Think a satisfying sex life in a long-term relationship is kind of an anomaly? Sure, people pretend it exists because it makes for good romantic comedies and keeps us married folks somewhat hopeful of our futures. But it’s not actually a “thing” in real life, right?
Well — yes and no. It is far too common for sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships to take a nosedive. The good news is, we know what to do about it. The bad news is many people are too lazy and complacent to do it. (As a couples therapist, I see this often.)
There have been a few replicated studies on a phenomenon called “sexual communal strength” and its impact on sexual satisfaction over time. Turns out, sexual communal strength is the one researched characteristic that makes or breaks a sex life. It is defined as “desire or willingness to meet a partner’s sexual needs, even when different from your own preferences.”
Seems like common sense, but how many couples take this to heart and actually apply it?
In a sample of long-term couples (together for 11 years on average), researchers found people who were higher in sexual communal strength reported higher levels of daily sexual desire and were more likely to maintain their desire over time. People who began the study with high sexual communal strength maintained sexual desire over four months, and the people that started off with low sexual communal strength reported declining sexual desire.
When researchers asked study participants what this meant to them, some answers included: having sex with your partner when not entirely in the mood; pursuing sexual activities that your partner enjoys even if they are not your favorite; and taking strides to understand and meet your partner’s sexual fantasies.
The great thing is, none of the behaviors that represent sexual communal strength require a personality transplant or the acquisition of some amazing skill. The behaviors simply require willingness.
- Are you and your partner willing to have sex even when you don’t feel like it?
- Are you and your partner willing to pursue sexual activities that the other enjoys?
- Are you and your partner willing to try to understand and meet the other’s sexual needs?
Answering these questions honestly, and discussing them with your partner, might be a good place to start if you are looking to improve your sex life.
Of course, pointing to “willingness” as the sole solution is very simplistic, and in many cases it is too simplistic. I see many couples in therapy who need to work through “barriers to willingness” before they are willing and able to improve their sexual communal strength.
Common barriers to willingness include:
- Discomfort with sexuality
- Discomfort with being vulnerable in the relationship
- Withholding sex as a passive-aggressive maneuver
- Willingness being clouded by disconnection or resentment
- Depression or some forms of anxiety
Is there something getting in the way of your willingness? Couples or individual therapy may help you discover and break through any barriers to sexual communal strength.
Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., & Desmarais, S. (in press). Keeping the spark alive: Being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs sustains sexual desire in long-term romantic relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science.