Most couples remember their “honeymoon period,” where they could think of nothing but getting each other into the bedroom and staying there for good. While that kind of sexual obsession isn’t sustainable over the long term, two recent studies prove that you can have a satisfying long-term sex life if you commit to certain behaviors over the long haul.
A Chapman University psychologist and his interdisciplinary research team were curious about how long-term heterosexual partners kept their love lights burning. In one of the largest studies to date, they examined more than 38,700 married or cohabiting men and women in the U.S. who had been with their partner for at least three years. The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, scientifically examined what contributes to a satisfying long-term sex life. The findings were not surprising: “Sexual satisfaction and maintenance of passion were higher among people who had sex more frequently, received more oral sex, had more consistent orgasms, incorporated more variety of sexual acts, took the time to set a mood and practiced effective sexual communication,” said David Frederick, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University and lead author of the study. “Almost half of satisfied and dissatisfied couples read sexual self-help books and magazines and articles, but what set sexually satisfied couples apart was that they actually tried some of the ideas.”
“Partners who are responsive to each other outside the bedroom are able to maintain their sexual desire.”
By asking the study participants to reflect upon and rate their sex satisfaction during their “honeymoon period” and then rate it for the present day, the research team discovered that 83 percent of people were sexually satisfied in the first six months of the relationship, but only half of them reported currently being satisfied (43 percent of men and 55 percent of women), with the remainder feeling neutral (16 percent of men, 18 percent of women) or dissatisfied (41 percent of men and 27 percent of women).
“We looked at common romantic and sexual behaviors that are rarely assessed in the literature but are likely important contributors to sexual satisfaction,” said Frederick. “For example, while sexual variety is deemed important for sexual satisfaction, evidence on the effectiveness of specific forms of variety—such as showering together or wearing lingerie or use of sex toys—is lacking.”
See also: What Makes Love Last
The couples that reported being satisfied consistently engaged in affectionate behaviors like cuddling, gentle and deep kissing, laughing together during sexual activity, sexual novelty (new positions, fantasies, toys), taking time to set a mood with candles or music, and using loving or flirty communication during sex or during the day. Satisfied couples also gave and received more oral sex, orgasmed more frequently and had sex more often than dissatisfied couples.
Feeling desired by one’s partner is a libido boost, too, but this was more of a problem for men than women, with 59 percent of men and 42 percent of women reporting they felt less desired by their partner now than in the beginning. Yet, 66 percent of men and 50 percent of women reported feeling as much—or more —desire for their partner now than when their relationship first started.
Dr. Janet Lever, a co-author on the study was buoyed by the findings. “It was encouraging to learn that more than one-third of couples kept passion alive, even after a decade or two together,” she said. But it’s not just random luck. “That won’t happen on autopilot; these couples made a conscious effort to ward off routinization of sex.”
In another recent study, researchers Gurit Birnbaum and Harry Reis discovered that desire is strongly affected by a partner’s responsiveness in daily life. “Partners who are responsive to each other outside the bedroom are able to maintain their sexual desire,” said Birnbaum, a psychology professor at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was co-authored by Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
Responsiveness includes behaviors like listening and getting the facts right; making one’s partner feel respected; communicating feelings of affection. The study defined desire as flirting, flashing seductive smiles and exchanging penetrating gazes.
Responsiveness is a type of intimacy, so important to a relationship because it’s proof that each partner is genuinely concerned with the welfare of the other. Responsiveness signals that partners are open and informed about what each other care about and want. Birnbaum said that responsive partners invest resources in the relationship—time, attention—and show understanding at a deep level. Through their actions, they make the relationship feel unique, which Birnbaum says is what people in Western societies seek from their romantic relationships.
Both researchers were intrigued by something called the “intimacy-desire paradox,” the academic term for the contradiction between intimate and familiar relationships, and the impact of familiarity on desire. Scholars have debated that long-term intimacy may actually inhibit rather than increase sexual desire because the need for security may outweigh or contradict the sense of novelty and surprise that keeps desire alive. But so far, it’s just a debate. Previous research has not provided conclusive evidence for whether an increased sense of intimacy actually promotes or undermines sexual desire. Birnbaum and Reis’ new study suggests that under certain circumstances, there may not be a paradox after all.
Intimacy itself doesn’t elevate or inhibit desire, but how intimacy plays out in the context of the relationship is what moves the dial one way or another. “Intimacy is a broad concept with many manifestations,” explains Birnbaum. “Less personal manifestations of intimacy, such as familiarity and comfort with each other's company, are not necessarily based on this sort of shared recognition of oneself and what one truly wants, and may therefore be less likely to generate the underlying feelings that seem to be crucial to instigating desire in a long-term relationship.” Responsiveness, say the researchers, is most likely to encourage desire. That’s because it conveys the impression that the partner is worth pursuing and thus engaging in sex feels like it’s improving an already valuable relationship.
Partner responsiveness—which was self-reported by 100 couples who kept a diary for six weeks—had a significantly stronger effect on women’s perceptions of themselves and others. The researchers believe this is because they were more likely than men to feel special, and in turn value their partner because of their partner’s responsiveness. Birnbaum explains: “Because responsiveness signals that a partner has ‘special’ (that is, over and above that of casual acquaintances) concern with one's welfare in a way that is informed about one's needs and wishes, it makes both men and women feel valued and cared for and appreciate their responsive partner more as a mate. These perceptions, in turn, lead them to desire their partner more.”
See also: New Ways to Spice Up Your Sex Life
Birnbaum says that there is ample research that confirms women are more selective when choosing mates than men are, and that women emphasize their partner’s potential as a good partner and parent more than men do. Because of this, women look for behaviors and actions that signify a man’s care-giving skills and investment in the relationship. This perceived responsiveness has a stronger effect on women’s desire because they value it more. “Women typically invest more in each offspring than men do and thus they have more to lose from a poor mating choice. Hence, they pay more attention than men to a partner's behavioral cues that indicate their willingness to invest in the relationship. Being responsive is one such cue, and that's why women give it more weight when forming impressions: Women's perceptions of themselves (as being special) and their partner (as being valued) are more influenced by expressions of responsiveness.”
“On a practical level,” says Birnbaum, “one thing that partners can do easily enough is simply pay attention to what the other is saying. Allow sufficient time to engage in mutual conversation and listen with an open mind. Really listen, without interrupting or pre-judging or showing off, and then do one’s best to give the partner’s needs, wishes and desires every bit as much importance (if not more) than one’s own. Sexual desire thrives on increasing intimacy, and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time; better than any pyrotechnic sex.”