- "Good-enough sex" does not have to be perfect, but requires collaboration from each partner.
- Sexual boredom is associated with reduced overall well-being, and also with personality factors such as narcissism (which correlates with overall proneness to boredom) and with other risky behaviors.
- Men generally report greater sexual boredom than do women.
- The widely-held assumption that sexual satisfaction will decline can undermine good sex, even for long-partnered couples.
Is monogamy synonymous with boring sex, or do vibrant long-term committed relationships open the door to satisfying sexuality? Expert consensus provides an answer: it depends. It depends on the quality of the relationship, it depends on individual factors, it depends on the couples’ shared intent—the day-to-day choices they make together to pursue a mutually-satisfying sex life, and it depends on cultural factors including attitudes toward sexuality and relationships.
Sexual boredom is a critical but under-researched factor
A key factor is “sexual boredom”, a concept which authors de Oliveira, Carvalho and Nobre (2021) explore in detail in their recent research paper in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, beginning with a review of basic concepts.
Boredom is “the experience of being disengaged from the world and stuck in a seemingly endless and dissatisfying present”. Some people are more likely to experience boredom, a trait aptly named “boredom proneness”.
As a personality factor, boredom proneness may arise from difficulty directing or sustaining attention—especially for things which are not intrinsically interesting; a mismatch between the need for stimulation and levels of arousal the environment provides—a kind of deprivation; a state of longing without any release—which may be from attainable or unrealistic desires or expectations of what other people and the environment can offer; and even an existential issue related to feeling a lack of meaning or purpose in life (“existential boredom”).
Sexual boredom is defined as “the tendency to feel bored with the sexual aspects of life… boredom with boring sex, that is, dull, routine and over-rehearsed sex.” Good-enough sex, the report, does not have to be perfect, but “real couple sex” can be satisfying, but requires collaboration from each partner—relationships take work, and for many couples sex is no exception.
Sexual satisfaction is rooted in good communication, on recognizing and celebrating differences between partners, and sharing together to continue to provide novelty and satisfaction over the years. While sexual satisfaction tends to decline for married couples, this does not necessarily have to be the case. For couples in which one or both partners experience sexual boredom, the accompanying sexual frustration typically erodes general relationship satisfaction, whereas it is possible for couples to enjoy relationship satisfaction without sexual satisfaction.
16 findings that inform sexual boredom
In order for couples to make those preferable choices, for experts to offer evidence-based advice and to refine research efforts, understanding the factors which contribute to sexual boredom is essential. De Oliveira and colleagues describe that while many relationship experts have identified boredom as an crucial concept, the research on sexual boredom is scant, with a handful of smaller studies. In order to distill meaningful findings from the existing literature, they conducted a systematic review of the literature.
Following PRISMA guidelines for high-quality research reviews, they collected all the papers in the literature which address sexual boredom. After analyzing 511 data records related to sexual boredom, following a process of elimination to retain only high-quality non-overlapping studies, they arrived at a final set of 43 articles for review and synthesis, a combination of quantitative (data-driven) and qualitative (narrative collection and identification of common themes).
These 43 studies were systematically reviewed to identify robust findings across the literature, broken down into two big groups: research on general boredom and how sexual behavior relates to being bored, and specific sexual boredom research looking at personality, sexual arousal and related aspects of sexual behavior.
Here are their main findings:
- No clear consensus definition of sexual boredom is used in research.
- Sexual boredom is associated with general boredom proneness.
- Sexual boredom is associated with narcissistic personality, which is also related to general boredom proneness.
- Sexual boredom is associated with “sexual depression”, feeling down about one’s sex life.
- General boredom is related to depression, which contributes to sexual boredom and depression. Depression is associated with low libido, apathy, social withdrawal and inability to experience pleasure.
- Sexual boredom is associated with reduced overall well-being.
- Masturbation is correlated with sexual boredom, relationship boredom, and boredom proneness.
- Boredom is associated with problematic behaviors: Compulsive and risky sexual behaviors are related to sexual and general boredom. Additional research has shown that people become more sadistic when bored, a factor related to compulsive, risky behavior (Pfattheicher et al., 2020).
- It is unclear if sexual boredom directly causes risky behavior, or if they are associated via underlying factors.
- Sexual boredom is associated with reduced sexual responses, including lower sexual arousal and desire. Difficulty sustaining attention may be at the root of this issue, as attention is required for couples to cultivate a satisfying sexual life e.g. listening to one another’s needs, pursuing desired behaviors, and generally staying on point with sexuality, and avoiding distraction which may get in the way. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a significant contributing factor to couples satisfaction.
- Sexual boredom is correlated with low sexual satisfaction, infidelity, and relationship conflict and dissatisfaction.
- Low sexual boredom is associated with sex-positivity and a willingness to pursue sexual novelty.
- People tend to assume sexual boredom is inevitable in long-term relationships, though this is not always the case. However, this belief may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, preventing couples from taking steps to alleviate sexual boredom and secure greater satisfaction.
- Sexual boredom is associated with overall relationship boredom, with relationship sex deemed as less exciting than casual sex.
- Men who need more stimulation from partners experience higher levels of sexual boredom.
- Men generally report greater sexual boredom than women. Men also report greater general boredom. This needs to be interpreted with caution as it was only addressed in 2 of the studies reviewed, though aligned with views that men tend to use short-term mating strategies for evolutionary and socially-learned reasons.
Alleviating sexual boredom to improve overall satisfaction
This work is important and useful, identifying a collection of distinct factors which are associated with sexual boredom, presenting actionable targets for couples seeking greater sexual satisfaction by alleviating sexual boredom and setting the stage for future research.
These findings lead us to consider the role of individual traits like personality and attentional issues, and shared problems like how the assumption that sexual satisfaction will decline can undermine good sex, even for long-partnered couples. This work also informs better evaluation and treatment of couples with low sexual and relationship satisfaction.
Sexual boredom is a foundational concept, a lens through which relationship and sexual satisfaction may be viewed to understand obstacles and identify levers for positive change. Future research will benefit from a clear, shared definition of sexual boredom, and studies investigating what interventions alleviate sexual boredom, and to what extent sexual boredom relief leads to greater sexual and relationship satisfaction.
Additional factors that impact sexual relationships
Research and clinical experience tell us that there are many factors which make or break sexual and relationship satisfaction, including issues which interfere with or facilitate women's pleasure, the role of pornography in sexual health and relationships, the role of sexual satisfaction for older couples, how attachment style relates to sexual satisfaction, the importance of “sexual self-image” in relationships, why unhappy couples stay together, and a simple way couples can achieve greater satisfaction by opening up with one another. Understanding how these factors play out in our own lives and relationships opens the door to many possibilities.
Learn more about personality, and personality change
Facebook image: tommaso79/Shutterstock
De Oliveira, L, Carvalho J, Nobre P. A systematic review on sexual boredom. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Feb 23, 2021. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.12.019.
Pfattheicher, Stefan, Ljiljana B. Lazarevic, Erin C. Westgate, and Simon Schindler. 2020. “On the Relation of Boredom and Sadistic Aggression.” PsyArXiv. September 9. doi:10.31234/osf.io/r67xg.
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