction of the relationship. Lower levels of intimacy
were observed among men who did experience a decrease in sexual interest. Among participants who reported decreased interest (29.2%, n 147), 45.6% scored in the lowest
intimacy quartile, while 12.2% scored in the highest quartile. In contrast, among the men
who did not report decreased sexual interest (70.8%, n 357), 22.7% scored in the lowest
intimacy quartile and 30.5% in the highest quartile.
For a more comprehensive analysis of the relationship between emotional intimacy
and sexual desire, we returned to the path model presented in Figure 1. To assess if higher
levels of intimacy are related to lower sexual desire levels, a multigroup path analysis was
employed, in which all path estimates were compared across two groups of participants
that differed by age and length of relationship. As the two characteristics are interrelated,
to apply the polar opposites approach (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1998, p. 257)
where groups from the ends of the distribution are compared age and relationship duration had to be combined. The analysis contrasted a group of 142 younger men (aged up to
or equal to the sample median of 37 years) who reported relationship duration in the lowest quartile (M 4.4 years) with a group of 134 older men (38 years) who reported a
relationship of 15 or more years (the highest relationship length quartile; M 16.0 years).
The finding of invariance in the model path estimates (Dx2 .81, Ddf 2, p < .67)
showed that the structure of associations among sexual desire, emotional intimacy, and
sexual satisfaction was not moderated by (this particular combination of) age and length
of relationship.

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Table 1. Sexual desire and sexual satisfaction by levels of relationship intimacy.

Intimacy
A first quartile (N 161)
B second quartile (N 115)
C third quartile (N 125)
D fourth quartile (N 130)

Current levels of sexual


desire/interest
M (SD)

Sexual satisfaction
M (SD)

7.37 (2.17)
8.04 (1.69)
8.18 (1.89)
8.88 (1.53)

35.45 (8.04)
41.79 (8.28)
44.21 (7.98)
50.56 (8.82)

F 15.29, p < .001


A 6 B, C, D; B, C 6 D

F 78.34, p < .001


A 6 B, C, D; B, C 6 D

Bonferroni post hoc test.

The above approach, however, is limited by the presumption of a linear relationship


between the constructs. Moreover, it failed to fully assess a possible influence of the interaction between age and length of relationship on the relationship between emotional intimacy and sexual desire. For example, to establish a high level of intimacy with the
partner may require less time (i.e., shorter relationship duration) for older men, as they
are more likely than younger men to have already experienced the process in their previous relationships. We conducted several additional analyses in an effort to examine both
potential shortcomings.
First, to address the issue of linearity, we carried out two analysis of variance
(ANOVA) procedures with intimacy as factor (Table 1). An increase in the level of intimacy (the composite indicator was transformed into quartiles) was almost invariably
reflected in significantly higher mean scores of sexual desire and sexual satisfaction,
which indicated linear association between the variables.
Second, to address whether the interaction of age and length of relationship affects the
association between emotional intimacy and male sexual desire, we conducted two logistic regression analyses with dichotomized current sexual desire indicator as dependent
variable. Controlling for age, relationship duration, and their interaction term, we
assessed the predictive strength of emotional intimacy, as well as the direction of its association with the outcome.
In the first regression analysis, the indicator of sexual desire was dichotomized into
1 participants who scored low on desire (i.e., in the lowest desire quartile) and 0 all
others. In the second analysis, the indicator was dichotomized so that men who had the
maximum score on sexual desire scale were coded 1, while all others were coded 0. The
findings are presented in Table 2. The agerelationship duration interaction term
remained insignificant in both models. Intimacy, however, was significantly associated
with the odds of reporting both low and high sexual desire. It decreased the odds of being
in the low-desire group by 58%79%, depending on the level of emotional intimacy
reported. In the case of high sexual desire, there seemed to be a threshold effect. Only the
men who scored in the highest intimacy quartile were characterized by significantly
higher odds of reporting high desire. More precisely, they were over 3.5 times more likely
than other participants to belong to the high-desire group. Once again, the relationship
between emotional intimacy and male sexual desire appeared substantial and in the positive direction.

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Table 2. Levels of relationship intimacy as predictors of low vs. high sexual desire/interest among
partnered heterosexual men (logistic regression analysis: n 531).

Age
Length of relationship
Age  length of relationship
Intimacy
First quartile (reference)
Second quartile
Third quartile
Fourth quartile
HosmerLemeshow test

Low desire participantsa


(1) vs. others (0)
OR (95% CI)

High desire participantsb


(1) vs. others (0)
OR (95% CI)

1.03 (1.001.07)
.96 (.901.01)
1.00 (.991.00)

.96 (.9399)
1.05 (.991.10)
1.00 (1.001.01)

1
.38 (.22.67)
.39 (.22.67)
.20 (.11.38)
x2(8) 4.44, p > .81

1
1.22 (.712.08)
1.38 (.822.29)
3.54 (2.155.85)
x2(8) 5.99, p > .64

n 123, bn 192; p < .01, p < .001.

Non-significant values of the HosmerLemeshow test, which point to agreement


between the fitted values of the model and the actual data by rejecting the null hypothesis,
indicated good fit of the both regression models.
As children can impact the sexual dynamics of a couple, we additionally controlled
for their presence and age in the low desire regression analysis. (The indicator was categorized as: 1 no children, 2 one or more children aged five or older, and 3 one or
more children under 5 years of age.1) No significant association was found between the
outcome and the added independent indicator (adjusted ORs for category 2 and 3 were
.79, 95% CI .391.59, and .99, 95% CI .541.81, respectively).

Discussion
This study aimed to advance our understanding of the role of emotional intimacy in male
sexuality by exploring in more detail its association with sexual satisfaction. The data
were collected online, using a community sample of coupled heterosexual men. According to the study findings, intimacy moderately and significantly predicted sexual satisfaction. Increasing the contribution of ones partners sexual satisfaction to personal sexual
satisfaction was indicated as the likely mechanism behind the mediation.
We also assessed a possible detrimental effect of emotional intimacy on sexual desire,
which has been suggested by some clinicians (Perel, 2007; Schnarch, 1997, 2010). Most
men who reported a recent decline in sexual interest scored low on intimacy, unlike the
participants who did not report decreased interest. In addition, higher emotional intimacy
significantly decreased the odds of low sexual desire in multivariate analyses, while the
highest intimacy levels also increased the odds of reporting high sexual desire. These
associations were not moderated by age, relationship duration, or their interaction, as
well as the presence of children. Overall, we consistently failed to detect a negative association between emotional intimacy and male sexual desire. Equally robust was the finding of a relatively strong positive association between the two constructs.
Before discussing the findings, it is important to note several study limitations. Due to
cross-sectional nature of the data used, the causality implying path model tested in the

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paper, as well as our analysis of the plausible mechanism of influence, should be at best
understood as provisional. The usefulness of the proposed model depends on how compelling one finds its conceptual rationale, as our study cannot ascertain the direction of
the associations among sexual satisfaction, sexual desire, and emotional intimacy (some
of which are likely bi-directional).
Next, our sample was not probability based, which limits the generalizability of the
results (regardless of the sample size), as convenience sampling is open to various selection biases. The generalizability may also be limited by culture-specific characteristics of
our sample of partnered, predominantly Roman Catholic, Croatian men. A couple of
recent studies, for example, reported notable differences in sexual behaviors and sexual
health difficulties between Croatian and Norwegian men of different generations


(Stulhofer,
Tren, & Carvalheira, 2013; Tren, Stulhofer,
& Landripet, 2011).
As the original study was advertised as focusing on male sexual health, it is plausible that more sexually open men were more likely to respond to the call for participation. In addition, it may be that men with sexual difficulties were somewhat
overrepresented in the sample, which leads to an interesting question of whether men
with sexual concerns would be more likely to place a greater importance on intimacy
than those without such experience as was recently found among women (Sand &
Fisher, 2007).
Another important limitation pertains to the measures used. Length of cohabitation
and relationship duration are two related but distinct characteristics that may not be
equally relevant for generating and maintaining emotional intimacy. In this study, we
only assessed the latter characteristics. The current sexual desire scale used in this study
did not specifically assess the sexual desire participants felt for their spouse or long-term
partner, as it only accounted for the overall level of sexual motivation. This is clearly a
problem, because the theories about the dampening effect of intimacy focus on the desire
for partner and not on sexual desire in general. In addition, the intimacy measure used in
this study did not allow for a more detailed insight into the characteristics of emotional
intimacy reported by participants. Unlike a few measures that have been developed to
assess different types and components of relationship intimacy (cf. Schnarch & Regas,
2012), the composite scale employed in the presented analyses could not distinguish
between emotional intimacy reported by well-differentiated in contrast to poorly differentiated men. According to the theoretical model and clinical concept developed by
Schnarch (1997, 2010), this omission could have affected our exploration of the association between intimacy and desire.
Overall, the results presented in this study provide robust support for the idea that intimacy is an important component of male sexuality (Haning et al., 2007; Jannsen et al.,

2008; Rubin & Campbell, 2012; Stulhofer
et al., 2013). More specifically, we found
higher levels of emotional intimacy associated with higher levels of sexual desire and
overall sexual satisfaction. The traditional view of male sexuality as a predominant physical phenomenon seems particularly challenged by the data suggesting that emotional
intimacy can affect sexual satisfaction structurally, by enhancing its partners pleasurerelated component. These findings seem to correspond with the notion, suggested by
Moret et al. (1998) as well as Whitbourne and Ebmeyer (1990), that in the last two decades the importance of emotional intimacy may be increasing among men possibly
reflecting a contemporary shift in social norms and gender role expectations
(Haavio-Mannila & Kontula, 1997; Leiblum, 2002; Pedersen & Blekesaune, 2003). Such
sociocultural change would be in stark contrast to the traditional gender roles, beliefs,
and perceptions that underlined the salience of male sexual gratification. However, as

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et al.

intimacy has been mostly conceptualized along the lines of communication and expression of feelings (Patrick & Beckenbach, 2009), we cannot rule out the possibility that
what changed was not the importance of intimacy for men but their readiness to talk about
it. This would be consistent with an increased acceptance and even encouragement of the
male expression of relational feelings (see Giddens, 1992).
Although caution is warranted as partner-centered sexual satisfaction may sometimes reflect a mens pride and sexual prowess more than a genuine concern for his
partners pleasure the observed association between intimacy and the partner-centered
component of the overall sexual satisfaction supports the idea that male sexuality, particularly in the context of a relationship, is far from simplistic and straightforward
(Carpenter et al., 2009; Jannsen et al., 2008). Moreover, some clinicians have been
arguing that the widespread belief about male sexual satisfaction being disconnected
from emotional intimacy is not just inaccurate, but harmful (Bader, 2009). That male
sexual desire and satisfaction are linked with emotional intimacy has a number of implications for clinical intervention with couples and coupled men. New clinical approaches
to treating sexual desire problems and distress emphasize the importance of emotional
intimacy for womens sexual response (Basson, 2002), the couples dyadic processes
(Schnarch, 2009, 2010), or both (Gehring, 2011). According to the study findings, emotional context is also important for male sexual desire. High sexual desire was associated with high emotional intimacy. The evidence that male sexual desire may be
embedded in relationality and emotional interaction, similarly to female desire, could
be useful in clinical interventions, particularly in regard to mens idiosyncratic ways of
expressing their emotional needs. As the expression of and communication about emotions have been commonly viewed as a female domain (Perel, 2007), and potentially
threatening to the traditional masculine role, education about the (often unrecognized)
links among male intimacy, desire, and sexual satisfaction should be used in individual
therapy and couple interventions to normalize sexual difficulties related to emotional
processes and dynamics, as well as to enable a better understanding of the erotic importance of intimacy.
Similar to Schnarch (1997, 2010), Perel has suggested that intimacy which collapses
into fusion may be problematic for sexual passion: It is not a lack of closeness, but too
much closeness that impedes desire (Perel, 2007, p. 25). In the present study, however,
higher levels of intimacy decreased the odds of reporting low sexual desire. One possibility is that the experience of fusion and its detrimental effects is not adequately represented
by the construct of emotional intimacy and its standard measures. Constructs such as self
vs. other-validated intimacy (Schnarch, 1997, 2010), undifferentiated intimacy (Ferreira
et al., 2012), or emotional merging (Perel, 2010) may enable a more precise assessment
of the detrimental process proposed by some couple therapists. Alternatively, the adverse
effects of emotional intimacy on sexual desire may be relatively rare and have more to do
with individual characteristics and/or specific partner interaction patterns than with (the
achieved level of) emotional intimacy per se. Using a reasonably large sample of partnered heterosexual men and different statistical approaches, we have failed to find any
negative relationship between intimacy and desire.
Conclusion
The paucity of studies focusing on the role of intimacy in male sexuality leaves many
important questions unanswered. Little is known about the moderating effects of national,
ethnic, or class (sub)cultures on the relationship between intimacy and male sexual well-

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241

being. Future studies should also pay more attention to middle-aged and older men, which
would contribute to a much needed balance within the field, considering that most of the
current research focused on younger men, mostly college students. Additionally, analyses
of the interplay of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender roles, and sexual expression
might further our understanding of associations among intimacy, sexual satisfaction, and
desire.
Longitudinal research that would sample newly formed couples among individuals of
different ages is needed for a rigorous assessment of the effects of developing emotional
intimacy on sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. Such studies would also enable a robust
control of the contribution of age, age cohort/generation, and their interaction with gender
(cf. Carpenter et al., 2009). Following the dyadic nature of emotional intimacy, panel studies should involve both partners. Finally, qualitative explorations in both clinical and
non-clinical settings of the meanings, expectations, and attributions related to the complex interplay of intimacy, desire, and sexual satisfaction would add depth and clarity to
our understanding of the scope and role of emotional intimacy in male sexual well-being.
In their recent narrative-based exploratory study that investigated mens perceptions of intimacy, Patrick and Beckenbach (2009) found that meaningful communication, emotional
sharing, and the physical expressions of appreciation and affection were the most prevalent
components of the reported definitions of intimacy. In their approach to measuring emotional intimacy, future studies should acknowledge this multidimensionality.

Note
1.

The cut-off point of five was chosen in accordance with the World Health Organization indicator of child mortality under 5 years of age (World Health Organization, 2013); children under
5 years of age require substantially more parental investment than older children.

Notes on contributors

Aleksandar Stulhofer
is Professor of Sociology and the Head of Sexology Unit at the University of
Zagreb, Croatia. Since 2008, he is Affiliated Faculty of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Gender,
Sex and Reproduction. His research focuses on sexual health, behavioral aspects of HIV, and por
nography use. Dr Stulhofer
also works as sex therapist.
Luana Cunha Ferreira (MSc) is a PhD student in the Interuniversity Doctoral Program in Clinical
Psychology Family Psychology and Intervention (Faculty of Psychology, University of Lisbon).
She is a licensed clinical psychologist, currently researching intimacy, desire and differentiation of
self in couples. She practices individual, couple and family therapy.
Dr. Ivan Landripet is a Senior Teaching and Research Assistant at the Methodology Unit, Department of Sociology, University of Zagreb, Croatia. His research in sexuality focuses on attitudinal
and behavioral aspects of sexual health, as well as pornography use.

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