Are you into long-term relationships?
Sexual growth vs Sexual destiny
Each relationship kicks off with a so-called honeymoon phase – an idyllic romantic period when partners seemed to be joined at the hip, enjoy sex several times a day and need nothing but each other to feel completely happy. According to various studies, this period, also referred to as “new relationship energy” or simply “infatuation” lasts from 6 months to 3 years (as in Frederic Beigbeder’s bestseller “Love lives three years”) and the working force behind the sweet romance are hormones (namely, oxytocin).
Needless to say, at this stage partners feel fully compatible and tend to ignore minor differences that could lead to major disharmony in the future. But what happens to sex life in long-term relationships after the pink haze wears off and is it possible to keep getting as much satisfaction as at the beginning? A group of researchers from Toronto University have addressed this question by studying people’s implicit beliefs about sexual life and their influence on actual satisfaction levels. The two opposing sets of implicit beliefs were “sexual growth” and “sexual destiny”.
Participants who identified themselves as “sexual growth” believers claim that the secret to great sex in long-term relationships is constant effort and hard work. They admitted that sex-life inevitably changes over time and partners need to find ever new ways to please each other and spice things up. Contrary to that, “sexual destiny” believers think that great sex simply happens when you have found the right person aka your soulmate.
It turned out that these sets of beliefs influence not only couple’s sex life, but also other aspects of long-term relationships. “Sexual growth” adepts are sure that problems in the bedroom are solvable and do not let them affect the quality of relationship in general, while people who believe in “sexual destiny” automatically perceive sexual problems as a sign of more profound issues, which can undermine a couple’s happiness.
The findings also showed that benefits of “sexual growth” philosophy become apparent at later stages of long-term relationships and its adepts are more satisfied with their sex life after the honeymoon phase is over. “Your sex life is like a garden, and it needs to be watered and nurtured to maintain it”, – says Jessica Maxwell, one of the researchers. At the same time, “sexual destiny” beliefs, in her opinion, have a lot of similarities with other dysfunctional beliefs about sex.
How does sex change in long-term relationships?
Before trying to define “sexual growth” and making a list of efforts to be taken, let’s see what kind of problems couples commonly face in their sex lives after several years of being in a relationship, and what the chances for “happily ever after” really are.
It is no news that sexual desire subsides gradually over time, sex becomes less frenetically passionate and more low-key, and for many couples keeping the fire burning becomes a real challenge. Routineness and predictability of date nights and sex scenarios are the traps that few manage to avoid.
Numerous studies have been done to measure sexual satisfaction levels in couples, and the first thing to know is that if your passion has cooled down, you are not alone. Scientists from Relate, Marriage Care and Relationships Scotland found that 45% of UK adults say they are satisfied with their sex life and 51% say they have not had sex in the past month. In the worst-case scenario, couples end up with a sexless marriage: research held by the sociology department at Georgia State University in the US suggests that 15% of married couples have not had sex with their spouse within the past six to twelve months.
Sure enough, honeymoon and post-honeymoon satisfaction levels have also been compared. The study from Chapman University published in “The Journal of Sex Research” examined over 38,000 couples from the US who had been married or cohabiting for no less than three years. Participants had to rate their satisfaction with sex during the first six month of the relationship and at the moment of study, and here’s what they answered: at the initial stage of relationship satisfaction rate was roughly 83% for both men and women, and at later stages it dropped down to 59% and 73% for men and women respectively.
The authors of the study said that it was encouraging to learn that over 30% of couples preserved passionate relationships even after decades spent together, and insisted that the key to success was a conscious effort to avoid routine.
The lead author of the study David Frederick, Ph.D., says: “Almost half of satisfied and dissatisfied couples read sexual self-help books and magazine articles, but what set sexually satisfied couples apart was that they actually tried some of the ideas”.
It is also interesting that, contrary to wide-spread stereotypes, in (heterosexual ) long-term relationships women more often become the side with higher libido and sex drive (in 55% of couples). Also, more women are “sexual growth” believers and tend to work on the quality of their sex-lives (probably, because sexual satisfaction takes more effort from them from the start).
‘After all this time?’ or Why do all couples still need sex?
Despite all the threats, odds of having a happy sex-life in long-term relationships seem to be pretty high. It’s due to the fact that age and time spent together do bring some less obvious, but nonetheless important advantages, one of which is seeing various aspects and functions of sex beyond instant physical pleasure.
“For me sex had become a lot more important after my partner and I had gone through our first sexless period…”, “Sex is one of the most important factors in marriage. It does help as the gateway to intimacy, conversation and candour” – these are some thoughts shared by married men in letters to The Guardian. Lack of sex in marriage, in its turn, leads to the feeling of rejection and self-doubt.
According to psychotherapist Christine Webber, sex serves all kinds of purposes: it can be restorative, consolatory and even healing. “You might have sex to comfort your partner after a really bad day or distract yourself at a difficult time. …It’s the best way of de-stressing, and of bringing that sense of safety, of belonging somewhere and having someone when times are frightening”, – Webber says.
Another somewhat controversial opinion expressed by Australian sex therapist, Bettina Arndt, is that in order to have more and better sex, you just need to have sex first, implying that if partners with lower libido manage to stay responsive and indulge the other partner’s needs anyways, the sexual desire may return and the sex itself will have the effect of strengthening long-term relationships and building intimacy.
“You can have ‘great sex’ and ‘good enough’ sex and sex that doesn’t really leave you physically satisfied – but all of it nurtures intimacy,” says Emma Waring, a psychosexual nurse therapist from London. “Not taking sex really seriously and being playful is important in a marriage”.
Is sex like good wine and can it become better with years?
So, is keeping sexual satisfaction on the honeymoon-phase level is the ultimate goal? Well, there are people who won’t agree, becaus the goal is to make it even higher. Sex therapists Michael Metz and Barry McCarthy in their widely-acknowledged book “Enduring Desire: Your Guide to Lifelong Intimacy” claim that the best sex occurs in couples who have spent 15 years together or longer.
Which evidence can we provide to support this opinion? First, of course, is the deeper level of understanding between partners. While sex in one-night stands is rather a “performance” highlighting all the best and hiding insecurities, in long-term relationships couple have enough time for exploring, communicating, going deeper and finding more pleasure in each other.
Second, it’s the anxiety which evaporates along with the thrill of unknown. For women, a new partner means a thousand little and not-so-little concerns about looks, image and performance, as they try to live up to pictures from glossy magazines. Men might be caring less about their appearance, but they are also under pressure of popular culture that dictated size, speed and what not. All those worries can be a major turn-off, but when the couple finally puts them aside, they start to focus on enjoying themselves.
Another component to great sex, which is hard to underestimate, is trust. Trusting your partner and feeling safe opens a way to experiments, where taboos cease to exist and partners can leave behind their inhibitions and show their kinks. “Transgressing boundaries when you are Mr and Mrs Normal living a structured, routine kind of life – that’s where the contrast can get really interesting,” – believes the psychotherapist Simon Jacobs.
And, last, but not least, partners in long-term relationships develop the kind of emotional closeness that grows with time and gives meaning not only to sex, but to every moment spent with each other. Two-thirds of people in happy relationships reported feeling the same or more emotional closeness during sex than in the first six months of being together. Thus, postcoital moments of cuddling and chit-chatting, which can be very awkward after one-night stands, become the cherry on the pie, prolonging the feeling of connection and being desired.
How to spice up sexual relationships with a long-term partner?
Killing desire for the sake of security in a long-term relationships is called “intimacy-desire paradox” and the means to fight it is new experience and a sense of novelty, which can reactivate the brain’s reward system and trigger the same chemical processes as at the beginning of a relationship . So, bringing a spark of early love to an otherwise fulfilling partnership is quite a possible mission.
No wonder, people in sexually satisfying long-term relationships mention such tricks to re-igniting the fire as going to a new romantic place, wearing erotic lingerie, giving each other massage, taking a bath or a shower together. Novelty also applies to sex itself – trying a new position, acting out a fantasy, testing a sex toy or watching porn together also ranked high on the tips to better and longer sexual life.
Quite surprisingly, changing the time of the day when you have sex also counts as novelty: morning sex at least once a week is said to be great for long-term relationships, as it helps partners to tune in with each other for the day and feel energized. In addition, just-awaken people are less self-conscious.
A team of researchers from the US insist that the foundation of great sex in long-term relationships is foreplay: kissing, laughing, saying “I love you” and cuddling before sex made heterosexual couples much more satisfied with the experience. This idea is also supported by the already-mentioned Chapman University survey, which showed that half of sexually satisfied men and women reported their sexual encounters to be longer than 30 minutes.
To keep the sexy atmosphere even longer, therapists advice to build anticipation: agree about a sex night in advance, exchange teasing texts during the day, set the mood with lighting and music. Making a plan to have sex doesn’t remove the excitement and non-spontaneous sex is just as good.
It takes two to tango
No matter how many years you have already spent with your special someone or how many more you have ahead, nothing should stop you from having passionate, loving and satisfying sex life. Any problem can be solved, if you start with dialogue and remain respectful, grateful and responsive to your partner.