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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.

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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.

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.

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).

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.

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