This post was co-authored by Lisa Day and was originally written for the website Science of Relationships.
If you’re in a long-term relationship, you probably remember your early “honeymoon period”—those first few months when you couldn’t get enough of each other—and maybe couldn’t keep your hands off each other. But if you’re like most couples, your sex life has changed since then.1 In fact, it’s likely that there are (more) times in your relationship when one of you wants to have sex, but the other is not in the mood.
In a new set of studies,2 my colleagues and I looked at how couples manage situations when partners have different sexual interests in ways that are satisfying to both romantic partners. We were specifically interested in this topic because desire discrepancies between partners are common in relationships—in one of our studies, 80 percent of people had experienced a desire discrepancy with their partner in the past month; in another study, couples reported some degree of desire discrepancy on 5 out of 7 days a week. On top of that, we know from past research that disagreements related to sex can be very difficult to resolve successfully.3
Given that differing sexual interests are common in relationships, and can be challenging to resolve, we conducted three studies to examine how people make decisions about having sex when their partner is interested in sex but their own interest is low, and to test whether certain people would be able to navigate these situations with greater success. Our first study was an experimental study in which we asked half of our participants to complete a writing exercise to temporarily increase their motivation to meet partner’s sexual needs, then asked all of the participants to imagine themselves in a situation in which their romantic partner wanted to have sex, but they were not in the mood. In our second study, we asked people to tell us about the most recent time when their partner was in the mood for sex, but the participant was not. In our final study, we recruited both members of romantic couples to report on their desire and motivation to engage in sex, or not, for 21 consecutive days.
Across all three studies, we found that a person’s motivation to meet their partner’s sexual needs, termed sexual communal strength4 (also discussed here and here), plays an important role (a) in the decision to engage in sex in these situations, and (b) in the maintenance of both partners’ sexual and relationship satisfaction.
People who are high in sexual communal strength—those motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs without the expectation of immediate reciprocation—were less concerned with the negatives of having sex—such as feeling tired the next day. Instead, these communal people were more focused on the benefits to their partner of engaging in sex, such as making their partner feel loved and desired. In turn, these motivations led the communal people to be more likely to engage in sex with their partner in these situations, and led to both partners feeling more satisfied with their sex life—and relationship. This means that even though they engaged in sex to meet their partner’s needs, they reaped important benefits for themselves. In fact, communal people maintained feelings of satisfaction even in these desire discrepant situations.
Our findings suggest that if one partner is interested in having sex, but the other isn’t in the mood, being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs can benefit both partners. It is very important, however, that this motivation to meet a partner’s needs comes from a place of agency, where people feel that they are able to meet their partner’s needs, and a delight in seeing one's partner happy.
Situations that involve coercion or where a person ignores their own needs in the process (termed unmitigated communion) do not lead to the same benefits. In fact, an important part of communal relationships is that both partners are attuned to and responsive to each other’s needs. At times this may also mean understanding and accepting a partner’s need not to engage in sex.
In short, this research tells us a little bit more about how, as sexual desire waxes and wanes over the course of any relationship, some people are able to navigate tricky situations with greater ease and success when one partner wants sex but the other does not. Being mutually responsive to each other’s sexual needs in a relationship can help couples maintain sexual satisfaction long after the honeymoon period ends.
1Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E. (1999). Passion, intimacy, and time: Passionate love as a function of change in intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 49-67.
2Day, L. C., Muise, A., Joel, S., & Impett, E. A. (2015). To do it or not to do it? How communally motivated people navigate sexual interdependence dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Advance online publication.
3Rehman, U. S., Janssen, E., Newhouse, S., Heiman, J., Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Fallis, E., & Rafaeli, E. (2011). Marital satisfaction and communication behaviors during sexual and nonsexual conflict discussions in newlywed couples: A pilot study. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 37(2), 94-103.
4Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Keeping the spark alive: Being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs sustains sexual desire in long-term romantic relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 267-273.