Sex Over Time: Keeping the Home Fires Burning
The keys to sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships.
Posted Sep 02, 2016
Most people in a romantic relationship yearn for a passionate sex life. And at the beginning of the relationship—the heady honeymoon phase or the days of early elation—passionate sex usually comes easily. Alas, over time, as routines set in and other pressing matters grab our attention. Passion wanes and sexual satisfaction decreases.
This happens to many couples, but not all of them. Some couples manage to keep their fires burning through their many years together. What's their secret? What distinguishes them from couples who have lost their mojo? This question is important not only because most of us want our sex life to be satisfying and long-lasting, but also because satisfaction in sex is a major cause of relationship satisfaction and stability.
According to the research, one factor affecting sexual satisfaction over time is the partners’ relationship orientation—how each of them views their interactions. Research has focused on two approaches in this context—exchange orientation and communal strength orientation.
Exchange-oriented people tend to think of the relationship from a "what’s in it for me?" outlook. They focus on the trade-off aspects of being together and look to give only as much (or as little) as they expect to get. In contrast, people high on communal strength orientation tend to focus on the needs of others. They do this out of love and a desire to improve the relationship, not out of obligation or fear.
People with a sexual communal-strength orientation are more likely to maintain their initial sexual enthusiasm throughout a long relationship, mainly because they are attuned to the needs of their partner and find real satisfaction in meeting those needs. If your partner considers your orgasm no less important than their own, then your sex life will be better, now and in the future. Communal bonds are more satisfying than business transactions. This is as true on the street as it is in the bedroom.
Are you high in sexual communal strength? Here’s a quick quiz offered by Canadian researcher Amy Muise that can be used to measure people’s levels of sexual communal strength. Answer each question from 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely):
- How far would you be willing to go to meet your partner's sexual needs?
- How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?
- How likely are you to sacrifice your own needs to meet the sexual needs of your partner?
- How happy do you feel when satisfying your partner's sexual needs?
Another ingredient in the recipe for maintaining sexual satisfaction over time is physical health. Good sex may happen, as they say, chiefly between the ears; but it also happens between the legs. “All you’ve got is your health,” said your mother (and mine). And she was right, again—even in regards to sex. Good blood flow (a function of physical health) is no less important for good sex than good communication, because good blood flow makes sexual function possible in men and women.
In 2009, Julia Heiman of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and her colleagues published a large study involving more than a thousand couples from five countries (Brazil, Germany, Spain, U.S., and Japan) who were in long-term relationships (the median length was 25 years).
In the study, high levels of sexual function (erection for men, vaginal lubrication for women; high desire and orgasmic capacity for both) predicted satisfaction during sex in men and women alike. Not surprisingly, a higher frequency of recent sex also predicted increased sexual satisfaction for both men and women. (Interestingly, and contrary to conventional stereotypes, a lower number of sexual partners predicted higher satisfaction among men. The authors speculate that these results may be due to the fact that unsatisfied men change partners more often, or that experienced men may be less content with the relative monotony of marital sex).
Another important ingredient in the recipe for long, passionate sexuality appears to be the lovers’ specific sexual habits and behaviors. The Journal of Sex Research recently published an online survey study involving a sample of more than 38,000 heterosexual couples in long-term relationships (married for more than three years with an average age of 40 for women and 46 for men). The study, led by David Frederick of Chapman University in California, looked at levels of desire, attraction, and sexual satisfaction to determine which behaviors differentiated couples who were still crazy after all these years from those whose passions were dust in the wind. To assess the changes in the level of sexual satisfaction over time, couples were asked to rate their level of satisfaction at two points in time—the first six months of the relationship and the present day.
As expected, a large majority (83 percent) of participants reported high sexual satisfaction in the first six months of the relationship. In contrast, only half reported that they were as sexually satisfied at the present time (43 percent of men and 55 percent of women).
About a third of respondents (38 percent of men and 32 percent of women) reported that their sex life maintained their initial level of passion. Most participants in this group reported feeling emotional closeness during sex at the same or greater level compared to the beginning of the relationship, and that their last sexual encounter was "passionate," "loving and tender," or "playful." About half of the individuals in the satisfied group reported that their last sexual encounter lasted more than 30 minutes, compared to about a quarter of the people in the low satisfaction group.
So what is the secret of these couples? What differentiates them from others?
For one, sexual communication. Men and women in both groups reported a desire for passionate sex, but those in the unsatisfied group communicated less and reported that their partner did not know how to excite them sexually. Sexually satisfied people reported more varied communication, including activities such as asking for what they wanted, praising each other for something they did, and asking for feedback in bed. Approximately 75 percent of participants (men and women) in the high satisfaction group would say "I love you" to their partner during sex, compared to less than half of the participants in the low satisfaction group.
Another factor appears to be sexual curiosity and the attendant willingness to try new things. Men and women who reported high satisfaction engaged often in intimacy enhancing acts like hugging, kissing deeply, and sharing laughs during sex. Satisfied couples were also more likely to diversify their sex life, try new positions, and share (and act on) sexual fantasies. Satisfied couples had sex more frequently, received oral sex more often, experienced orgasms more consistently (particularly the women), and were more likely to seek and implement new ideas for sex.
Preparation, or mood setting, is another factor separating satisfied and dissatisfied groups. Highly satisfied couples invested more in preparing for sex and creating a romantic atmosphere by sending flirty texts during the day, lighting candles, playing music, taking a joint bath, and so on.
One surprising finding: The presence (and number) of children in the home was not a significant predictor of couples’ sexual satisfaction.
The researchers also found that, “Feeling desire from partners appears to be more of a problem for men than for women.” Specifically, “Three-fifths of men reported feeling more desired by their partners early in their relationship compared to two-fifths of women.” Contrary to conventional stereotype, men’s level of attraction to their wives may be less sensitive to the passage of time. “Close to two thirds of men...reported more desire or the same level of desire for their partners now as in the past, compared to only half of women.” The authors do not offer an interpretation of these findings; however, a selection bias may be operating here, whereby men who lose interest in their wives over time are less likely to remain in long-term relationships, and are hence absent from a survey of long-term couples.
So, have we found the secret of long-lasting passion? Perhaps.
These findings are correlational in nature, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The fact that two variables move systematically together does not mean that they share a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, it may be that the behaviors outlined in the study cause sexual satisfaction to maintain over time. On the other hand, sexual satisfaction may cause couples to engage in these intimate behaviors. Or perhaps a third variable (such as testosterone levels, attachment style, income, shared values etc.) causes both these behaviors and sexual satisfaction levels to relate. We don’t know. Adopting the behaviors and habits of satisfied couples, then, may not necessarily lead to increased sexual satisfaction in your relationship...but then again, what’s to lose by trying?