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Fairness and Sexual Satisfaction

Do couples with fair relationships have more satisfying sex lives? A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin suggests they do.

As human beings we want things to be fair. When things are unfair we feel uncomfortable. We feel the most discomfort when we are the one deprived of fairness but even if we are the ones gaining the benefit we will usually feel a sense of guilt and unease.

We see this in the playground with children being instructed to "play fair" and to "share". We see it in the workplace when we expect the rewards of our work to be in-line with our colleagues.

One theory that tries to explain this desire for fairness is called Equity Theory. It was developed in 1963 by a behavioural psychologist called John Stacey Adams. You can read more about it at wikipedia [Equity Theory].

Adams' theory states that we consider ourselves as being fairly treated if the ratio of our inputs to our outcomes is the same as those around us. For instance, if we work an 8 hour day (our input) we expect to be paid the same as our colleague doing the same job (our outcome).

Equity theory splits people in relationships into 3 distinct groups :

  • Those who feel they are getting a bad deal compared to others (the under-benefited)
  • Those who feel they are getting a fair deal compared to others (the equitably treated)
  • Those who feel they are getting a good deal compared to others (the over-benefited)

The theory says that if we feel under-benefited we will try to restore the balance. For instance, at work we might put in less hours or effort in order to feel that some fairness has been restored.

The Fairly treated feel better than those treated too well

One of the surprises of Equity Theory is that while the under-compensated feel bad, those who are over-compensated also feel uncomfortable with the deal. They don't feel as bad as the under-compensated but they may feel guilt or shame that they are getting more and that they are not really deserving of their extra rewards. To restore a sense of fairness they might work harder to prove their worth or they might begin to believe that they actually are worth more. The important thing is that the individual believes that the system is fair - not that it actually is.

So in general, it turns out that the people who feel they are being treated most fairly are the happiest of all.

Equity Theory and Intimacy

How does Equity Theory relate to sexual intimacy? We might expect that couples who fell they have a fairer relationship are happier overall than their under or over-benefited peers but are they more satisfied with their sex lives?

Elaine Hatfield, Professor Psychology at the University of Hawaii wanted to know just that and set up a number of studies to find out among dating and newlywed couples.

The couples were split up and the partners separately interviewed. Each was asked to rate their overall relationship on the following scale :

  • +3 I am getting a much better deal than my partner
  • + 2 I am getting a somewhat better deal than my partner
  • + 1 I am getting a slightly better deal than my partner
  • +0 We are both getting an equally good or bad deal
  • -1 My partner is getting a slightly better deal than me
  • -2 My partner is getting a somewhat better deal than me
  • -3 My partner is getting a much better deal than me

Respondents who scored > 0 were classified as over-benefited whilst those scoring < 0 were classified as "under-benefited.

Each husband and wife answered a set of questions to judge their satisfaction with their relationship, their sexual satisfaction and their satisfaction with their life overall.


Overall the results fit the pattern expected by the researchers and predicted by Equity Theory. Men and women who feel that their relationships are fair and balanced are happier with their relationship and with their lives than those who are under-benefited and those who are over-benefited. In fact, the correlation between happiness with the relationship and overall happiness in life was very strong. Happy people are happy with their relationships and/or those that are in happy relationships are also happy with life.

Tip: This finding suggests that if you are unhappy with your life you should look to improve your relationships with your friends and family, not just your partner.

For sexual satisfaction Men and women who feel fairly treated by their partners are more satisfied with their sexual relationship and feel more loving and close after sex than those who feel they are getting a worse or better deal from their partners.

Outside of the equitably-treated group things were not so rosy.

Of the under-benefited (those getting a worse deal than their patner), the men fared the worst. They had the least overall sexual satisfaction and felt the least closeness and satisfaction after sex. They also had the worst overall happiness scores and were least content with their relationship and with life. The women in this group were also unhappy, much less happy than men and women who felt fairly treated. The study offers no explanation for this but we can speculate that women draw more happiness from factors outside their relationship than do men. When things get bad at home men fall very low but women have better social networks from which to draw support.

Tip: Men have a tendency to pay very little attention to their relationships but be very dependent on them at the same time. This can make men vulnerable to being dependent on an under-benefited relationship. One way to fix this is to take a tip from women - work on your friendships!

As expected, the group who felt they were getting a better deal than their partners (the over-benefited) had lower scores for satisfaction and happiness than those who felt fairly treated but much higher than those who felt unfairly treated (the under-benefited).

Tip: Having the upper-hand in the relationship may not be getting you the best deal. You'd be happier if things were more equal.

Interestingly, within the over-benefited group it was the men who reported the most contentment with life and with their relationship but the women who reported the highest sexual satisfaction.

Tip: If you want her to report the highest levels of sexual satisfaction, make sure she's over-benefited in the bedroom.

Finally, we should note that the study demonstrates that people who feel fairly treated in their relationship feel the most satisfied about their sexual relationship as a whole but the study does not demonstrate that any group enjoys the act of sex any more than another. To prove that we would need to run a new study "Equity and Orgasm - The effect of equitable relationships on sexual response".


These studies demonstrated that people who felt their relationship was fair experienced greater levels of happiness and sexual satisfaction than those who thought they were getting a worse or better deal than their partners. But what is fair? What one person considers fair another considers mean or generous, we all have our own standards. The important thing is that both partners feel that they are getting a fair deal. That doesn't mean that all chores and responsibilities have to be split 50/50 but each partner has to feel that the other is doing their fair share.


satisfaction   equity   intimacy   sex   fairness  

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