SALT LAKE CITY — During a tumultuous year, American couples in committed relationships report they talked politics a lot but had less sex than in the past.
But before you draw too many conclusions, the two are probably not really connected. Or at least not too connected.
The story of romantic partnerships in the United States is largely one of stability, according to trends tracked by the American Family Survey, a collaboration between the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. It was released Tuesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
The survey found measurable change in just three types of activities from a list that’s been asked each year:
- Spouses or partners talked about political or social issues more, an increase of 6 percentage points in the last year and 12 points since 2015.
- They had sex less often, a 5-point drop from last year and 10 points since 2015.
- And they discussed their relationships less, declining 4 points since 2019 and 11 points since 2015.
The core elements of romantic partnerships have changed little over time. By far the most common activity couples claim is doing nice things for one another. They talk about their finances, go out together, pray with each other and have a serious argument at about the rate that they have in the past. A strikingly small share of them sleep in different rooms or hide finances (8% and 7%, respectively).
“It means there are some elements of family life that are staying pretty constant. Sometimes, when big things happen, we can assume that everything has changed. What we see is, even in the midst of this pandemic, there are some rhythms of family life that are continuing as they had before,” said Christopher K. Karpowitz, who co-directs the center and co-wrote the survey report with Jeremy C. Pope.
The nationally representative survey, now in its sixth year, was fielded by YouGov July 3-14. The sampling of 3,000 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9%.
One of the most dramatic findings was how much partners are talking about political and social events, especially Black Lives Matter and protests over police brutality. And those conversations involve the family, not just couples.
Nearly three-fourths of couples have discussed those issues. Among those who have, 9 in 10 talked to each other about them, while two-thirds discussed them with their children. Those shares varied depending on one’s political ideology — and Karpowitz and Pope agreed partisanship influenced what those conversations were about.
“it’s just stunning that three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats are talking about these things and talking about them, you know, mostly with their partners, but also a great deal with their children,” said Karpowitz. “It’s a politicized moment and the events we are seeing are momentous.”
Of those who said they discussed race and policing, 93% of Republicans talked about those topics with partners, while 66% talked with their children about the issues. Slightly fewer Democrats (88%) in that group discussed the issues with their spouse or partner. But they talked at slightly higher rates with their children, at 68%, compared to Republicans. Those who identified themselves as Independents had more discussions with a romantic partner, at 90%, but considerably less with children, at 56%.
In smaller numbers, they talked about the protests and Black Lives Matter with their own parents or siblings.
While the survey took place during the pandemic, the survey was not couched to catch merely a mid-COVID-19 response, though experts said it’s likely that was a consideration for couples who answered.
Close to 8 in 10 couples say they do nice things for each other, while more than half have consistently reported that they discuss finances together.
Slightly less than half of them have sex at least once a week, or go out together.
Just over a quarter of American couples say they pray together.
One in 12 sleep separately.
“There’s a lot of consistency in these measures over time,” said Pope, who noted the changes are relatively small in most cases.
“A lot of families are resilient, their activities stable. It makes me feel good about the state of the American family,” he added.
Of sex and politics
“I do think certainly the events of the last few months have made a lot of a couples talk politics,” said Institute of Family Studies scholar Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who consulted on the survey. He added that the year has probably been hard on couples in a “mixed marriage,” meaning partners affiliated with different political parties.
The country, he noted, is now very polarized on more than one front.
Politics might be top of mind not only because of the upcoming presidential election and the political protests, but also because so many people have relied on the government for direction and economic help during the pandemic, Pope said.
‘It’s clear people are also thinking about public policy recently because it affected them in a way it won’t normally affect them,” from unemployment for some to a stimulus check for most adults, he said. “Those are among reasons to have extra conversations.”
Karpowitz isn’t surprised couples are talking less about their relationship recently. Things have been harried for many families with constant Zoom meetings and the need to juggle home, work and school.
A quarter of Americans say COVID-19 has increased the stress in their relationship with their spouse or partner.
But it could be part of a broader trend. A slight decrease in the number of couples who report they have sex at least weekly has been noted in most years’ survey. Over six years, it has amounted to a 10% drop.
The decline in sex is more salient for those who are unmarried — separated, divorced or without a partner — than for those who are married, said Wilcox. He said the frequency of sex is down from last year, but comparable to 2018, so it’s hard to tell what’s happening or if the pandemic plays a role.
Experts say not having sex at least weekly doesn’t mean too much on average, so couples have to decide what it means for them.
Quality and desire are what matter, according to Stephanie Coontz, director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families and a history professor at The Evergreen State College.
It was nice to see Victorian sexual mores end, she said, “but I think we pushed it to the other extreme a little bit in terms of making people think of sex as just something that is always exciting and the more you have the better,” with the frequency deemed the marker of a relationship’s strength.
“A certain amount of change is probably due to the fact that sex is much more consensual than it used to be, and by that, I mean mutually desired,” she said. “So, you know, I’m not concerned about this kind of long-term slightening.”
Richard Petts, a professor of sociology at Ball State University, thinks stress has played at least some role in the decline, especially during the pandemic. By the time families work, take over home schooling and child care, make dinner and put the kids to bed, he said, “whatever fumes you have, you sort of try to unwind and decompress. Life is insane these days. And there’s no privacy, there’s no time alone, there’s no break. I think it’s just the craziness of life these days.”
Coontz said it’s natural if some couples have felt less desire for each other during the pandemic. “Ironically, couples who have been thrown together and social isolating since the pandemic started have been forced into having a date night every night for six months,” she said wryly.
For those who may be dissatisfied or worried, she said research suggests finding adventures, novel situations and even activities like kayaking that might feel a little dangerous can help. So can volunteering. None of those are sexual, but they light up parts of the brain that also are linked to increased desire.
Because humans are basically social creatures, pleasant interactions even with strangers create a sense of wellbeing that may improve intimacy with one’s partner, Coontz said.
As for a potential link between more political talk and less sex?
Nothing kills romance more than anger or despair, which can both be byproducts of America’s current political climate, she added.
The American Family Survey — and previous years’ results — are online at deseret.com/american-family-survey.