Despite traditional beliefs about what makes men and women happy in relationships, a new study found that kissing, cuddling and caressing are more important to men than they are to women.
The researchers, from The Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind., were also surprised to find that more men reported being happy in their relationships while more women reported being sexually satisfied. Women who were in relationships for at least 15 years were more likely to be sexually satisfied than women in relationships less than 15 years.
The study authors surveyed more than 1,000 couples from the U.S. and four other countries to determine what factors predict relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. All study participants reported being in their current relationships for an average of 25 years.
"This study makes it clear our assumptions aren't always borne out by research," said Jennifer Bass, director of communications at The Kinsey Institute. The researchers weren't immediately available for interviews.
Psychologists who were not involved in the research were intrigued by the finding that men with long-term partners need touch and affection to be happy in relationships, but say in general, touch is very important.
"Touch from a person you love and trust is a major emotional resource and a way that people can regulate their emotions when they are upset," said Aline Zoldbrod, a psychologist in Lexington, Mass. "Couples who use touch to comfort, to compliment, and yes, to seduce and arouse, are bound to be happier."
"While the women in this study also like physical gestures of affection, these gestures tended to be associated for them with increased satisfaction in their sexual activity," said Heitler. "For them, an affectionate hubby leads to more sexual pleasure."
Many women in long-term relationships, however, were not surprised by the finding that sex is so important to women who have been with their partners a long time.
"I have been with my husband since I was 19 years old (I just turned 40), and sexual satisfaction is a major part of why our marriage works," said Saideh Browne of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Another woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "I'm a 46-year-old woman that has been married for 30 years this summer. We have had ups and downs in our sexual relationship over the years, but I have to say that the times when we were having an active sex life was when I was happiest in our marriage."
Jessica Gottlieb, who has been married for 14 years, said: "I'm a married woman, the world should assume that I enjoy sex. It's part of the deal."
However, experts say sexual satisfaction is difficult to measure, and it could also be the case that study participants define it in different ways.
Later Years Very Different for Men and Women
Susan Heitler, a couples psychologist in Denver who also founded the online counseling resource Power of Two, said previous studies have found relationship needs change over time.
"Prior research has shown that as people age, men focus more on general relationship satisfaction and women ... increasingly value the sexual aspects of the relationship," she said.
There could be a number of reasons why women's need for sexual satisfaction increases over the course of a relationship.
"Maybe after 15 years of being married, it's not a difficult time as far as raising children is concerned, and women can devote more time to their sexual satisfaction," she said.
Experts also say biology could also be a reason.
"Men are at their sexual drive peak in their late teens while women are at their peaks in their early 30s," said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent."
"Men may become less concerned about sex because they are feeling spontaneously aroused less frequently with age," said Heitler. "They still like sex, but they feel less desperate for it than in their younger years."
Many women establish identities outside the home and as they get older, feel more empowered to get their sexual needs met.
"Women gain ego strength and a sense of their own sexual rights as they age and so if expectations are not met or their partner does not attempt to please them, they can be upset, even angry," said Pepper Schwartz, senior fellow at the Contemporary Council on the Family and author of Prime: Adventures and Advice about Sex, Love and the Sensual Years.
Other factors that predicted relationship happiness in the study were good health among men and being able to function well sexually among men and women.
While men and women differed about what made them happy in their relationships, both sexes reported being happier the longer they were involved with their significant others.
The study also found differences in relationship and sexual satisfaction across cultures. For example, Japanese men reported being more satisfied sexually than American men, and Japanese and Brazilian women were more satisfied sexually than American women. These data may not paint an accurate picture, however, since subjects from the different countries weren't all similar in terms of factors like age.
"The research does show interesting findings that need to be explored much further to see how it translates to a large international population," said Amy Levine, a certified sexuality educator in New York and founder of Sex Ed Solutions, a sex education web site.
This study may also offer comfort to many men who think they're the only ones whose wives or girlfriends aren't always interested in sex.
"Perhaps this will soothe some of the men in their thirties and forties who think that their situation of having a wife who is not all that enthusiastic about sex is unique," said Zoldbrod.