Sex and the married neurotic

There are few things in this world that I truly loathe. One of those things is the show Everybody Loves Raymond.

Why, you might ask?

First of all, it’s actually quite hard to really ‘love’ Raymond. From what I’ve seen of the show (which is admittedly not much), he seems to care about three things: golf, trying (in vain) to have sex with his wife, and placating his intrusive family.

But there’s another problem – Debra isn’t innocent either.

For those who have never seen the show, Debra – the wife of the eponymous Raymond – manages to embody practically every negative stereotype about middle-aged, suburban, married women with children. She is cold towards her husband, her moods swing at the drop of a hat, and she only seems interested in having sex when she can use it as a negotiation tactic or the means to some sort of manipulative end.

As you can see in the video above, Debra is prone to mood swings, where she might cry about how much she loves her husband in one second and then shove him away as she storms upstairs in the next.

Personality psychologists would describe Debra’s temperament as highly neurotic – commonly known in everyday parlance as emotionally unstable.1 Neurotic people are more likely than their non-neurotic counterparts to experience negative emotions (such as anxiety or depression) and frequent mood swings, and would likely agree strongly with personality questions like “I change my mood a lot” or “I get irritated easily.”

Unfortunately, neuroticism isn’t cute. It’s not an adorable personality trait that we can laugh off because it’s funny that ‘women are crazy.’ First of all, the sexism inherent in that assumption is cringe-inducing. And secondly, neuroticism is particularly bad for your marriage. In fact, neuroticism is the one personality trait that best predicts marital dissatisfaction, separation, and divorce.2-3 If you want to know if a couple will still be together in 10 years, you might want to start by looking at how often both partners feel irritable or experience mood swings.

Logically, this makes sense. Neuroticism, by definition, makes a person more likely to experience negative emotions. If someone is prone to feeling sad, anxious, or irritable, this person will most likely also feel sad, anxious, or irritable about his/her relationship – and this person’s partner will likely feel less satisfied as well. After all, it’s easier to be happy when you’re around a happy person.

But there’s a catch.

Think now about Phil and Claire Dunphy, one of the couples from the current sitcom Modern Family. For those not familiar with the show, Claire is also quite neurotic; she is prone to overwhelming amounts of anxiety and has frequent bursts of extreme irritability. Yet the Dunphys generally seem much more satisfied with their marriage than Ray and Debra Barone. So what’s the difference? Both couples have been married for 20+ years. They’re both middle-aged. They both have three children.

Well, first read this quote from the Everybody Loves Raymond Wikipedia page:

Now, contrast this depiction of Ray and Debra’s sexual relationship with this clip from Modern Family – in this scene, the Dunphys are still reeling in humiliation from their three children walking in on them ‘doing the deed.’

As it turns out, this might be where (some of) the answer lies —

Phil and Claire have sex.


They’ve been married for 20 years, yet they still have excited, we-still-really-want-each-other, dress-up-as-strangers-and-pick-each-other-up-in-the-hotel-bar-on-Valentine’s-Day sex.

According to recent research, sex might be the golden ticket. After newlywed couples were surveyed several times during the first four years of their marriages, the couples who didn’t have sex frequently showed the same old pattern – the more neuroticism there was in the marriage, the more dissatisfied the partners were. However, within the couples who frequently had sex, neuroticism didn’t seem to matter at all. In fact, when neurotic couples were having a lot of sex, they were exactly as satisfied with their marriages as the non-neurotic couples.4

(You may want to argue that studying newlyweds does not say much about what that couple would be like after 20 years. However, in the original studies, neuroticism levels only predicted initial satisfaction, which in turn predicted later satisfaction and/or divorce. Neuroticism does not predict anything about how a marriage will change over time, the likelihood that an initially happy couple may become unhappy, or the different rates at which partners might reach ‘unhappiness.’ It’s safe to say that any impact of neuroticism on marital dissatisfaction in the original studies was also there when the couples were newlyweds).3

Of course, this finding begs some questions. First of all, the authors don’t specify exactly what “a lot of sex” is. However, if they used the fairly conventional approach of forming categories based on the overall mean and standard deviation, they may have defined “low frequency” as 2 times per month (or less frequent) at the very beginning, and one time every two months (or less frequent) by the 4th year of marriage. “High frequency,” on the other hand, was likely defined as around 14 times per month (or more) at the very beginning, and 12 times per month (or more) by the 4th year of marriage. But people are individual creatures, with different sex drives, wants, and needs, and each person probably has a different idea of what “a lot” or “a little” actually means – while 14 times per month might seem woefully inadequate for one person, it might be far too often for another. So what matters more – the actual number of times that you have sex per month, or feeling like you have it often enough?

Secondly, the authors make sure to control for a lot of possible objections. The time-lag design that they used convincingly rules out the possibility that being happier in the first place leads couples to have more sex as a result, and the link between sex frequency and satisfaction in neurotic couples remains even after they control for several important variables (like the quality of “nonsexual” relationship domains such as trust/communication/affection, gender, and attachment insecurity). It truly seems that the frequency of sex is what leads neurotic couples to feel happier – not the other way around, and not due to a theoretically plausible third variable.

But if this is true, the really compelling question is why? Why does sex make emotionally unstable partners more satisfied with their relationships? Does sex create a greater sense of intimacy between relationship partners, leading them to feel more ‘stable’? Is it purely neurochemical, with the frequent dopamine rushes from sex making these partners consistently happier? After all, sexual behavior one day does lead to fewer negative moods the next day.5 Are any of these differences in self-reported marital satisfaction simply biased responses based on perceived cultural norms (“We have sex more often than my friends have sex with their husbands, so we must be happy”)?

Well…here’s another intriguing twist. Sex frequency didn’t make any difference in the marital satisfaction of the non-neurotic couples – it only brought the previously-less-happy neurotic couples up to the non-neurotic couples’ satisfaction level. So, it doesn’t seem to be a general effect of sex making married couples happier – it specifically impacts neurotic couples. This makes me wonder – is there something about being ’emotionally unstable’ that leads neurotic people to actually get more out of sex than those who are more stable? Does having a brain wired for strong emotionality make neurotic people respond to sex in a way that’s simply different from others? Is sex an effective physical outlet for the extreme emotionality that accompanies neuroticism, such that people who experience erratic mood swings can release these strong emotions through sex instead of taking them out on their loved ones?

We can’t know the hows or whys quite yet. All I can say is that Debra Barone’s tactic of withholding sex when she was upset might not have been as good for her marriage as she thought.

What are your feelings on this topic? Which one of the above explanations do you think it might be? Do you have your own ideas? Do you also hate Everybody Loves Raymond? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

1 Costa, P., & McCrae, R. (1992). Normal personality assessment in clinical practice: The NEO Personality Inventory. Psychological Assessment, 4 (1), 5-13 DOI: 10.1037//1040-3590.4.1.5

2 Karney, B.R., & Bradbury, T.N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: a review of theory, method, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118 (1), 3-34 PMID: 7644604

3 Karney, B., & Bradbury, T. (1997). Neuroticism, marital interaction, and the trajectory of marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72 (5), 1075-1092 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.72.5.1075

4 Russell, V. M., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Frequent sex protects intimates from the negative implications of their neuroticism Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2 (2), 220-227 : 10.1177/1948550610387162

5 Burleson, M.H., Trevathan, W.R., & Todd, M. (2007). In the mood for love or vice versa? Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36 (3), 357-68 PMID: 17109236

11 responses to “Sex and the married neurotic

  1. Due to the fact that I am no longer in school, I don’t have the willpower to think deeply about your questions, or else I’m sure I could come up with an insightful idea as to why neurotics get more out of sex. I was also going to make some inappropriate comments here, but I think your parents read the blog, so I’m done.

  2. Could it be that the neurotic woman uses sex as a weapon of control and of power which she withholds or rations unless she gets her way or whatever she wants? And could her feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment, albeit temporary (until her next need) stem from her ‘winning’ or succeeding in deploying her sexuality to achieve her aim? Could it also be that the reason such relationships are short lived is because the partner eventually gets tired of ‘paying’ for sex and either looks for a partner who doesn’t ‘charge’ for it or pays a professional to do it right?

    • Hello Ayo,

      Thank you for your comment. I would like to respond to a few of your points:

      1. I want to be very clear that it is not only women who are neurotic. Although women do typically exhibit higher average levels of neuroticism than men, the research addresses couples with higher or lower levels of neuroticism, not just the women in them. This includes relationships where both partners are relatively high on the neuroticism scale, and also ones where the man is the more neurotic one.

      2. I would also like to reiterate the definition of neuroticism. Neuroticism is simply a tendency to experience negative emotions, like anxiety, anger, guilt, or sadness. Being prone to mood swings and negative emotions is not the same thing as being manipulative and/or deceitful, nor has anything ever shown that these two constructs go hand in hand.

      3. You make an interesting point about there being different reasons why people might gain satisfaction from sex. However, both partners were asked about their marital satisfaction, not just the more neurotic partners or the women. Also, the way they ran the study, they surveyed the couples every 6 months – they asked them to report (approximately) how many times they had sex in the past 6 months, and then asked them about how satisfied they were right at that moment. They did not survey them each time they had sex to see how happy they were right afterwards (though that would be slightly funny, and is probably a separate study entirely!) Therefore, I’m not exactly sure that any gains that either partner made “in the moment” as an immediate result of having sex would have showed up in a marital satisfaction survey six months later.

      4. Finally, with regards to your last sentence, the main point of the study was that neurotic couples who have a lot of sex are actually less likely to be dissatisfied and/or end up divorcing. This suggests that the less-neurotic partners are not tired of the nature of their sex lives at all – quite the opposite.

  3. Great post! It’s always good to find another person who can’t stand ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. Honestly, with such boring storylines, unlikeable characters, and a complete lack off meaningful occurences or diversity, I don’t know why anyone liked it at all. However, I’m just writing with response to the neuroticism question.
    Negative mood states (depression, anxiety, irritability, etc.) typically tend to be quite personally taxing . Not only can thier persistence lead to physical ailments (such as demetia and GI problems), but if they are present in high amounts, ones personal and professional life can suffer as well. Ergo, those more prone to experiencing negative mood states–i.e., neurotic individuals–are probably more prone to experiencing the negative consequences as well. Most people do not like to be in constant pain, and since these negative consequences tend to result in plenty of physical and mental pain, it only makes sense that any break from it will be more appreciated from someone who must constantly face it, then someone who does not. Basically, just as a starving person will benefit more from a big lunch then a hungry person who has no real problems with physical nourishment, so too will a person who constantly experiences mental pain benefit more from a break then a person who experiences mental pain in more typical amounts.
    That’s what I think, anyway. Sorry it’s so verbose and awkwardky worded…

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  6. Why do I like ‘Everybody Loves Raymond? Because it speaks a truth many people, including myself, do not want to believe of themselves. We all have an agenda, are driven too often by ‘selfish’ motives, desire to think the best of ourselves. like the show because the underlying message says room for improvement, and the need to hope for such is possible despite our limitations. The comedy speaks to hope despite disagreement, to what kind of thoughts allow us to magnify that state…including the anticipation of sex or the survival of lack, thereof. Raymond is a comedy of such conflict. No character is innocent, certainly not Raymond, not even the parish priest. The message allows for survival of the family despite friction. Yes it stereotypes, it magnifies aspects of personal bias and resultant friction through caricature. Thank you. I enjoyed reading your article.

  7. Wow great article. I have always wondered why my husband is the way he is. Then I learned about the BIG FIVE, and boy was it big. He is a neuritic personality to the “T”, with a touch of consciencetiousness, which makes him very detailed, motivated and thoughtful sharing his irrational angers, depressed, anxious filled hell. All these years, I thought I was so terrible, and now I realize he is just predispositioned to be depressed. Always too angry for sex, never happy with anything…maybe I should have taken mote when he said his favorite song is “if I had no bad luck I’d have no luck at all”

  8. I just searched on Google if neurotic women can have a happy marriage (I am one) and got to this site. My ex left me after 5 years living together and I am sure me being a neurotic woman had a big role on his decision. I’m just wondering how can a neurotic person change? Or is she/he cursed for life of having negative feelings and mood swings? I am not depressed though I’ve been down suffering from sadness and anxiety since my ex left me more than a year ago, and before that my life was pretty much a drama with lots of internal doubts and conflicts. I go to a therapy and after 2 years she just told me today that I am neurotic.

    • Hi Marie,

      I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. I will try and help however I can, but I should note first and foremost that I am not a trained clinician, nor do I study clinical psychology, so I cannot officially offer any professional clinical/medical advice.

      That said, here is some advice I can offer based on my knowledge of social/personality psychology:

      1. One of the best things that you can try and do is train yourself to engage in cognitive re-construal of events. What this means is that when something negative happens, try to “re-frame” it in your mind to interpret it a different way. For example, if your first impulse is to interpret your partner being late for something as a sign that he is angry or trying to hurt you, try to step back and think of other possible explanations first. Maybe there was heavy traffic, or he got held up at work? If you train yourself to stop and re-focus on these types of explanations, gradually you will find it easier not to “jump to conclusions” that might be dangerous for your relationship.

      2. Physical activity is one of the best, healthiest, natural remedies for all kinds of negative moods, including depression and anxiety. If you do not already engage in regular physical exercise, try doing moderate physical activity for 20-30 minutes, 3 days per week. This can be as mild as taking a walk or doing some light yoga/stretching, or as intense as going for a run or taking a spin class. Yoga has proven mood-enhancing and stress-relieving benefits, and cardio exercise like spinning or running releases endorphins and can raise positive moods. All physical activity can help reduce stress and improve mood, as well as improve the quality of sleep, etc.

      3. Finally, an important thing to remember is that “biology is not destiny.” It is great that you wish to change and improve your life and your well-being. You are not “destined” or “cursed” to be a slave to anything. As I’ve mentioned earlier, things like reconstruing events and engaging in exercise can help you gain control over your emotions and make positive changes in your life. A good cognitive-behavioral therapist will be able to better help you develop skills for training yourself to overcome your emotions and view things more positively. I hope that your therapist is able to help you do that; speak to her about that sort of skill development.

      Best of luck,

  9. I was looking at some of your posts on this website and I believe this web site is rattling informative! Keep posting.

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