A common relationship secret shared among couples in a long-term relationship (whether married or not) concerns the frequency of sex. Although this open secret is usually about married couples, it’s a concern shared by anyone in a long-term relationship. The longer the relationship, the conventional thinking goes, the less sex you’re likely having. And maybe the reason you’re having less sex is because it’s less enjoyable for either you, your partner, or both of you.
Is there any truth to this belief that sexual enjoyment (and perhaps frequency) fades the longer you’re in a relationship? Does science have the answer? You bet.
German researchers Schmiedeberg & Schröder (2016) decided to find out whether sexual satisfaction decreases with relationship duration. They did this by examining how sexual satisfaction changes over the course of a relationship via large-scale, longitudinal research called the German Family Panel study. The researchers decided to concentrate their focus on young and middle-aged heterosexual individuals in committed relationships, which resulted in a study of 2,814 adults.
The German Family Panel is called “pairfam” for “Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics” and was launched in 2008. It is a “multi-disciplinary, longitudinal study for researching partnership and family dynamics in Germany. The annually collected survey data is from a nationwide random sample of more than 12,000 persons of the three separate birth [groups born between] 1971-73, 1981-83, 1991-93 and their partners, parents, and children. [The study] offers unique opportunities for the analysis of partner and generational relationships as they develop over the course of multiple life phases.”
Yes, it’s a pretty awesome study that looks at thousands of Germans families separated by three decades. There’s no better way to study family dynamics and questions about family and romantic relationships than through a nice, large, random longitudinal study of this nature. It is one of the gold standards of social science research.
Sex: It Gets Better with Relationship Age, Right?
One might think that the more we get to know our partner, the better the sex is going to be. After all, the more you learn how to do something, the better you usually become at doing that something. In this case, that “something” would be sex.
Well, the good news is that during the first year of a relationship, it’s likely you’re having some of the best sex of your life. That’s what the study researchers found too: “We found a positive development of sexual satisfaction in the first year of a relationship…”
But then they added, “followed by a steady decline.”
Dang. But maybe it’s a matter of sexual frequency — people simply stop having sex as frequently, and therefore are less sexually satisfied in the relationship. The researchers looked at that too:
“This pattern persisted even when controlling for the frequency of intercourse, although the effects were, in part, mediated by intercourse frequency.”
Meaning that even after controlling for sex frequency, sexual satisfaction still declined after the first year in a relationship.
Why does sexual satisfaction decline with time in a romantic relationship?
Causes of Sexual Satisfaction Decline
The researchers believe that during that first year, partners are learning about one another’s sexual skills, and exploring the extent of those skills. New things are novel and interesting, and this is especially true when it comes to our sexuality.
After we’ve explored each other’s sexual skills and abilities, most romantic couples seem to get stuck in somewhat of a sexual rut. The researchers suggest our passion for one another simply declines with relationship age.
But there are additional complex factors that likely come into play as well, according to the scientists.
These include each person’s health, how they communicate with one another in their relationship, and how they deal with conflict. People in better health, with healthier, more open communication styles, and with a healthier conflict resolution model, generally reported better sexual satisfaction than those couples who had health problems, didn’t communicate, and had greater conflict.
Unlike other research in this area, the current researchers didn’t find any connection between sexual satisfaction and whether the couple was cohabitating or married.
Does this research mean your sexual satisfaction is automatically going to decline over the years? No, but it does demonstrate that for most couples, decline in sexual satisfaction is a normal, predictable trend. Being aware of it may help you offset some of that decline with conscious, mindful action next time you find yourself in bed with your favorite partner.
Schmiedeberg C, Schröder J. (2016). Does Sexual Satisfaction Change With Relationship Duration? Arch Sex Behav. 2016 Jan;45(1):99-107. doi: 10.1007/s10508-015-0587-0. Epub 2015 Aug 6.