It's one of Hollywood's classic plotlines: the married couple trying to reignite their passion after years of kids, dirty laundry and, well, life together. Sound familiar? Probably because it echoes a common complaint among real-life couples, who often experience a decline in sexual desire over time. But according to new research, long-term couples can buck the trend and get their groove back if they learn how to be more responsive partners.
The study, published in the October 2016 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that couples can reawaken desire by demonstrating and practicing “responsiveness”—reactions and behaviors that signal a person genuinely appreciates and supports his or her partner and is willing to invest in the relationship.
Lead author Gurit Birnbaum, a professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, Harry Reis, a University of Rochester psychology professor, and their colleagues conducted three experiments that were designed to examine whether partner responsiveness and intimacy-building behaviors could rekindle desire for one's partner. In the first study, 153 participants were told they would have an online discussion with their partner about a recent meaningful life event. In reality, they interacted with a researcher who sent either a responsive message (such as “you must have gone through a very difficult time”) that indicated attentiveness to the partner's views or an unresponsive message (“doesn't sound so bad to me”). Findings, which were compiled through observation and self-reported questionnaires, showed that women experienced greater sexual desire while interacting with a responsive partner than while interacting with an unresponsive one. Curiously, men's desire was not significantly different in the two responsiveness situations.
In the second study, researchers filmed 178 participants while they discussed a personal event with their partner, finding that the more often one partner displayed responsive behaviors (such as listening, getting facts right that their partner conveyed, making their partner feel respected and communicating feelings of affection), the more desire the other partner reported.
In a final study, 100 couples were asked to keep a daily diary for six weeks documenting their level of sexual desire and perceptions of their partner's responsiveness. The researchers found that both men and women who perceived their partner as responsive had a heightened interest in sex with them, although the effect was stronger for women than for men.
“For a lot of people, feeling an intimate connection and feeling they're understood is a really important part of sexuality,” says David Frederick, an assistant professor of health psychology at Chapman University in California, who was not involved in the research. “If you feel your partner is caring and validating, it makes some people want to reach out more, and that validation can lead to sexual desire. It can make someone appear as a better partner and more sexually attractive.”
The research was partially inspired by what psychologists call the intimacy-desire paradox—the concept that the greater the intimacy between partners, the less sexual desire they feel. Clinicians have long reported anecdotally that patients say intimacy and closeness quash desire and that novelty and newness are sexually arousing. But Birnbaum and Reis contend that the intimacy-desire paradox does not hold true under certain circumstances. Their findings suggest that what determines whether intimacy stifles or instigates desire is not its mere existence but its contextual meaning. “Responsiveness ignites desire by conveying the message that a partner is valued and worth pursuing. Sex is then seen as promoting an already cherished relationship,” Birnbaum says.
Frederick, who is lead author of a study published this year examining sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction among heterosexual couples in long-term relationships, notes that it may not be familiarity per se that causes sexual feelings to diminish but rather the decline in unpredictability and newness—qualities known to trigger a release of dopamine and a sexual rush. But in some couples, feelings of validation and intimacy foster sexual satisfaction, he says: “There are many ways intimacy and passion can become intertwined.”