How to Maintain Sexual Desire in Your Relationship

Research From Social Psychologists Provides Surprising Insight

Research shows that being a responsive partner is the secret to maintaining sexual desire in a long-term relationship.
ImagesBazaar/Getty Images

Advice abounds in our media landscape for how to maintain sexual passion in a long-term romantic relationship. Most of it focuses on sex itself, and how to make it more exciting or appealing based on location, position and technique, props, and costumes. But hardly, if ever, does one come across advice that recognizes the connection between sexual desire and the social dynamics of long-term relationships. Fortunately, an international team of social psychologists is here to help.

Based on a three-part study conducted with hundreds of heterosexual adult couples in Israel, Drs. Gurit Birnbaum of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel and Harry Reis of the University of Rochester found that the secret to maintaining sexual desire is as simple as being responsive to your partner emotions and needs in everyday life.

The Importance of Partner Responsiveness in Building Intimacy

Birnbaum and Reis, along with a team of researchers, came to this conclusion after conducting three different experiments designed to test the same thing: whether there is a statistically significant relationship between partner responsiveness and sexual desire. The researchers explain in their paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in July 2016, that previous research shows that responsiveness is an important part of the development of intimacy between partners. They define it as expressions of understanding, giving validation, and providing care. They point out that studies show that responsiveness signals that the partner has a genuine understanding of the other person, that the partner values and supports what are considered important aspects of the self for that person, and the partner is willing to invest their own time and emotional resources in the relationship.

To investigate if there is a connection between partner responsiveness and sexual desire the researchers crafted a project composed of three different studies designed to test the connection in a variety of different settings in different ways. They crafted three hypotheses that explained what they expected to find: (1.) partner responsiveness would be associated with higher than normal levels of sexual desire, (2.) the connection between these two things would be mediated by feeling special and viewing one's partner as valuable following responsive behavior by the partner, (3.) women will experience a greater boost in desire than men following partner responsiveness. Then, they set out to test these with three experiments.

A Three-Part Experiment

In the first, 153 couples participated in a laboratory experiment in which they were separated and believed that they were conversing together over an online instant messaging application, when in fact, each was conversing with a researcher posing as their partner. Each participant discussed with the researcher/partner a recent positive or negative event that had happened in their lives, then rated the level of responsiveness they received in the online conversation.

In the second study, researchers observed 179 couples via video as they discussed a recent positive or negative event. The researchers focused on capturing and documenting verbal and non-verbal signals of responsiveness during the couple's conversation. Following the conversation, each member of the couple rated their partner's responsiveness and their own desire for their partner. Then, the couples were invited to be physically intimate in modest ways, like holding hands, kissing, or making out for five minutes while the researchers watched via video.

Finally, for the third study, each partner in 100 couples kept a nightly diary for six weeks that focused on the quality of the relationship, their perceptions of partner responsiveness and the value of their partner as a mate, their sense of feeling special, and their desire to engage in sex with their partner. The researchers used these nightly entries from each partner to determine how perceptions of partner responsiveness varied from day-to-day, how these others factors including sexual desire varied, and if they were related to one another.

Results Show Partner Responsiveness Cultivates Sexual Desire

The results of each study proved all three hypotheses to be true. Using statistical methods to study the relationships between the data they gathered, Birnbaum and Reis found in each case that participants reported a greater desire for their partner when they perceived their partner as responsive to their emotions and needs. The results of each study showed that the effect was present among men and women, however, perceived partner responsiveness had a stronger effect on the women's desire than it did on that of men.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that actual responsiveness, as documented in the second study, had an effect on women's desire but not on that of men. Yet, men reported higher levels of desire when they perceived responsiveness among their partners, regardless of whether that partner displayed responsive behavior during the course of the second study. This suggests perceptions of responsiveness are more powerful than the responsive behavior itself.

Finally, Birnbaum and Reis found when a person perceived responsiveness on the part of their partner, they felt more special and unique than they normally would and rated the value of their partner as greater than they would under other circumstances. The researchers concluded that these two things did, in fact, lead to increased sexual desire for one's partner.

Social Science Explains Why

So why is this the case? The researchers reason that expressions of responsiveness encourage desire because they communicate to the receiving partner that pursuing the responsive partner, in a sexual sense, is worthwhile because the receiving partner gets something in return. Additionally, they conclude that when these partners who find each other desirable have sex, their relationship is further strengthened by engaging in sexual intimacy. All of this means that being responsive to your partner's emotions and needs in everyday life leads to a stronger bond with your partner, a thriving sex life, and a healthy and rewarding relationship.

But why is the connection between perceived partner responsiveness and sexual desire more pronounced among women than men? The researchers explain:

"...the current findings shed light on why such expressions of responsiveness are particularly potent in influencing women’s sexual desire. A responsive partner is likely to be perceived not only as one who is willing to invest in the relationship but also as one who knows what it takes to invest well—that is, to be a good partner and parent. Given that women, compared with men, pay greater reproductive costs for choosing an unsuitable mate (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Trivers, 1972), it is hardly surprising that a good partner indicator, such as responsiveness, has a greater effect on their sexual desire, motivating them to deepen a relationship with a valued partner. Indeed, it has often been theorized that sexual activity serves a relationship maintenance function, in the sense of reinforcing the pair bond between committed partners and coparents (Birnbaum, 2014; Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015). Because these interests are also relevant to men’s long-term mating priorities and effectiveness (Buss & Schmitt, 1993), it is not surprising that responsiveness did also contribute to men’s sexual desire in Studies 2 and 3, albeit less influentially than for women."

Decades of sociological research into gender and sexuality backup the conclusion made my Birnbaum and Reis regarding women and responsiveness. It's a documented fact that women in heterosexual partnerships spend far more time on household tasks and parenting than do their male partners. In addition, men in many cultures are socialized to focus on their own desires, needs, and goals, and to take rather than give. Given these factors, it's unsurprising that a responsive partner would be especially inspiring to women.

Though same-sex couples weren't studied here, the results suggest that all couples benefit from being responsive partners to each other. As Birnbaum stated in the University of Rochester's press release on the study and its findings, "Sexual desire thrives on increasing intimacy and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time; better than any pyrotechnic sex."

So if you want to maintain passion in your relationship, be responsive to your partner. Doctor's orders.