Love and Sex
Sexual connection is a vital aspect of most romantic relationships, but it’s not always as central as people may think. Partners have sex for self-interested reasons—it feels good and can boost self-esteem; and for relationship-focused reasons—it enhances closeness and pleases someone they love. Over the long term, most couples will face sexual challenges, as bodies change with age and individuals’ desire for sex waxes and wanes (and generally declines). Research consistently shows that most couples struggle to talk about sex honestly, but that when they do, it brings them closer together.
Love also brings people together, but it takes more than love to stay together. Many of us know couples that broke up despite believing that they were in love with each other, because of one partner’s infidelity or because of distance or circumstance. But even in long-term stable relationships, partners who feel that they are in love may grow apart, if one believes that they are not emotionally safe in the relationship, or that it lacks passion or intimacy.
For more, see Sex.
The Power of Sex
Sex is an important aspect of many relationships and while research finds that while regular sex does help to cement a couple's emotional bond, that boost doesn't derive from the physical act as much as from what it expresses—openness, transparency, positive communication, and a commitment to foster and maintain erotic energy. What happens after sex is also vital: Research on sexual "afterglow," including cuddling and pillow talk, finds that the feeling of enhanced sexual satisfaction following a sexual encounter can leave partners feeling better about each other for weeks or even months. While many partners worry about why they may not have sex as often as they once did, or whether they need to learn new techniques, a decline in a couple's sex life is more commonly a reflection of other problems in the relationship, rather than the cause.
What are the keys to great sex?
Experts who research sex in relationships report that those partners who find their sex lives most fulfilling say that the keys to a great sex life are being able to stay in the moment, communicate with each other honestly about their sexual wants—and have empathy for their partner’s, be vulnerable, and remain open to trying new things together.
Are we having enough sex?
Married couples report having sex an average of 58 times per year, although couples in their 20s report much more frequent encounters—about 111 per year, with that number dropping about 20 percent per decade as couples age. (Researchers tend to be suspicious of such results, since they are based on self-reports.) Many experts suggest that neither very frequent nor very rare sex is necessarily a problem for couples as long as they find their relationships satisfying and believe they are having enough sex.
Does having more sex make couples happier?
Would more sex make you happier? Probably not. In experiments, when couples were asked to double their normal frequency of sex, most did not follow through, and those who were able to did not report greater sexual satisfaction. In other words, for most couples, when it comes to sex, quality is more important that quantity.
How important is what couples do after sex?
The warm, fuzzy feeling many couples experience after sex is known as “sexual afterglow,” and research suggests that it may be vital to a relationship: Partners who experienced a feeling of sexual satisfaction longer—as long as 48 hours after sex—reported greater relationship satisfaction overall. (Research also finds it to be a myth that men tend to fall asleep quickly after sex.)
Is it more important for a man or a woman to feel sexually satisfied?
A range of research on sexual satisfaction in heterosexual relationships finds that, at every stage—desire, kissing, and orgasm—the woman’s satisfaction is more predictive of overall relationship satisfaction for both partners than the man’s—and a decline in a woman's sexual desire is more predictive of relationship troubles than a decline in a man's.
Can great sex survive marriage?
It can, but couples should understand the role sex plays in a relationship: Research suggests that a high-quality sexual connection, especially early in a relationship, lays a foundation for long-term sustainability. Studies find, in fact, that even as sexual satisfaction begins to decline in many relationships, overall satisfaction remains high. But when partners’ levels of desire start to diverge widely, it’s crucial that the concern be addressed.
How can couples rediscover their passion?
For many, if not most, people, primal, passionate sex is an essential element of a healthy sex life. But many partners in long-term relationships find themselves moving away from passionate sex, either because they don’t want to put in the effort or because they talk themselves out of it. Some experts suggest that, to restore their passion, people talk about it openly, allow themselves to express their primal selves, and learn to tolerate sexual intensity.
The Power of Love
Loving relationships can literally be a matter of life and death: Having a supportive relationship is more predictive of warding off mortality than quitting smoking or exercising, while a toxic relationship is more damaging than no relationship at all. But love is always reciprocal, and can only survive if both partners are willing to be open and honest with each other, express gratitude, share their thoughts and feelings, and ask for support rather than trying to go it alone. Individuals often believe they are sparing their partner by keeping their troubles from them, but people can be deeply hurt when they discover that the person they love most has not confided in them or sought out their support.
What is love?
Romantic love could be seen as an evolutionary adaptation—a force that increases the chance of passing one’s genes on to future generations. It has also been described as a force that enables partners to stay together over the long term. Some identify it as a blind force that brings people together, even without strong romantic feelings, through what’s known as the “mere repeated exposure” affect. And others, citing different definitions and approaches to love at different times and in different cultures, describe it as merely a sociocultural construct.
Does love require passion?
Love has been defined by some as having three elements—intimacy, commitment, and passion. But many couples worry that their passion is declining over the years, making their connection less secure. Research, however, finds that a decrease in passion is less of a problem than a couple’s belief that once it decreases it can’t be restored; partners who understand that it waxes and wanes are more likely to rekindle it, and stay together.
Do men or women usually say “I love you” first?
Saying “I love you” for the first time is seen by many as a more significant step in a relationship than having sex for the first time. The statement implies a level of commitment, exclusivity, and intimacy that one partner may not be sure the other feels yet. Contrary to a common stereotype, though, men are much more likely to say those three words first, and more likely to report having felt love first in a relationship.
Talking About Sex
Even couples that are generally successful at addressing other issues get stuck when it comes to talking about sex. Many people assume that great sex should not require conversation, but that often leads to years of stale or unsatisfying encounters. Research finds that people avoid talking about uncomfortable topics because they imagine that what they say might threaten a relationship, especially if it's about sexual fantasies or interest in "unconventional" sex; that expressing concern about their sex life will hurt their partner's feelings; or because they're reluctant to reveal too much about themselves for fear of feeling shame or being shamed. But research also shows that partners willing to discuss intimacy with each other are generally happier with their relationships because they discover that their sexual concerns are usually not, after all, a sign that their relationship is in trouble.
How can partners negotiate “unconventional” sex?
It’s easier when partners understand that in actuality, most types of “unconventional” sex are pretty common. Surveys find that most couples have in fact engaged in what would generally be considered kinky sex play, or at least had fantasies about it. Couples who understand this, and worry less about violating norms, are more able to talk about their desires, and more likely to maintain satisfying connections.
Should I tell my partner about my sexual fantasies?
Many people imagine that their fantasies may be extreme or improper, or that they’d be unwelcome by their partner. Often, that’s not the case. Most people report having more fantasies about their current partner than about anyone else; men’s and women’s fantasies are broadly similar; and, in general, couples that acted on a fantasy reported that it went well (with the exception of threesomes).
Is sexting good for a relationship?
Partners in long-term relationships generally sext much less often than younger people, or those in new relationships. But about 12 percent of such partners report having sexted each other, and research suggests that those who send some kind of sexual message to a partner report greater relationship well-being, with one important distinction: Sending nude or semi-nude photos was linked with greater relationship ambivalence.
Is BDSM good or bad for a long-term relationship?
Many people in long-term BDSM relationships report high satisfaction, and believe that their partnerships are widely misunderstood by those who do not take part. Fundamentally, they say, their relationships are about trust, not abuse; are built around play, not dominance; are generally safely choreographed; and that the “submissives” are typically the ones in charge.
Facing Sexual Challenges
There is no universal prescription for a healthy sex life. There are happy couples that have sex multiple times a week, and satisfied couples that hardly ever have sex. But many couples do encounter serious conflicts around their sex lives, often having to do with discrepancy in desire. When one partner—and it's not always a man—has a much higher sex drive than the other, it can threaten a relationship, with one person feeling pressure to have more sex, and the other feeling rejected. Bringing such concerns out into the open can help assuage hurt feelings, and meeting with a couples therapist may help partners find common ground.
What can you do when a partner becomes sexually coercive?
Few people in otherwise happy long-term relationships would characterize sexual begging or pressure from their partner as sexual assault. But sexual coercion and unwanted intimacy—even if it’s not physically aggressive—is a serious concern that partners should address before it becomes normalized, and seek to reestablish healthy boundaries and ground rules.
How do women with high sex drives manage relationships?
The common stereotype is that men have higher sex drives than women, and maintain a higher sex drive as they age. But that’s not always the case, and many women have a much stronger libido than their male partners. Women with high sex drives may find increased satisfaction through greater mental presence during sex and more open communication with their partners about their desires and fantasies.
What can I do if a partner doesn’t meet my sexual needs?
Is one obligated to have sex more often with a partner who has a higher sex drive, even if they find it unpleasant—and if one is unwilling to do so, is the other partner justified in seeking sex elsewhere? Before anyone launches an affair, or walks away from a relationship, partners should discuss the needs that are not being met, and whether it justifies the end of their connection, or some other new understanding.
Can couples stay together even if they stop having sex?
Long-term relationships can thrive with little or no sex, as long as both partners are OK with it. More often, one or the other partner enters the relationship with a much lower sex drive or experiences a significant decline over the long term. When that happens, it can put intense pressure on a couple’s connection, and lead to an unhappy dynamic in which one constantly chases the other. Often such a disparity benefits from couple’s therapy.