There’s no great mystery involved in understanding why couples become less sexually active as their relationship matures. As passionate love mellows into a relationship characterized by intimacy and companionship, long-term couples will almost certainly have sex less frequently. The demands of daily life and the reality of taking care of a household mean that many couples devote less time exclusively to their physical relationship.
However, not everyone experiences the same set of change in their sex lives. We may prefer not to think about grandma having sex, but plenty of older couples continue to maintain physical intimacy well into their later years. There are benefits of maintaining an active sex life throughout life, as shown by researchers studying sexual life expectancy. If for no other reason than to benefit your mental and physical well-being, figuring out the formula for staying sexually active with your long-term partner seems like a good idea.
To answer the question “What keeps the sexual spark alive in long-term relationships?,” University of Toronto psychologist Amy Muise and her collaborators (2013) studied 44 couples who were in relationships lasting from 3 to 39 years. On average, these couples were together approximately 11 years; all were living together and about two-thirds were married. About half of the couples had children. These couples, then, represented a range of length and types of relationship and family status.
Unlike many studies on relationships that involve undergraduates completing questionnaires over the course of an hour or so for experimental credit, these participants stuck with the study for 3 weeks, answering 10 minutes of questions each night. They were paid a modest amount ($40), and about three-quarters responded to a follow-up survey about 4 months after completing the daily ratings.
To maintain strong sexual connections, Muise and her team argued, requires that each partner in the couple put the other partner’s needs first. Like the impoverished couple in O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi, a partner in successful long-term relationship is willing to sacrifice what he or she needs to be happy in order to please the other person. Rather than becoming a tale or woe, however, the self-sacrificing that happy couples make should bring joy to both of them. This view of relationships, known as the communal model, contrasts to the exchange model in which Partner A weighs his or her own contributions against those of Partner B. Couples strong on exchange motivation only help partners who help them in turn.
In a relationship characterized by high communal strength, you would be willing to give up the convenience of a relatively short commute to work if by moving a bit further away, your partner would also have a shorter distance to travel. In the exchange relationship, you’d only make this sacrifice if your partner would agree to some other condition, such as contributing more to household chores or help out more with child care.
If you’re a communal type of person, the benefits of a relationship premised on this model would seem obvious. Your partner’s happiness becomes more important than your own, and there’s an inner satisfaction and even delight that you get out of giving. Making the next logical jump to the sexual domain of your relationship, wanting to please your partner can be more of a turn on than expecting your partner to reciprocate your every sensual gesture.
There’s more to long-lasting sex than wanting to please your partner, however. Muise and her fellow researchers believed that scoring high on approach motivation would also benefit your long-term satisfaction in the bedroom. In high approach motivation, you look to sex for the pleasures it provides, either to yourself or your partner. Why else would someone want to have sex, you might ask? However, think about situations in which sex provides a way to distract yourself from your problems or those of your partner. In avoidance motivation, partners regard sex almost as a form of stress reduction or escapism.
Putting these two dimensions together, Muise and team believed that couples high in both communal and approach motivation would have sexual relationships that would withstand the test of time. They measured communal strength in general with questions such as “How large a cost would you incur to meet a need of your partner?” and communal sexual strength by asking, for example, “How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?”
In the daily rating questions, participants reported whether or not they had sex that day, and each time, they indicated whether it was to enhance theirs or their partner’s pleasure (approach) or to avoid feeling upset, either for themselves or their partners (avoidance). The participants provided overall ratings of their relationship happiness, sexual desire, and preference for alternative relationships. On average, participants reported having sexual activity once a week, with a range of once per day to once every 10 days.
By following their participants over the 3-week period (with the additional 4-month follow-up), Muise and her collaborators were able to track the connection between sexual motivation, desire, and relationship satisfaction. As they expected, the partners with higher levels of sexual communal strength (and not just general communal strength) had higher levels of sexual desire, especially if they were also higher in approach motivation. These findings persisted over time so that the higher the communal-approach motivation, the less decline the couples showed in their satisfaction with the relationship.
There is a clear take-home message in this research. Using sex in exchange for other favors reaps few rewards in a long-term relationship. You also will receive diminishing returns from using sex as a way to escape either your problems, those of your partner, or those that plague you as a couple in general.
You don’t have to be a complete pushover and never expect your partner to satisfy your needs to have a sexually intimate relationship that withstands the test of time. However, we can learn from this study that it’s important not to keep a relationship scorecard, particularly in the bedroom. Be willing to give more than you receive, and it’s possible that both of you will continue to receive sexual happiness for many years to come.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Keeping the spark alive: Being motivated to meet a partner's sexual needs sustains sexual desire in long-term romantic relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 267-273. doi:10.1177/1948550612457185