Adam and Eve (1931) by Francis Picabia

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Many couples fail to maintain sexual desire in their long-term relationships. Two people who once could not keep their hands off each other gradually lose interest in having sex, at least with their current partner. What distinguishes couples who experience passionate long-term relationships from those who fail to sustain the passion? Are there effective strategies to prevent against the waning of sexual desire in long-term relationships?

A study1 published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology seeks to answer those questions. Researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, the University of Rochester, and Cornell Tech collaborated on three studies to observe couples’ expressions of responsiveness and sexual desire. People often say that they have sex because they wish to feel understood and cared for and that a partner who is responsive to their needs would arouse their sexual interest. However, previous research has not provided conclusive evidence for whether an increased sense of intimacy actually promotes (or undermines) sexual desire. In this context, intimacy consists of feelings of understanding, closeness, and connectedness and involves mutual expression of affection, warmth, and caring.2

Indeed, some scholars have noted the intimacy-desire paradox, which indicates that high levels of intimacy may inhibit rather than increase sexual desire. These scholars have argued that the core of this paradox lies in the contradiction between the intimate and familiar relationships that many people strive for and the limitations of such familiar bonds for enhancing desire. In particular, the need for security that intimacy typically provides may clash with the sense of uncertainty, novelty, and separateness that fuels desire, such that high levels of intimacy between partners may stifle sexual desire.

The findings of this new research show that a partner’s responsiveness outside the bedroom does, in fact, contribute to the desire to have sex with this partner, and help explain why women’s desire is more strongly affected by their partner’s responsiveness than men’s desire. 

In Study 1, 153 participants were led to believe that they would interact online with their partner. In reality, they discussed a recent personally meaningful life event with a confederate who sent either responsive or unresponsive standardized messages.

Here is an example:

Participant: “I was hanging out with my friends, when my mom called me. She told me in a broken voice that her sister, my aunt, had a nervous breakdown. I knew that she had been going through a rough period after her husband had left her, but I was still upset to hear that.”

Confederate: “That must have been a very painful experience” (a responsive response) or, “That’s definitely not easy, but such things happen in life” (an unresponsive response)

Participant: “I thought of my mom: How she would cope with this. Then I thought how my grandpa would cope with this. He would definitely blame my aunt’s ex-husband. I was worried about her and uncertain about whether the two families would survive this.”

Confederate: “I completely understand what you have been through” (a responsive response) or, “You should try to take it all in proportion” (an unresponsive response)

Participant: “Since then, the relations between the two families deteriorated, contact nearly ceased. I guess anything can happen even to the most tightly-knit families following such events.”

Confederate: “It seems this event has had a powerful effect on you” (a responsive response) or, “Well, it is a sad story, but worse things could have happened” (an unresponsive response)

The findings showed that women experienced greater sexual desire while interacting with a responsive partner than while interacting with an unresponsive partner, whereas men’s desire was not significantly different in the two responsiveness conditions. 

In Study 2, 178 participants discussed a personal event face-to-face with their partner. Then, partners were invited to express physical intimacy (e.g., caressing, kissing, and making out) with each other. These interactions were videotaped and coded by independent judges for displays of responsiveness (e.g., listening and getting the facts right, making the partner feel respected, communicating feelings of affection for one’s partner) and desire (e.g., flirting, flashing seductive smiles, exchanging penetrating gaze). The results revealed that partner’s enacted responsiveness was associated not only with self-reported desire, but also with observed displays of desire, but once again mainly in women.  Nevertheless, perceived partner responsiveness was associated with self-reported and displayed desire in both sexes. 

In Study 3, 100 couples kept a diary for six weeks: Partners reported on their own level of sexual desire each day as well as their perceptions of their partner’s responsiveness (e.g., “Today my partner has expressed liking and encouragement for me”; “Today my partner seemed interested in what I was thinking and feeling”). Partners also reported their own levels of feeling special (e.g., “My partner has made me feel special”; “My partner has made me feel that our relationship is special and unique”) and perceptions of their partner’s mate value (e.g., “My partner would be perceived as an extremely desirable mate by other people”; “If my partner were single, he would have been romantically pursued by opposite-sex individuals”). The results indicate that for both men and women, perceiving a partner as responsive makes one feel special and the partner seem to be a valuable mate and thus sexually desirable. 

Responsiveness signals to partners that one genuinely understands, values, and supports important aspects of their self-concept and is willing to invest resources in the relationship. Unlike less-intimate expressions that signal general intentions to “act nice,” a partner’s provision of responsiveness indicates specific awareness of who one is at a relatively deep level, and what one truly wants. Recognizing this specific awareness in a partner makes the relationship feel special, which is, at least in Western life, what people seek from their romantic relationships.

Still, partner responsiveness had a significantly stronger effect on women’s perceptions of both themselves and their partners, suggesting that women experienced higher levels of desire for their responsive partner because they were more likely than men to feel special and value this partner as a result of the partner’s responsiveness.

Overall, the findings elucidate the intimacy-desire paradox, suggesting that, under certain circumstances, it may not be a paradox: What determines whether intimacy instigates or inhibits desire is not the mere existence of intimacy, but its meaning in the larger context of a relationship. Responsiveness is most likely to instigate desire when it conveys the impression that the partner is worth pursuing and when engaging in sex with such a desirable partner is likely to promote an already valuable relationship.

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