Many couples have difficulty maintaining sexual desire in a long-term relationship such as marriage. It’s an important subject to take a closer look at. Not all couples experience a drastic decline in desire over time. So, what are the differences between the couples where desire declines and the ones that do not? And, what can we learn from the couples that do not experience such a decline? Some recent studies may provide some answers.
A collaborative study by several universities was recently published the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that took a look at couples' degree of responsiveness and its effect, if any, on sexual desire. Past research has not given us a conclusive answer about whether an increased sense of emotional intimacy (feeling understood, close, connected through actions that are caring, warm and affectionate) in a relationship helps or hurts sexual desire.
There are those who have studied these issues that remark upon an ongoing intimacy-desire paradox debate. This paradox means that higher levels of emotional intimacy may actually inhibit sexual desire. The argument revolves around the idea that familiarity can kill desire. Desire is seen as rooted in novelty, uncertainty, and separateness. Yet other professionals assert that desire is rooted in the safety and security that a strong bond with a primary romantic partner provides.
The findings of this new research supports the latter. A partner’s emotional responsiveness outside the bedroom does in fact contribute to the desire to have sex with their partner. This concept also can help explain why women's desire in particular is more strongly impacted by their partner's responsiveness than men's desire.
In the first study, participants were told that they would interact online with their partner. They were instructed to talk about a recent personal and meaningful life event. However, they were really talking to a study confederate—an actor participating in the experiment. This confederate sent either a "responsive" or an "unresponsive" standardized message back after hearing the story.
Some examples of responsive replies:
“That must have been a very difficult experience.”
“I completely get what you have been through."
"It seems this event has had a major effect on you.”
“I would feel horrible too if that happened to me.”
Some examples of unresponsive replies:
“You should try to take it all in stride.”
“Well, that’s a bad story, but it could have been worse.”
“Maybe what happened is for the best.”
“I can’t see why that would upset you.”
Responsive replies, like in the examples above, focus on the partner’s emotional experience related to the event spoken about. The responses are empathic, validating and join with the person on the same level. The unresponsive replies seem dismissive and are not empathic.
The results of the study indicate that women reported experiencing a greater degree of sexual desire while interacting with a responsive partner than while interacting with an unresponsive partner.
Alternatively, men's desire was not significantly different in the two responsiveness conditions.
In a second study, 178 participants discussed something personal face-to-face with their real life partner. They were both asked to engage in physical intimacy such as touching, kissing, or making out with each other. The interactions were videotaped and coded (turning behavioral observations into data) for responsiveness and desire. Results demonstrated that partner's responsiveness was associated reports of desire and actual displays of desire in both genders but even more so in women.
In a third study, 100 couples maintained a diary for several weeks: Partners reported on their own level of sexual desire each day as well as their perceptions of their partner’s responsiveness, feeling special perceptions of their partner’s “mate value” (how desirable their mate would be by other people).
The results of the study indicate that for both men and women, viewing a partner as responsive makes them feel special and that their partner would also be desirable to others. Thus, their mate is also sexually desirable.
In conclusion, responsiveness signals to people that their mate genuinely understands, values, and supports important parts of their own sense of self and is willing to invest in the relationship. This is more than just acting nice. Acting nice is also great, but what we are talking about here involves having significant awareness of who their partner is on a deeper level and what their partner wants and needs. This is what makes a relationship feel special and it is often what people say they want from their romantic relationships. Based on the results, women may value feeling special even more and see feeling special as a big slice of their partner’s responsiveness.
Overall, the findings help clarify the so-called intimacy-desire paradox by suggesting that it may not be a paradox at all under certain circumstances. What determines whether intimacy activates or impedes desire is not the mere existence of intimacy itself, but its meaning in the grand scheme of the relationship. Responsiveness is most likely to promote desire when it gives the partner the impression that he or she is worth pursuing. Furthermore, engaging in sexual activity with this desirable partner is also likely to boost an already valued relationship.
So, if you are looking to increase the amount of sex you are getting from your partner, try acting in an emotionally responsive way. We have learned that this is particularly effective towards women. Make your partner feel heard, valued and special. Turn toward your partner in both simple everyday discussions and the bigger, more meaningful ones as well. This common sense advice is backed up by more and more research every day.
Birnbaum, G. E., Reis, H. T., Mizrahi, M., Kanat-Maymon, Y., Sass, O., & Granovski-Milner, C. (2016, July 11). Intimately Connected: The Importance of Partner Responsiveness for Experiencing Sexual Desire.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Baumeister, 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.
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