Relationships Among Sexual Satisfactin, Marital Quality, and Marital
Instability at Midlife
Hsiu-Chen Yeh, Frederick O. Lorenz, and
K. A. S. Wickrama
Iowa State University
Rand D. Conger
University of California, Davis
Glen H. Elder, Jr.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Sexual satisfaction, marital quality, and marital instability have been studied over the life
course of couples in many previous studies, but less in relation to each other. On the basis of
the longitudinal data from 283 married couples, the authors used autoregressive models in this
study to examine the causal sequences among these 3 constructs for husbands and wives
separately. Results of cross-lagged models, for both husbands and wives, provided support for
the causal sequences that proceed from sexual satisfaction to marital quality, from sexual
satisfaction to marital instability, and from marital quality to marital instability. Initially
higher levels of sexual satisfaction resulted in an increase in marital quality, which in turn led
to a decrease in marital instability over time. Effects of sexual satisfaction on marital
instability appear to have been mediated through marital quality.
Keywords: autoregressive models, marital instability, marital quality, midlife, sexual
Many empirical studies have reported a significant posi-
tive association between sexual satisfaction and marital
quality (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Cupach & Comstock,
1990; Edwards & Booth, 1994; Henderson-King & Veroff,
1994; Lawrance & Byers, 1995; Oggins, Leber, & Veroff,
1993; Young, Luquis, Denny, & Young, 1998). A few
longitudinal studies also reported that sexual satisfaction
was negatively predictive of marital instability (Edwards &
Booth, 1994; Oggins et al., 1993; Veroff, Douvan, & Hatch-
ett, 1995; White & Keith, 1990). Karney and Bradbury’s
(1995) review of longitudinal studies on marriage also
showed that marital satisfaction was more strongly related
to marital stability (aggregate rs ranged from .14 to .42)
than most other predictor variables. However, the causal
sequences among sexual satisfaction, marital quality, and
marital instability have not been carefully examined.
Because most previous research has been cross-sectional,
and no more than two waves of data linking the three
constructs were included in previous longitudinal studies,
specific causal connections were usually based on research-
ers’ decisions, rather than on empirical evidence (Christo-
pher & Sprecher, 2000; Sprecher, 2002; Sprecher & Cate,
2004). Moreover, Booth, Johnson, and Edwards (1983)
have defined marital instability as “affective and cognitive
states along the related actions that are precedent to termi-
nating a relationship” and “a situation in an intact dyad, not
to ones that already have been disrupted” (p. 392). How-
ever, most researchers have commonly relied on separation
and divorce statistics (i.e., consequences of instability) to
represent marital instability. Furthermore, because most
previous studies on sexual satisfaction have mostly focused
on newlyweds and young couples (Henderson-King & Ver-
off, 1994; Kurdek, 1993; Oggins et al., 1993), little is
known about variability in sexual satisfaction among long-
married couples. To carefully examine the interrelationships
among the three variables, we used five waves of panel data
on sexual satisfaction, marital quality, and marital stability
collected over 11 years from married husbands and wives at
Sample and Procedures
Husbands and wives in the current study were those who had
originally participated in the Iowa Youth and Families Project
between 1989 and 1994 and continued participating into the Iowa
Midlife Transitions Project in 2001 (see Conger & Elder, 1994;
Lorenz, Wickrama, & Yeh, 2002, for details). Because sexual
satisfaction variables were not included in the 1989 survey, only
the last five waves (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, and 2001) of data
Hsiu-Chen Yeh, Frederick O. Lorenz, and K. A. S. Wickrama,
Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, Iowa State Univer-
sity; Rand D. Conger, Department of Human and Community
Development, University of California, Davis; Glen H. Elder, Jr.,
Departments of Sociology and Psychology, University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Hsiu-Chen Yeh, W112 Lagomarcino Hall, Iowa State University,
Ames, IA 50011-3180. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Family Psychology
2006, Vol. 20, No. 2, 339–343
Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association
were used in the present study. Missing values between 1990 and
1994 were estimated with the expectation-maximization algorithm.
A total of 283 (67%) of the 424 families participating in 1990 were
included in the analyses for staying through the study with com-
pleted data. Results of attrition analyses revealed that respondents
included in the analyses were likely to be more sexually satisfied
and to have more satisfying and stable marriages than those who
were excluded from analyses. Because respondents in our sample
were intact dyads, either married (98%) or living with someone in
a steady relationship (2%), the definition of marital instability used
in this study corresponds with the definition of Booth et al. (1983).
positive behaviors and feelings that respondents expressed about
their sexual relationship were used to assess sexual satisfaction
(e.g., “My spouse and I have a wonderful sex life,” “Sex isn’t very
important to me,” and “My spouse is happy with our sex life”;
Conger & Wickrama, 1993; ?s ? .82 for husbands and wives at
each wave). For this and all remaining variables, responses were
coded such that higher scores indicated higher levels of the
Two global items (Fincham & Bradbury,
1987), asking respondents how happy (on a 6-point scale) and
satisfied (on a 5-point scale) they were with their marriages, were
used to assess marital quality (?s ? .74 for husbands and wives
The five-item short form of the Marital
Instability Index (Booth et al., 1983) was used to measure marital
instability (e.g., “Thought the relationship might be in trouble” and
“Talked about consulting an attorney about a possible separation
or divorce”). It is a behaviorally oriented assessment of the pro-
pensity to separate or get divorced in the near future of respondents
in intact dyads, on a 4-point scale (?s ? .80 for husbands and
wives across waves).
Family income adjusted by household size,
years married, and neuroticism were included as controls (see
Karney & Bradbury, 1995, for details). Neuroticism was measured
with 12 items from the NEO Personality Inventory (Costa &
McCrae, 1985) on a 5-point scale (? ? .87 for both husbands and
Eight items on a 5-point scale concerning
We began our analyses by fitting a series of five-wave,
two-variable autoregressive (both cross-lagged and contem-
porary) models to the data to examine the causal directions
between any two of the three constructs. After that, we
examined the relationships among the three constructs for
possible spurious, mediating, and reciprocal effects. Be-
cause fitting both cross-lagged and contemporary autore-
gressive models resulted in the same conclusion, only re-
sults of cross-lagged models are reported. Analyses were
conducted for husbands and wives separately, because
many previous studies have suggested that sex may have
different meanings to men and women in their relationship
(Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001; Hatfield, Sprecher,
Pillemer, Greenberger, & Wesler, 1989; Patton & Waring,
1985; Rosenzweig & Dailey, 1989; Sprecher, 2002). We
estimated all of the model parameters with methods of
maximum likelihood using LISREL (Jo ¨reskog & So ¨rbom,
1996). The completely standardized path coefficients and fit
indices of each cross-lagged model for husbands and wives
are presented in Figure 1.
In Figure 1, for husbands and wives, all three of the
constructs were relatively stable over time, and all of the
model fit indices indicated a good fit with the data (see
Figure 1). For both husbands and wives, results showed that
higher levels of sexual satisfaction at one point in time
predicted an increase in marital quality at the next point in
time, but earlier marital quality did not predict greater
sexual satisfaction at a later time (see Figure 1A). Results
also showed that higher levels of sexual satisfaction at one
point in time consistently led to a decrease in marital insta-
bility at the next point in time, but earlier marital instability
did not predict later lower levels of sexual satisfaction (see
Figure 1B). Further, the effects of earlier marital quality on
later marital instability were much stronger than the effects
of earlier marital instability on later marital quality (see
Figure 1C). In summary, results provided evidence support-
ing the causal sequences that proceed from sexual satisfac-
tion to marital quality, from sexual satisfaction to marital
instability, and from marital quality to marital instability.
On the basis of the causal sequences indicated by the
results in Figure 1, we included sexual satisfaction, marital
quality, and marital instability in a single three-variable,
five-wave cross-lagged model to examine the interrelation-
ships among them. In Figure 1D, for both husbands and
wives, all the paths linking earlier sexual satisfaction di-
rectly to later marital instability became nonsignificant in
the presence of significant and stronger paths linking earlier
sexual satisfaction to later marital quality and earlier marital
quality to later marital instability. This is the evidence of the
mediating effects of marital quality. Accordingly, we are led
to conclude that relatively high levels of sexual satisfaction
predict later decreases in marital instability indirectly
through the positive effects of sexual satisfaction on marital
quality. Moreover, the relationship between marital quality
and marital instability is not likely to be spurious because of
their associations with sexual satisfaction.
Having longitudinal data collected from intact couples on
sexual satisfaction, marital quality, and marital instability
provided a unique opportunity to clarify the interrelation-
ships among them. First, results of the three two-variable
Figure 1 (opposite).
(SS) and marital quality (MQ); (B) SS and marital instability (MI); (C) MQ and MI; and (D) SS,
MQ, and MI. Values above the line represent results for husbands, and values below the line
represent results for wives. RMSEA ? root-mean-square error of approximation; GFI ? goodness
of fit index; CFI ? comparative fit index.
Autoregressive models with cross-lagged effects for (A) sexual satisfaction
cross-lagged models indicated that earlier sexual satisfac-
tion was predictive of changes in both marital quality and
marital instability, and earlier marital quality was predictive
of changes in marital instability. This was evident even after
we controlled for the competing effects of social, economic,
and personality variables. These results are consistent with
social exchange and behavioral theories, which argue that
sexual satisfaction serves as rewards as well as positive
interactive experiences to make important contributions to
couples’ positive evaluations on marriages (see Karney &
Bradbury, 1995; Sprecher & Cate, 2004, for details). Sec-
ond, there is evidence showing the mediating effects of
marital quality. Those who were satisfied with their sexual
relations tended to be satisfied and happy with their mar-
riages, and better marital quality, in turn, helped reduce
marital instability. In contrast, little evidence suggested that
marital stability affects changes in martial quality or that
marital quality affects changes in sexual satisfaction. Third,
the causal sequences among the three constructs and the
mediating effects of marital quality hold for both husbands’
and wives’ models. It suggests that the effects of sex on
marital relationships are essential, and the causal sequence
whereby sexual satisfaction influences marital relationships
is similar for both men and women, even though sex may
have different meanings to men and women in their
The generalizability of the results from this study may be
limited for several reasons. First, the respondents were rural
White couples at midlife (age in 40s and 50s) who had been
married for an average of 30 years. This was a group from
which one expects high stability, and the distribution of
marital instability in the present study was right-skewed.
Second, those who were less satisfied with their sexual life
and marriages tended to drop out of the study, and thus our
sample underrepresented couples who were initially located
in the lower end of the sexual satisfaction and marital
quality distributions. As a result, our estimated coefficients
may have represented a lower bound in the strength of the
relationships. Third, although the measure of sexual satis-
faction used in this study has strong internal consistency and
good face validity (correlations between sexual satisfaction
and marital interaction activities, marital closeness, and
marital commitment that were not used in the model testing
ranged from .31 to .48; all ps ? .001), it has not been
correlated with other types of information pertaining to
couples’ sexual satisfaction, such as compatibility of cou-
ples’ attitudes and frequency of sexual orgasm.
A positive side of our findings is that there is substantial
variability and strong connection among sexual satisfaction,
marital quality, and marital instability with long-married
couples—those who are often presumed to have, and in
effect had, more stable marriages than those couples who
dropped out of our study. We suspect that the relationships
reported in the present study would have been even stronger
if more lower-end cases had been included in the sample.
The strength of these findings should spur more detailed and
careful research of newlyweds, ethnic groups with higher
divorce rates, and couples with younger children, where we
could expect to see even greater variability.
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Received October 15, 2004
Revision received February 14, 2005
Accepted March 20, 2005 ?