Sex & Relationships: Q&A with psychologist Amy Muise
Have you ever worried about how to maintain sexual desire and satisfaction over the long haul? Who hasn’t? I recently spoke to Amy Muise, assistant professor of psychology at York University, about her research with long-term romantic couples. The good news? Keeping things hot is easier than we think.
There are statistics suggesting that frequency of sex nosedives with each passing decade. Is this true?
Sex does tend to decline over time. But research has shown this is a product of the length of the relationship rather than someone’s age. If older people get into a new relationship, they’re likely going to be having more frequent sex.
Is having a lot of sex the best way to keep a relationship strong?
There is a positive link between how much sex couples have and how happy they feel in their relationship and their lives overall. But what I have found in my work is that this association tends to level off at a frequency of around once a week. So for couples who engaged in sex more than once a week, there wasn’t additional benefits for their wellbeing or their relationship happiness.
That seems do-able even for Boomer couples who have been together for decades.
I always like to caution that this is on average. There are different levels of desire and different preferences in relationships. The takeaway though is that for most couples it’s important to maintain that sexual connection but it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the super high levels they might have experienced at the beginning of their relationship.
Your research has found that couples rarely feel the same degree of desire at the same time. Given the importance of maintaining a sexual connection, is it smart to have sex even when we don’t feel like it?
It’s tricky. It depends on the motivation. We found that when people engage in sex to pursue positive outcomes—like expressing love for their partner—this is associated with higher overall relationship and sexual satisfaction. Their partners feel more satisfied which is fairly intuitive. But what is interesting is that they also feel more satisfied and maintain higher desire over time. However, when people engage in sex to avoid conflict, for example, this tends to lead to more negative outcomes like feeling less sexually satisfied and less satisfied with their relationship overall.
But what about when you are really, really not in the mood for sex?
It can be hard to acknowledge to our partner that we are not interested in having sex so sometimes people might just ignore their partner’s advances, pretend to be asleep, or be nasty to deter them from sex. If you can decline your partner’s advances in a way that reaffirms your love and desire for them, that might be better than having sex to avoid conflict. “I acknowledge your need and let’s meet it, just not at this moment,” can go a long way.
Longer-term couples can start to experience a certain ennui in their relationship. Does your research offer any ideas for preventing this?
It’s hard to have that same level of novelty and excitement once you live with a person and know all these things about them. In two studies we asked longer-term couples to report on their daily activities over three weeks, and about their level of self-expansion—how much they derive novelty and excitement or a new perspective on the world from their relationship with their partner. We found on days where people felt more self-expansion, they had more desire for their partner. They were more likely to engage in sex on those days and they felt more satisfied with their relationship.
It’s easy to fall into a routine, for sure. What were the kind of self-expansion activities that worked for the couples in your study?
When we think about things that are novel or exciting, we might think, “Oh, I’ve got to learn how to scuba dive or go bungee jumping.” But the vast majority mentioned things that could easily be done in a relationship: exploring a new part of their city or trying a new type of food. A big one is teaching each other something or learning something together. One participant said, “I taught my partner how to make a cherry pie.” Even if it’s something a couple had done before, they put a novel perspective on it. They were seeing their partner with new eyes. But it was encouraging that you don’t have to spend $10,000 on a European vacation!
Given your work, you must be very popular at cocktail parties. What is the question you’ve been asked the most?
One of the big questions was, “How frequently are people having sex?” I realized that the root of the question was people wanted to know: “Are we ok? Are we having enough sex?” It’s hard. People in most relationships have lots of stuff going on so carving out time is challenging. People are positively surprised at the once-a-week finding.
“Sex & Relationships” is a new column by Sue Nador.