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How Does Your Partner Turn You On?

New studies reveal 5 ways our partners excite us.


Sexual attraction is definitely a quality that’s in the eye of the beholder. Someone who turns you on is unlikely to have the same impact on your best friend. Sure, there are People's "50 most beautiful people," who meet a more or less universal set of standards for appearance. However, even the most beautiful people may not—for you—prove to be the sexiest.

We know from previous research that emotional factors contribute in a major way to keeping the spark alive in long-term relationships. It’s also true that, over time, passionate love mellows to the companionate variety, in which partners increasingly value psychological intimacy. However, as reported in an April 2014 article by Kristen Mark and Debby Herbenick, the sexual spark remains important if couples are to avoid the fatal attraction effect.

Predicting relationship satisfaction, and specifically sexual satisfaction, isn’t an exact science. Several recent studies provide evidence that can help you evaluate the factors that contribute to how sexy you perceive your partner to be:

  1. You appreciate your partner’s changes over time. Mark and Herbenick found that the married women in their study of changes in relationship and sexual satisfaction over time felt that their partners were getting sexier and sexier. This finding shows that, despite the prevalent social attitudes toward aging and sexuality, women in close relationships don’t hold their partners to an unrealistic standard of youth and beauty. Unfortunately, the reverse may not be true, as aging women continue to tend to be looked at as less attractive than aging men. The critical study testing the fatal attraction effect of time’s impact on partner sexiness would need to be conducted on a male sample. However, it makes sense that if you’re to see your partner as sexy, whether male or female, you need to be willing to take a realistic approach to the way that our bodies reshape themselves over the decades of adulthood.

  2. Your partner is at least slightly health-conscious. In a study of nearly 1,500 Czech adults, Stuart Brody and Pat Weiss (2013) found strong relationships between self-reported sexual satisfaction and waistline circumference of one's partner (and oneself). Waist size is an approximate indicator of a person’s overall health status. This research suggests that both men and women are turned on by a partner who stays in shape. It’s possible that this result reflects society’s emphasis on thinness as a standard of beauty. Brody and Weiss’s results may even conflict with the data reported by Mark and Herbernick given the importance to sexual satisfaction of accepting your partner’s changes over time—which may include developing a middle-aged bulge. Nevertheless, having a partner who is health-conscious may reflect an underlying physiological process. Being physically in shape can promote better hormonal functioning, which, in turn, can contribute to keeping the sexual fires alive inside. Having a partner who’s interested in sex is clearly an important element to making it possible for you to get turned on as well.

  3. You’ve always been interested in sex. If your desire to have sex was always on the low side, the chances are you’ll be less interested in having sex now. A February 2014 study led by Finnish sex researcher Jannike Höglund on over 3,500 men and women reported that, as adults, the people with fewer sex partners earlier in their lives tended to be least interested in having sex now. Extrapolating from that finding, it seems logical to conclude that you’ll be more likely to find your current partner sexually attractive if you’re someone who’s always been sexually active, even before meeting your current partner. With sex on your mind, you’ll be more likely to look at your current partner as sexy, or, as the song goes, want to “love the one you’re with.”

  4. Your partner understands your preferences. Because sexual satisfaction is very much a two-way street, you’ll be more likely to respond to a partner who “gets” you. For a 2009 study, Canadian psychologists Diane Holmberg and Karen Blair investigated sexual desire and satisfaction in an online sample of over 400 adults, including those in heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Women reported valuing a variety of sexual behaviors in addition to, or even instead of, orgasm. Whether their partner engaged in these behaviors, in turn, was related to the women's sexual satisfaction. Whatever type of your relationship you’re in, and whatever your gender, a partner who is able to identify and then meet your sexual needs will become someone you will continue to find attractive over time.

  5. Your partner is available. So far I’ve been summarizing studies based on people in long-term committed relationships. What if your relationship hasn’t developed quite yet, or if you’re not in a relationship at all? Who will appeal to you? There may be some indicators of what will happen to you from this previous research, such as whether you’ve always had a healthy interest in sexual activity. However, looking for a new partner presents a different set of challenges than staying attractive to the person you’re already with. For guidance on this, we turn to a July 2013 study led by German psychologist Nicholas Koranyi and his team. They used a unique experimental method to help understand interpersonal attraction. In an “evaluative conditioning” paradigm, participants were led to form a positive association between a potential romantic partner’s face and either pleasant personality traits or odors. The researchers were able to establish a conditioned preference for the faces that received this positive associational boost only for those faces labeled as belonging to people not in a romantic relationship already. So, if you’re looking for love, you’ll be ready (excuse another song reference) to look in all the right places.

Predicting who will fall for whom is a problem that relationship science hasn’t quite solved. These five factors, however, provide a step toward understanding what leads you to discern your current (or future) partner as someone who’ll turn you on both now and in the years to come.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Brody, S., & Weiss, P. (2013). Slimmer women’s waist is associated with better erectile function in men independent of age. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1191-1198. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-0058-9

Höglund, J., Jern, P., Sandnabba, N., & Santtila, P. (2014). Finnish women and men who self-report no sexual attraction in the past 12 months: Prevalence, relationship status, and sexual behavior history. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0240-8

Holmberg, D., & Blair, K. L. (2009). Sexual desire, communication, satisfaction, and preferences of men and women in same–sex versus mixed–sex relationships. Journal Of Sex Research, 46(1), 57-66. doi:10.1080/00224490802645294

Koranyi, N., Gast, A., & Rothermund, K. (2013). 'Although quite nice, I was somehow not attracted by that person': Attitudes toward romantically committed opposite-sex others are immune to positive evaluative conditioning. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 4(4), 403-410. doi:10.1177/1948550612467037

Mark, K. P., & Herbenick, D. (2014). The influence of attraction to partner on heterosexual women’s sexual and relationship satisfaction in long-term relationships. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 43(3), 563-570. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0184-z