Sexual desire is often described as “elusive,” “misunderstood” or “complex.” But after decades of studying this topic, sex researchers know more than ever about what helps couples maintain sexual desire in long-term relationships.
In a special issue of the Journal of Sex Research published online earlier this week, Drs. Kristen Mark and Julie Lasslo present a systematic review of 64 studies on sexual desire in relationships spanning over the course of 3 decades. They noted 19 factors that help or hinder our experience of sexual desire and categorized them in three broader themes: Individual Factors, Interpersonal Factors and Societal Factors.
Here are 5 prominent themes that were determined to help couples maintain sexual passion (the complete list of factors can be found here):
Our interest in sex naturally ebbs and flows over the course of a long-term relationship, as we age, and we face various life changes. Think the advent of babies, stress from work, money worries, or the death of a loved one, just to name a few. Researchers have reliably found that individuals who accept these fluctuations as normal and natural are more sexually satisfied when they hit a bump. They are able to view the changes as understandable rather than problematic, which seems to help weather the potential storm. In contrast, individuals who do not hold this perspective report greater worry and stress when they hit a sexual bump or slump, consequently resulting in a negative impact on their sexual satisfaction.
Expectations about sexual desire were also found to extend into the research on desire discrepancies (when one person has more sexual desire than their partner). That is, when couples acknowledge that it’s normal – even expected – for individuals to want different frequencies of sexual activity and/or want sex at different times, they are more equipped to navigate those differences when they arise without it negatively impacting their desire.
While feeling close and connected to our partner is crucial for relationship satisfaction, there is a downside to being so close that we lose sight of ourselves and start to feel like “just” a couple.
A number of studies have documented the importance of having some autonomy in our relationships in order to increase sexual desire and passion. This space is theorized to give us the breathing room to “see” our partner and appreciate them from a distance.
Autonomy also gives us the space to experience our thoughts and feelings separately from our partner, allowing for the ability to self-sooth our own difficult emotions and be more emotionally supportive to our partner when they are in need. This dynamic has been found to increase relationship satisfaction and, indirectly, sexual desire.
Responsiveness to Partner
In relationships we tend to be aware of our partner’s needs and wants. For example, maybe we know they prefer sex in the morning, or that their favourite dinner is Eggplant Parmesan. The difference maker, according to the research, is what we decide to do with that information.
When we are particularly motivated to please our partner or make our partner happy, sexual satisfaction and sexual desire tends to follow. That includes being motivated to have sex when our partner wants it (even if we’re not so much in the mood) or trying something new that our partner is interested in because we know it would make them happy.
The key is that our motivation is a relationship enhancing one. Our desire and satisfaction do not increase if we are having sex with our partner to avoid a negative consequence, such as them being angry or upset.
Self expansion is the concept of embracing opportunities for growth. When it comes to sex, this can mean anything from trying new sexual positions, having sex in different locations (or at various times of day) or wearing something a little out of the ordinary.
Across several studies, couples who report higher levels of sexual desire also report making the effort to try something new and different, no matter how small, to keep things interesting and fresh in the bedroom. While this may sound daunting, examples reported in the literature included innocently flirting with a crush and making small changes in your bedroom decor.
The idea is to embrace your sexual interests and grow alongside your partner – this also helps avoid sexual monotony and routine.
Research has found that when couples experience higher egalitarianism (i.e., they contribute about equally to the relationship) that sexual desire is also higher. In contrast, when couples report lower levels of egalitarianism (i.e., one person feels they are contributing more than the other or there is a power imbalance) sexual desire is documented to decrease.
While egalitarianism doesn’t mean that each chore and responsibility is split exactly 50/50 (i.e., you don’t both have to put away the dishes, then fold the laundry, then clean the bathroom together) it is important to focus on whether you are both contributing equally in your own ways. This could mean someone cooks and someone cleans. Or someone is responsibility for work inside the home while the other does outside chores. However it’s divided, it is important that both people feel that they are putting in about an equal amount of effort to keep the power balance even and the sexual desire pumping.
What We Still Don’t Know
Despite reviewing over 60 studies on sexual desire in long-term relationships, the authors concluded that we still know relatively little about the ways in which social dynamics and cultural influences impact our desire. They also note a lack of research on men’s sexual desire and same-sex couples. These areas require additional exploration to further our understanding of sexual desire that can be generalizable to a larger and broader population.