When a comic about “mental burden” went viral in 2017, it started a conversation about the invisible workload women face.
Women remember their mother-in-law’s birthdays, know what’s in the pantry and organize the plumber, even when they’re in salaried jobs. This mental load is often overlooked.
Women also continue to do more housework and childcare than their male partners.
This burden has increased in recent pandemics (homeschooling anyone?), leaving women feeling exhausted, anxious, and angry.
As sexuality researchers, we wondered, with all this extra work, do women have any energy left for sex?
We decided to explore how mental load affects intimate relationships. We focused on women’s sexual desire, as “low desire” affects more than 50 percent of women and is difficult to treat.
Our study, published in Journal of Sex ResearchWomen in equal relationships (in terms of housework and mental load) are more satisfied with their relationships and, consequently, feel more sexual desire than those in unequal relationships.
How to define low desire?
Less desire is harder to explore. Sexual Desire Women describe sexual desire as a condition and a need for closeness.
Adding to this complexity is the volatile nature of female desire that changes in response to life experiences and relationship quality.
Relationships are especially important to women’s desire: Relationship dissatisfaction is a top risk factor for low desire in women, even more so than the physiological effects of age and menopause. Clearly, relationship factors are critical to understanding female sexual desire.
As a way to address the complexity of female desire, recent theories have proposed two different types of desire: dyadic desire is sexual desire that one person feels for another, while monogamous desire is about individual feelings.
Not surprisingly, dyadic desire is intertwined with relationship dynamics, while monogamous desire is more amorphous and involves feeling good about oneself as a sexual being (feeling sexy) without the need for validation from another.
Our research acknowledged the nuances of women’s desire and its strong association with relationship quality by exploring how fairness in relationships may affect desire.
In the research, 299 Australian women aged 18 to 39 were asked questions about desire and relationships.
These questions included assessment of housework, mental load – such as who organized social activities and financial arrangements – and who had more leisure time.
We compared three groups:
- Relationships where women perceived work as shared equals (the “equal work” group)
- When the woman felt that she did too much work (“women’s work” group)
- When women thought their partner contributed more (the “partner’s work” group).
We then explored how these differences in relationship equity affect women’s sexual desire.
What we got
The findings were stark. Women who rated their relationships as equal also reported greater relationship satisfaction and higher dyadic desire (linked to relationship dynamics) than other women in the study.
Unfortunately (and perhaps, tellingly), the partner work group was too small to draw any firm conclusions.
However, it was clear that their will to work for the women’s group had decreased. This group was also less satisfied with their relationships overall.
When we turned our attention to the singular desire of women, we found something interesting. Although it seems logical that relationship inequalities may affect all aspects of women’s sexuality, our results showed that fairness did not significantly affect single desire.
This suggests that women’s low desire is not an intrinsic sexual problem to be treated with mindfulness apps and Z Eggs, but rather a problem that requires effort from both partners.
Other relationship factors are involved. We found that children increase the workload for women, leading to lower relationship equality and, in turn, lower sexual desire.
The length of the relationship also played a role. Research shows that long-term relationships are associated with decreased desire for women, and this is often attributed to the tedium of overfamiliarity (think of the bored, sexless wives in 90s sitcoms).
However, our research shows that increasing inequality during the relationship is often the reason for women’s lack of interest in sex, not relationship boredom.
The longer some relationships continue, the more unfair they become, reducing women’s desire. This may be because women take on managing their partner’s relationships, as well as their own (“It’s time we met your best friend for dinner”).
And while household chores may start out as equally shared, over time, women tend to do more housework.
What about same-sex couples?
Same-sex couples have more egalitarian relationships.
However, we found a similar link between equity and women’s desire for same-sex relationships, although it was much stronger for heterosexual couples.
A sense of fairness within a relationship is fundamental to all women’s satisfaction and sexual desire.
What happens now?
Our findings suggest that the low desire response in women may be related to the amount of work women have to take on in the relationship.
The link between relationship satisfaction and women’s sexual desire has been firmly established in previous research, but our findings illustrate how this dynamic works: women’s sense of fairness within a relationship predicts their satisfaction, which in turn affects their desire for their partners.
To translate our results into clinical practice, we could run tests to confirm whether reducing women’s mental load leads to greater sexual desire.
We can “restrict housework and mental load” for a sample of women who report low sexual desire and record if there are changes in their desire levels.
Or maybe the woman’s sexual partners can do the dishes tonight and see what happens.
Simon Buzwell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Swinburne University of Technology and Eva Johansen, PhD Candidate, Swinburne University of Technology
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.