The portrait that sex researchers and therapists paint when they talk about the sex lives of long-term couples is often bleak. Many speak of a decline in sexual desire that begins after just a few years. For example, therapist Esther Perel writes in her now-famous book Mating in Captivity that “the story of sex in committed modern couples often tells of a dwindling desire and includes a long list of sexual alibis, which claim to explain the inescapable death of eros.”
Similarly, one of the most popular psychological theories of love, Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory, describes sexual passion as the component of love that quickly peaks and then fades away. In the college courses I teach on human sexuality at Harvard, Purdue, and other universities, the day I cover Sternberg’s theory is usually one of the most depressing of the entire semester because it effectively confirms one of students’ worst fears about long-term love: the concept of eternal passion appears to be a myth. But many of you probably know couples that have lasted 20, 30, 40 even 50-plus years and seem happy.
So the loss of sexual desire is not inevitable. In fact, new research supports this notion and reveals that certain types of people may be more likely to experience a drop in desire than others.
In a set of studies published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers sought to understand the roles that both attachment style and gender play when it comes to maintaining sexual desire over time in a relationship.
Attachment style refers to the way that one thinks about and approaches relationships in general and it’s thought to stem, in part, from early interactions as children with our primary caregivers.
People who are securely attached tend to be the happiest in their relationships—they’re the most trusting of their partners and are the most confident in their partners’ love. Those who are anxiously attached tend to be worried that their partner will leave them and frequently look for signs of reassurance. People who are avoidantly attached are not comfortable with intimacy and try not to get too close.
Researchers conducted two similar studies, with the main difference being that the first one focused on 62 dating couples, while the second focused on 175 newlyweds in longer-term relationships. They followed-up with the dating couples three times over 8 months, while they checked in 4 times with the newlyweds over 18 months.
In addition to measuring feelings of attachment anxiety and avoidance, researchers measured feelings of sexual desire during each wave of data collection.
Men reported higher levels of sexual desire than did women at each time period. To be clear, this isn’t to say that women necessarily reported low sexual desire, just that they reported less desire for sex relative to men on average (remember that there’s always a lot of individual variability).
Also, consistent with what sex researchers and therapists often say about long-term relationships, on average, sexual desire declined over time for men and women in both dating and marital relationships. However, when they looked more closely at the data, that drop in desire didn’t occur for everyone.
For men, the drop in desire was specific to those who were high in attachment anxiety—in other words, the guys who didn’t feel confident in their relationships and needed a lot of reassurance found themselves wanting less sex over time. For men who were low in attachment anxiety, there was no significant change in level of sexual desire.
This suggests that when men are preoccupied with their relationships or are unsure of their partner’s feelings, this tends to take a toll on their sex lives, leading them to become less interested in sexual activity.
Interestingly, this effect of attachment anxiety was specific to men—women’s desire declined over time no matter how anxious they felt. It’s worth pointing out that women had a higher baseline level of attachment anxiety than did men, though. This might partially explain why the researchers found that that the highly anxious men’s responses looked similar to the overall pattern for women; however, desire dropped at an even steeper rate for anxious men than it did for women.
It also turned out that men who were avoidantly attached (that is, men who were uncomfortable with intimacy) had a lower baseline level of desire for sex at the outset of the study. The same was true for women, but only women in dating relationships. The researchers believe that avoidant persons’ lower sexual desire is an intentional strategy aimed at limiting or minimizing closeness in their relationship.
These results tell us a few important things.
The first is that a drop in sexual desire is not necessarily inevitable in a long-term relationship because men who were securely attached don’t necessarily seem to experience it. These results also suggest that sexual desire may be impacted by attachment style more for men than it is for women. Mind blown? Keep reading.
The researchers speculate based on previous studies that it might be because anxious men seem to be more sensitive to sexual rejection and are more worried about meeting their partner’s sexual needs. They suggest that these factors “may make anxious men feel emotionally exhausted over time in sexual interactions with their partner.” In other words, compared to men who are securely attached, anxious men come to see sex as an activity that is fraught with risk and is less rewarding overall.
“Perhaps anxious men unconsciously protect themselves from feeling rejected in sexual interactions by progressively lowering their sexual expectations over time,” the researchers speculate.
These results also tell us that the trajectory of sexual desire in a relationship isn’t necessarily the same across genders. According to the researchers, “women’s sexual responses are more attuned to relational context,” whereas men’s are “more individualistic and pleasure-centered.” They go on to suggest that being anxious might make men think about sex in less individualistic terms—in other words, these men are thinking less about their own pleasure and more about their partner’s, as well as the quality of their overall relationship.
As a sex researcher myself, I can’t help but think that there has to be a happy medium here that’s optimal not only for maintaining sexual desire, but also maintaining a healthy relationship at the same time. If you’re focused entirely on your own pleasure, that might be great for you, but not so much for your partner. At the same time, if you’re focused entirely on your partner, that might make you a great lover, but your own sexual needs may go unfulfilled.
Perhaps all of us—regardless of gender and attachment style—would be better served if we worked toward being somewhere in the middle instead: be invested in your partner’s pleasure, but don’t do it to the exclusion of having your own sexual needs met.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller
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