- Both men and women report desire for sustained intimacy beyond just sex.
- The feeling that one matters to one's partner is crucial; ambivalence in a relationship is human.
- Being on the same wavelength with one's partner is the key to long-term satisfaction.
A recent survey of 2,000 men and women, conducted by the UK dating website Illicit Encounters, looked at the top 10 things that men and women say they enjoy most about sex. It found that women listed experiencing greater bonding with their partner, reduced stress, and increased self-confidence. In contrast, men said what they enjoyed most was physical pleasure. Adding to that, they also rated at the very top of the list the thrill of “first-time sex with a new partner.”
But there’s a twist to these survey findings; it links with some new research about what can sustain an integrated emotional and sexual relationship for the long run—after “the thrill is gone.” The survey found that both men and women gave high priority to maintaining intimate connection overall—through and beyond their sexual satisfaction and immediate pleasures. Sex and its aftermath were insufficient to maintain that connection.
So what does sustain a relationship?
You can find many books, articles, and workshops that claim to answer that question. But it’s helpful when you can see actual, evidence-based information. Here are some studies that shed light on what does provide—or can undermine—that sustained mixture of emotional and sexual intimacy. One example is this study published in the Journal of Sex Research. It found that an essential factor for both men and women is feeling valued by your partner, that you matter to them.
People who felt they truly mattered to their partner—for the person they are, with all their quirks and imperfections—reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction. And that was regardless of their sexual frequency or the quality of their day-to-day communication. It’s that unspoken feeling, more sensed than directly displayed.
One reason why that feeling of being truly valued, “seen,” and accepted by your partner is crucial to long-term satisfaction is that partners will typically feel ambivalent towards each other. It may be about a partner’s decisions, their attitudes about something, or a range of things that could make you question, “Is the person I really want to be with? Did I not see that part of their personality or values in the past?”
That’s human. We’re all a mixture of qualities, positive and negative. A “multitude.” Shades of gray.
Ambivalent feelings in relationships
What is the impact of ambivalent feelings when they continue to be unresolved or just become embedded in the relationship? Here, an international study reported in Social Psychological and Personality Science found it was linked with reduced personal and relational well-being. The study described several types of ambivalence that people can experience toward their partners. But I think the essential takeaway is the question it raises: Does it reflect differences that you decide to acknowledge and accept within the larger context of feeling cared for by—and caring for—your partner? Or a different outcome? A good illustration of that question and how couples may deal with it is portrayed in the movie You Hurt My Feelings, a romantic comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies. It portrays a relationship in which uncomfortable, ambivalent feelings a couple has about each other and themselves begin erupting.
Some other empirical and clinical research has addressed that by finding couples who openly face their ambivalent feelings about each other and their connection and who appear to find paths toward mutually supportive, lasting relationships. A major factor appears to be the alignment of the couple’s life goals, a shared sense of “why we’re in this to begin with.” I find that a couple’s sense of being on the same “wavelength” about their aims for their lives together is most crucial. I’ve written about this in a previous essay—how couples build that by practicing “radical transparency” with each other.
The importance of that alignment was underscored by a major analysis of 32 studies of relationship satisfaction. Published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it found that couples that share and experience common goals about their lives report the most satisfaction. A feeling of unity about their purpose together appears to trump the natural, ambivalent feelings and conflicts that are part of any relationship.
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