Sexual desire is often described as “elusive,” “misunderstood,” or “complex.” But after decades of studying the topic, researchers know more than ever about what helps couples maintain sexual desire in long-term relationships.
In a special issue of the Journal of Sex Research, published online in March 2018, Kristen Mark and Julie Lasslo present a systematic review of 64 studies on sexual desire in relationships spanning three decades. They note 19 factors that either help or hinder our experience of sexual desire and categorize them in three broad areas — individual factors, interpersonal factors, and societal factors.
Here are five prominent themes determined to help couples maintain sexual passion. (The complete list of factors can be found here.)
Our interest in sex naturally ebbs and flows over the course of a long-term relationship as we age and face various life changes — the arrival of babies, stress from work, money worries, or the death of a loved one, to name just a few. Researchers have reliably found that individuals who accept these fluctuations as normal and natural are more sexually satisfied when they hit a bump. They are able to view the changes as understandable rather than problematic, which seems to help them weather the potential storm. In contrast, individuals who do not hold this perspective report greater worry and stress when they hit a sexual bump or slump, consequently resulting in a negative impact on their sexual satisfaction.
Expectations about sexual desire were also found to extend into the research on desire discrepancies (when one person has more sexual desire than their partner). That is, when couples acknowledge that it’s normal — even expected — for individuals to want different frequencies of sexual activity and/or want sex at different times, they are more equipped to navigate those differences when they arise without it negatively impacting their desire.