science of us

Advice From Sexuality Research About How to Keep the Spark Alive

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Lots of long-term relationships have the same hallmarks: You’ve deleted Tinder and hauled yourself out of the dating pool. You spend more Friday nights on the couch than on a barstool, and Netflix and chill actually means watching Netflix and … chilling. That’s all normal. It’s also normal, according to experts, if you’re maybe not having quite as much sex as you did at the beginning.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Sex Research, University of Kentucky researchers Kristen Mark and Julie Lasslo conducted a review of dozens of studies on sexual desire spanning more than two decades, and concluded that while maintaining sexual desire in a long-term relationship is a ubiquitous struggle, it’s not a given than your lust will disappear over time — nor is it a death sentence if it does.

“The decline of sexual desire,” they wrote, “is a common, but not necessary, part of long-term relationships,” and keeping that decline at bay depends on a complex cocktail of social, interpersonal, and individual factors. Here are a few highlights from their findings about what goes into sustaining the spark.

Accept that you’re going to go through phases where you’re just not feeling it.

Acknowledging a lack of desire doesn’t highlight a problem so much as relieve the problem, the review authors found: In several studies, “realistic expectations that sexual desire will ebb and flow throughout the relationship” was linked to a greater ability to sustain that desire in the long run.

Which makes sense, when you consider that interpersonal variables like communication, responsiveness from a partner, and overall satisfaction with the relationship — all things that also ebb and flow over time — can also play a role, according to the model of sexual desire that Mark and Lasslo put together in their paper.

When Carolynn Aristone, founder and director of the Center for Intimate Relationships, works with clients in long-term relationships who want to amp up their sex lives, the first thing she looks at is the relationship as a whole.

“The first place I’d go is looking at the relational connection,” says Aristone, who was not affiliated with the review. “Is our sex life mirroring how we’re living our lives together in general? I see that a lot. Maybe you do the same things, eat the same things, watch the same things, wear the same things all the time. That’s boring. And again, that’s not an adjective for sex. Step one is to break that rut all around and create new experiences together.”

Handled the right way, relationship conflict doesn’t have to be a mood-killer.

The review authors found that while constant conflict reduces sexual desire — if you’re constantly fighting, there’s not much opportunity for sex — avoiding conflict made things even worse.

“The avoidance of conflict is a problem in a relationship, but engaging doesn’t negatively impact sexual desire,” says Mark, the paper’s lead author and the director of the Sexual Health Promotion lab at the University of Kentucky. Avoiding conflict completely is a risk factor for decreasing desire — and, ironically, so is using sex to avoid conflict. Engaging in conflict in a healthy way, though, is helpful to both a relationship and a sex life.

“When you give yourself permission to show up to the conflict, state what’s on your mind, and engage in raw, honest expression, that’s intimacy,” Aristone says. “It’s risky, it’s raw. That mirrors what sex means. It needs that kind of risk.”

Desire and arousal are different things, and that you can have one without the other.

Desire and arousal do work hand-in-hand, but that doesn’t mean the two terms are interchangeable, Mark says.

“Often, they’re shown as the same thing,” she says. “But there are plenty of people who want more sex than they’re having. Desire is more psychological. Arousal is the physiological response.”

Earlier sexuality studies conflated the two, and presented the human sexual response cycle as a linear progression: sexual excitement (or arousal), plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Later, sexual desire was added to the beginning of a similarly linear model.

But researchers today are moving away from the linear model, Mark says, which doesn’t account for a range of responses, particularly in long-term relationships.

“I don’t think it is linear at all,” she says. “It’s more of a circular model that allows desire and arousal to happen at different times in the cycle. Maybe you have desire but not arousal, and you need to use lubricant. Maybe the desire comes later, after sex. That also accounts for non-sexual motivations for sex, of which there are many. Desire can pop up because your partner got the kids off to bed, or because you had a great day at work.”

One of the major motivations for sex in long-term relationships, for both men and women, is a desire for intimacy.

“There are a lot of things we want out of sex,” Mark says.
“Orgasm, sure, but also intimacy and emotional closeness.”

In Aristone’s experience, even a circular model of sexual response looks different for men and women. Men, she says, often report feeling emotionally closer to their partner after sex, while women tend to seek a connection prior to sex.

“A lot of the time this is where the discrepancy that causes a decline in sex frequency comes into play,” Aristone says. “Women need to feel that they’re emotionally connected in order to be more vulnerable sexually. Men want to feel sexually connected in order to become more vulnerable with their partners.”

Based on Mark’s research, the data backs that up. But that doesn’t mean “men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” she says. “I think we can throw that idea out.”

“I’ve been saying for a while that men and women’s desire is the same, end of story,” she adds. “The research is beginning to convince me it’s more complicated than that, [and] I will admit there are probably some differences in how men and women experience and process sexual desire, but there are probably more similarities than differences.”

Try not to worry about what’s “normal.”

Based on the data they examined, Mark and Lasslo created a conceptual model of maintaining sexual desire with a core of individual factors like self-esteem, and stress, and expectations. That last one is especially important when considering depictions of sex in the media, which, Mark says, are unrealistic and damaging.

“Sex is always hot and spontaneous, and the people involved are always hot and spontaneous,” she says. But the research shows that the fear of not living up to that standard can reduce sexual desire, creating a negative feedback loop.

Aristone says that’s where she starts with her clients, too.

“First you have to look at yourself and say, ‘As an individual, what do I need to do to stay in growth mode?’ To be feeling good, feeling sexy, trying new things and learning new things — not even sexually, just in general,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to explore and expand with your partner if you’re not doing that for yourself.”

Advice From Sex Research About How to Keep the Spark Alive