- New, first-of-its-kind research investigated whether couples in long-term relationships experienced a state of flow during sex.
- The study found that not only did such couples experience flow during sex, but that it was a strong predictor of personal and relationship satisfaction.
- The findings suggest that flow training techniques could be used to address sexual concerns in long-term relationships, including declines in desire.
Flow is a word we usually hear associated with extreme sports or artistic experiences. But my latest research study, published in The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, found that flow is a state enjoyed by people during sex as well. Surprisingly, this was the first study to examine the relationship between flow and sexual satisfaction. Another interesting aspect of this research is that we only sampled people in long-term, monogamous relationships. What does this mean? It turns out that passionate, fulfilling sex is very much a possibility for older, married couples. In addition, this study not only suggests that sex improves with time,1 but also that it may be one of the most peak experiences couples share.
Low sexual desire remains one of the most common, yet complex and challenging issues faced by sex and relationship therapists.2 Despite the high correlation between relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction,3 improving relationship quality isn’t always enough to boost libido, as any sex therapist can attest. Another approach is to work with couples on improving the quality of sex.4 It’s a natural assumption that if sex isn't good, one won’t desire it. Improving the quality helps some, but still isn’t sufficient to get some couples to the state of transcendent bliss they yearn for.
As a clinician and researcher, I’ve given a lot of thought to the complexities of low libido. A lot of couples long for the passionate, seemingly effortless sex they see in the movies. I always remind them that what they see in movies are paid actors following a script, but I understand what they mean. As I contemplated it more, it occurred to me that a flow state may be what they’re after.
What Is Flow?
Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi proposed eight characteristics of flow: complete concentration, clarity of goals, transformation of time, intrinsic reward, effortlessness, balance of challenge and skills, merger of action and awareness, and feeling of control over the task. You may have heard a surfer describe “being at one with the wave.” Or perhaps you’ve witnessed a group of musicians jam out on their musical instruments creating melodies that aren’t planned.
Why Flow Matters
People who engage in activities that produce a flow state tend to have more meaningful lives, report greater overall well-being, and tend to feel happier than people that don’t.
Since sex is an activity that most adults engage in regularly, we wondered if by examining the relationship between flow and sexual satisfaction, we might find a new way of helping people access this meaningful state and conceptualizing the treatment of low desire.
Optimal Sexual Experiences
Canadian psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz and her research team began studying optimal sexual experiences over a decade ago. Through a series of phenomenological interviews, her team identified eight components of optimal sex. In reading snippets of the interviews, the language her participants used appeared very similar to the language used by people who experience flow. My previous research participants used similar language to describe their best sexual experiences, saying things like, “it’s as if the rest of the world disappears” or “time seems to stand still.” It, therefore, made sense to me to study the relationship between flow and sexual satisfaction using quantitative measures to see how our findings compared to what others have discovered qualitatively.
The New Research
My team and I sampled 100 participants who were in monogamous relationships to find out if it was possible for them to experience a state of flow during sex and if so, whether this predicted sexual satisfaction.
We were particularly interested in studying couples in long-term relationships because we hoped to debunk the stereotypes that good sex happens only in the “honeymoon phase” or is reserved for the young and able-bodied.
Our participants completed an online survey consisting of two questionnaires—the New Sexual Satisfaction Scale and the Core Dispositional Flow State Scale. We found that flow was a statistically significant positive predictor of both partner-focused and personal sexual satisfaction. We did not find any significant gender differences.
What makes this research exciting is that it gives us a new way of conceptualizing great sex and treating low desire. I am already finding that by teaching my clients how to induce a flow state, I can help them transform their sex lives.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Reference for this research: Jamea, E. N., McCaskill, L. A., & Needle, R. B. (2021) Sexual Satisfaction: Exploring the Role of Flow, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2021.1898503
1. The notion that sex improves with time is based on interviews I conducted with my research participants after collecting the quantitative data. The results of the interview portion are not yet published.
2. Brotto, L. A., Basson, R., Chivers, M. L., Graham, C. A., Pollock, P., & Stephenson, K. R. (2017). Challenges in Designing Psychological Treatment Studies for Sexual Dysfunction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 43(3), 191–200. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2016.1212294
3. Byers, E. S. (2005) Relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction: A longitudinal study of individuals in long-term relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 42(2). pp. 113-118.
4. Mark, K. (2014). The impact of daily sexual desire and daily sexual desire discrepancy on the quality of the sexual experience in couples. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(1), 27–33; DOI:10.3138/cjhs.23.1.A2