Sex in Long-Term Relationships
Sex triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone which fosters bonding and trust. Research suggests that higher oxytocin levels not only bring partners closer together, but that it also makes individuals less likely to cheat. Postcoital “pillow talk” also has been found to enhance a couple’s connection, as partners tend to say more positive things to each other and to disclose more about themselves after sex.
Studies of couples’ sex lives have found that both people who always place their sexual needs first (perhaps frequently turning down opportunities for sex because they’re not in the mood) and those who always put a partner’s sexual needs first (perhaps having sex even when they really don’t feel like it) tend to be less satisfied with their relationships, as do their partners. The happiest couples find ways to look out for their own wants while devoting sincere attention to their partner’s desires as well.
Partners who hold sexual growth beliefs—believing that good sex takes work—are more likely to have a better sex life than those who hold sexual destiny beliefs—believing that sexual problems are a sign that a couple was never meant to be. Partners who are committed to making each happy will take the time to talk about their sexual concerns, believing that they can find a solution, and not fear that the problem is that they are not destined to stay together.
Sexual communal strength is an inclination to fulfill a partner’s sexual needs, even when they conflict with your own, and without keeping score. Outside of the bedroom, it could mean agreeing to order Chinese food sometimes because it’s a partner’s favorite even if it isn’t yours. In studies of sex, a willingness to make a partner happy, and to do so happily and enthusiastically, led to a stronger connection and higher sexual satisfaction and desire over time for both partners.
Influential relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman report that their studies of thousands of couples find that the couples who have the best sex lives, and are the most passionate, “say I love you every day and mean it. They kiss one another passionately for no reason at all. They give compliments. They give surprise romantic gifts. They have dates. They cuddle often. And they express affection in public.” In other words, the couples who are the most sexually satisfied are those that best stay “in touch” with each other in and out of bed.
Fundamentally, couples can achieve better sex in a relationship by talking about sex more openly and honestly. A large body of research finds that communication is perhaps the most important element of a fulfilling sex life for couples. Partners who report talking about sex with each other more—what they like, what they don’t like, what they would changes also report more orgasms, more positive feelings about sex, and greater relationship satisfaction.
Most people say they want to have sex more often, and happy couples report having more sex than unhappy ones. Also, happier couples tend to be made up of partners with similar levels of desire. But when it comes to determining which heterosexual couples have more sex, the prime factor appears to be the woman’s sociosexuality, or her openness to casual sex in general, as opposed to seeing sex exclusively as an expression of love.
Couples avoid talking about sex either because they believe talking about sexual problems would threaten their relationship, because they worry that what they say will hurt their partner, or because they fear being vulnerable or being shamed by their partner. Research suggests that the latter concern is the one most likely to keep people from opening up to a partner about their concerns, but that in general, being open about sexual worries tends to lead to more positive than negative outcomes.
It can and usually does, and research finds that the quality of a couple’s sexual connection early in their relationship goes a long way in determining their long-term sexual satisfaction. In such couples, even when sexual frequency and passion begin to decline, overall relationship satisfaction remains steady. When partners who have been together a long time find their individual levels of desire begin to diverge widely, though, it’s important that this concern be discussed and addressed.
A review of 64 large-scale studies of sex in long-term relationships found that among the factors most closely tied to maintaining sexual desire long-term are an understanding that partners may be more or less interested in sex at different times; feeling autonomy, or being able to see yourself and your partner as independent people with separate concerns; being open to growth and novelty in one’s sex life; and a belief in egalitarianism in relationships.
People tend to report having more passionate sex in hookups, or at the start of long-term relationships, than after many years together. Couples that have been together for years, on the other hand, report that their sex may be less passionate, even if they don’t believe it’s a serious problem. Partners can restore a “primal” passion to their sex lives, sex therapists suggest, if they are willing to talk openly about what they desire and learn to tolerate sexual intensity from their partner as well.
Partners may believe that someone who loves them should know, or intuit, what’s wrong with their sex lives. This is a problematic assumption in relationships, because people aren’t mind readers and expecting a partner to know what’s wrong leads to resentment and anger that may appear to come out of the blue to the other partner. Some research suggests that partners who are leery of expressing concern about their sex life find ways to do so nonverbally during sexual encounters.