You know those couples that just look like their sexual passion is alive and well? The ones who spontaneously and easily touch and kiss each other in public? Or maybe you have a friend who, when the conversation turn to sex and intimacy, shares an exciting story that makes you think, wow, that sounds fun (and then wonder if perhaps your sex life could use a bit of spicing up)?
Have you ever wondered why these couples experience ongoing passion and higher levels of sexual desire, while others feel that the passion and desire wane over time? Are they just lucky? Or are they doing something differently?
Over the course of my research, I interviewed two groups of women (aged 18 to 29) in longer-term relationships (at least 2.5 years or longer) to find out. One study included women who felt that their sexual spark was alive and well, while the other group reported experiencing a wane in desire as their relationship progressed. After interviewing the women about their experiences, I compared their responses to see if there were any differences — and what, if anything, we could learn from these "high-desire women" about maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships.
It turns out there were three things that women in passionate sexual relationships were doing differently:
1. Staying Mentally Present During Sex
When you're having sex, do you feel your mind wandering? Maybe you're making a grocery list for the dinner party you're hosting next weekend. Or painstakingly going over that awkward conversation you had with your boss at work earlier that day. Or are you able to focus on the moment, tuning in to the touches and sensations?
Mindfulness appears to be a crucial component to feeling higher levels of sexual desire. Women in my study who self-identified as having higher levels of sexual desire said they were able to stay present and focused during sexual activity, while women in the decreased desire group indicated that they found their mind would wander while having sex. For example:
High: ‘‘If we decide we want to have sex, it’s just like, forget about everything else right now. I’ll just concentrate on pleasing my partner, and he’ll concentrate on pleasing me. Being in the moment ... I don’t let anything get in the way.”
Low: ‘‘I feel like I have to work pretty hard at focusing on, okay, this is time that we’re spending together, instead of, this is what I have to do tomorrow. My mind wanders a lot during [sexual activity], which doesn’t help.’’
2. Positive Interpretation of Monotony and Routine
As relationships become longer term, it is natural to fall into a more “comfortable” routine. We go from wearing nice outfits to sweatpants, going out for dinners to eating popcorn in front of the TV, and our sex lives tend to fall into a routine as well. Interestingly, it seems that it is not the monotony and routine of our sex lives that matters as much as women’s perceptions of that routine.
Women in the high-desire group were more likely to say they liked routine. They indicated that over time, their partner had learned how to please them, and they liked keeping things familiar and predictable. They said this led to more sexual satisfaction and higher desire. On the other hand, women in the decreased desire group described routine as boring and a killer of their interest in sex. They craved new experiences that they felt they were not getting in their relationship. For example:
High: "There is an element of routine at this point, but it’s not a bad thing. We know what each other likes, and we know what works for each other, and that’s why we do it, you know?”
Low: ‘‘I don’t understand it. Whenever I have a shower ... he’ll get into the shower with me. And we’ll make out, and we might have sex or fool around. But even those not so typical things almost have become routine. So it’s kind of frustrating.’’
3. Making Sex a Priority
It's completely natural for desire to ebb and flow over the course of a relationship. Having a sexual slump isn't the issue. It's what you and your partner decide to do about such slumps that matters.
The women in the high-desire group acknowledged that sexual passion wasn’t a permanently super-charged experience. Rather, they said that they experienced sexual ups and downs, but when they were in a rut they noticed it, talked about it, and did something to spice things up. Women in the waning desire group, on the other hand, indicated that when they hit a slump, they took more of a passive role and didn’t do a lot (if anything) to address those concerns. For example:
High: ‘‘There are some times, over the course of six years, at one point or another, I’m like, okay, this is becoming really routine. Then we, like, switch it up, and we try to make it more exciting. Because we don’t want to fall into that pattern of like, every night this is what we’re going to do. There have been points where I have felt that way ... but it doesn’t last that long. We get over it, we spice things up.’’
Low: ‘‘I think it’s just that the interest kind of peaks off a little bit, and we don’t put as much effort as we probably should into our relationship. But I mean, I think after a while you get out of that ‘just together for our 6-month honeymoon period’ and you just get used to it.’’
What Does This Mean for You?
The great thing about these findings is that the women who experienced maintained passion and desire in their relationships didn't have amazing secrets or super sexual powers. In other words, there weren't intrinsic characteristics and personalities that led to higher or lower levels of desire. Instead, women with high desire held certain — and realistic — perspectives about what sex in longer-term relationships should look like, and had embraced them.
Being present during sexual activity, making sex a priority in your relationship, and actively and intentionally addressing slumps when they occur might just do the trick in bringing a spark back into your relationship.
Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray has a doctorate in Human Sexuality. She is a sex researcher and relationship therapist with an expertise in challenging norms and assumptions about men and women’s sexual desire.
Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R. & Sutherland, O. (2014). A qualitative comparison of young women’s maintained versus decreased sexual desire in longer-term relationships. Women & Therapy, 37, 3-4, 319-341. doi: 10.1080/02703149.2014.897559