An old joke asks, “How can lovers destroy the quality of their sex?” Answer: Get married.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. After the wedding, the vast majority of married people continue to make love and enjoy it. But the joke reflects the widely held belief that as the years pass, the heat of their sex cools. The research shows that time does, indeed, take a toll on sexual quality, but the decrease is smaller than many people believe. And with a little effort, old married couples can actually enjoy sexual improvement.

Frequency Vs. Quality

Before delving into quality, let’s deal with time’s toll on sexual frequency. No question about it, in long-term relationships, over time, sexual frequency almost always declines. Couples differ, but most follow a predictable pattern. When the two people first fall in love, they can’t keep their hands off each other. But the hot-and-heavy period typically lasts only six months to two years, after which sexual frequency declines for several reasons:

• The novelty wears off. This is biochemical. The excitement of new relationships triggers a spike in blood levels of the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) dopamine, which is strongly associated with sexual desire. But familiarity reduces dopamine. Over time, sexual urgency subsides and frequency declines.

• Fantasy yields to reality. New lovers are “perfect strangers.” The two people don’t know each other well, and view one another through rose-colored glasses that accent the positive. But over time, as they become better acquainted, lovers must confront each other’s imperfections. Love and attachment may deepen, but initial fantasies fade, replaced by more realistic, more ambivalent reality. That tends to reduce sexual frequency.

• Life intrudes. During the hot-and-heavy period, new lovers bend over backward to make time for one another and for sex. But over time, making a living, paying bills, children, and other obligations reduce lovers’ focus on each other. Long-term couples typically spend less time together and have less sex.

• Sex tends to become routine. Early in relationships, sex is new, fresh, and exhilarating. But over time, most couples fall into erotic routines that may feel mutually satisfying but also feel old. Boredom reduces frequency.

If both lovers’ sexual desire decline in synch, all remains well in the relationship. But typically, one libido declines more than the other’s and a desire difference develops. If the difference is pronounced, it can become a festering sore. “You’re insatiable!” “You never want to!” Desire differences can drive people crazy, and now rank as a leading reason why couples consult sex therapists.

Sex therapists have developed a program that helps most couples overcome desire differences and the resentments they cause. On the site I publish, GreatSexGuidance.com, I offer an article that describes this program and guides couples through it. Check out “How Sex Therapists Recommend Overcoming Desire Differences.”

If the article doesn’t restore harmony in your relationship, I suggest consulting a sex therapist for individual counseling. For more on sex therapy, read my article, “An Intimate Look at Sex Therapy.” Or see the movie “Hope Springs” with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology.

Now What About Quality?

One might argue that sexual quality declines for the same reasons as frequency. But one might also argue that despite lower frequency, as couples learn each other’s intimate likes and dislikes, sexual quality might improve.

So which is it? To tease out the answer, a sociologist at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York, analyzed a survey of 1,550 married couples interviewed for the National Health and Social Life Survey, an ongoing project based at the University of Chicago. Turns out the over time, there’s a “small negative effect” on the quality of sex—but quality declines less than the old joke suggests.

Three factors independently predict deterioration of sexual quality:

• Duration. The older the relationship, the more loss of sexual quality, but even in decades-old marriages, the decline is small.

Gender. Compared with men, women tend to feel less satisfied with married sex. Why? Married women have lower rates of orgasm than men. Many men don’t understand that few women have orgasms during intercourse, that most need direct clitoral stimulation, which, unfortunately, many men don’t provide. And when men don’t, women are unlikely to come during partner sex, which leaves them erotically unsatisfied (and often reaching for vibrators after Mr. Clueless falls asleep).

• Cohabitation. Compared with married couples, long-term unmarried couples report lower sexual quality. Researchers speculate that gender is key. Compared with men, women tend to place more value on the commitment that marriage signifies, and if they remain unmarried, women’s sexual satisfaction suffers.

On the other hand, education has a positive effect on sexual quality. As education increases, couples tend to be more open to sexual experimentation—new moves, different locations, toys, lingerie, and other enhancements—and novelty boosts sexual quality.

How To Keep Sex Fresh and Exciting

Now that we understand what reduces sexual quality, it’s not difficult to enhance it:

• Avoid sexual ruts. Try new things—anything that makes sex feel fresh and new again. Trade foot massages before you undress. Bathe or shower together beforehand. Add music, scented candles, lubricant, sex toys. Make love in different places, in new ways, at different times. Novelty boosts dopamine—and sexual satisfaction. That’s why sex in hotels usually feels hotter than sex at home.

• Appreciate the clitoris. While most women enjoy the special closeness of vaginal intercourse, a substantial research literature shows that the old in-out brings only around 25 percent of women consistently to orgasm. (If you’re interested in this literature, read The Case of the Female Orgasm by Elizabeth Lloyd, Harvard University Press, 2005.) To come, most women need gentle, direct clitoral caresses by hand, tongue, vibrator, or other toys. Gentlemen, if this is news to you, ask your lover to coach you on how she likes to be touched and kissed and licked down there.

• Tie the knot. Sure, marriage is just a piece of paper, but compared with cohabitators, married couples report better sex.

• Read something. Bookstores and the Internet abound with resources for improving sex. What you read matters less than simply taking an active interest in improving things between the sheets. That said, I humbly offer my own e-book, The Best of GreatSexGuidance.com, which contains more than 100 articles on all aspects of sex with an emphasis on erotic enhancement.

Of course, I don’t have all the answers. Many couples in long-term relationships have figured out ways to keep their lovemaking fresh, exciting, and satisfying. If you’re among them, what do YOU recommend?

References:

Jasso, G. “Marital Coital Frequency and the Passage of Time: Estimating the Separate Effects of Spouses’ Ages and Marital Duration, Birth and Marriage Cohorts, and Period Influences,” American Sociological Review (1985) 50:224.

Kinsey, A. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1948.

Kinsey, A. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1953.

Klusmann, D. “Sexual Motivation and the Duration of Partnership,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2002) 31:275.

Liu, C. “Does Quality of Marital Sex Decline with Duration?” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2003) 32:55.

Santtila, P. et al. “Discrepancies Between Sexual Desire and Sexual Activity: Gender Differences and Associations with Relationship Satisfaction,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2008) 34:31.

You are reading

All About Sex

Sex in America: 45 Years of Often Contradictory Changes

Teen sex is down, but casual adult sex is up. What’s going on?

The Nine Ingredients of Great Sex

Enjoying great sex isn’t all that complicated. Just embrace these nine elements.

If the Woman You Love Gets Sexually Assaulted

How men can help rape survivors recover.