Is there a secret to a fulfilling sex life?
Sex is a key factor in most romantic relationships. In fact, earlier this year, Medical News Today reported that the "afterglow" that newlywed couples feel for up to 2 days after having sex is associated with greater marital satisfaction.
But last week, a new study showed that 34 percent of women and 15 percent of men who had lived with their partner for at least 1 year had lost interest in sex.
There are many factors that can affect sexual desire. Find out how much sex has the greatest effect on happiness, why some people lose interest, and what factors contribute to long-term sexual satisfaction.
How much sex is enough?
In a 2016 paper, Amy Muise, Ph.D. - a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga in Canada - explains that there is plenty of evidence that "[...] the more sex people reported, the happier they felt."
However, Dr. Muise also questions whether trying to have sex as "frequently as possible" is actually going to have the desired effect, particularly in light of the busy lives that many people lead.
Is the pressure of having frequent sex getting in the way of happiness?
Dr. Muise reports a clear relationship between the frequency of sex and happiness. What she found was that people who had sex once per week or more often were significantly happier than those who had sex less often.
But study participants who had sex on several occasions per week were not happier than those who had sex once each week.
The results were true for individuals who were in a romantic relationship, including women, older participants, and those in long-term relationships who tend to have less sex.
Interestingly, having sex had a greater effect on the participants' happiness than income. So if sex makes us happy, why do so many people lose interest?
Who loses interest in sex?
There is plenty of evidence that being in a long-term relationship, being a woman, and increasing age are linked to a drop in sexual frequency.
Last year, MNT reported that women's sexual desire decreased in long-term relationships. However, over the 7-year study period, the participants' ability to reach orgasm improved - especially in those who had been in the same relationship the entire time.
So, for women, staying with a partner means better orgasms but less interest in sex, according to the research.
Last week, we reported on a new study published in BMJ Open that adds to the body of evidence showing that women's interest in sex decreases in relationships.
Prof. Cynthia Graham, from the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, found that more than 34 percent of women who had lived with their partner for at least 1 year lacked interest in sex, while only 15 percent of men did.
The biggest turn-offs
Prof. Graham identified a number of factors that were associated with the drop in sexual desire found in her study.
For women, these were having young children, having been pregnant in the past year, living with their partner, being in a longer relationship, not sharing the same level of sexual interest, and not sharing the same sexual preferences.
For both genders, health conditions (including depression), not feeling close to their partner during sex, being less happy with their relationship, and having sex less often than they were interested in all contributed to a drop in sexual interest.
Age was another factor. Men experienced the lowest levels of interest in sex between the ages of 35 and 44, while for women, this was between 55 and 64.
Julia Velten, Ph.D. - a postdoctoral fellow at the Mental Health Research and Treatment Center at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany - reported that when men felt that their partner expected them to always initiate sex, it had a negative effect on their sexual satisfaction.
Sexual desire discrepancy, which is the difference between the actual and desired frequency of sex, was a negative factor for both men and women.
Sexual function also played a role for the couples in Dr. Velten's study. Men were affected by their partner's lack of sexual function, such as lack of arousal, while women were more affected by the partner's distress about their own sexual problem, such as erectile dysfunction.
How does masturbation fit into the picture?
On this topic, research findings do not agree. In a study involving couples living in Prague, Kateřina Klapilová, Ph.D. - from the Department of General Anthropology at Charles University in Prague - found that for women, masturbation negatively affected their sexual satisfaction.
But masturbation had no effect on men in these couples.
Meanwhile, Prof. Graham found that men who had recently masturbated were less interested in sex, while masturbation was not related to a change in women's sex drive.
Prof. Graham told MNT that in her previous research, she had "found striking gender differences in factors associated with frequency of masturbation in men and women."
She added that "when men were having less partnered sex, they tended to masturbate more often, whereas the reverse was true for women."
With 51.7 percent of male and 17.8 percent of female participants reporting to have masturbated in the 7 days prior to study interviews, this is clearly a factor that is important in many relationships.
But just how masturbation contributes to or distracts from long-term sexual satisfaction remains to be seen.
With significant levels of both men and women reporting a drop in sexual interest and satisfaction, is there a secret to keeping the spark alive?
The secret to sexual satisfaction
Dr. Klapilová's study found that for both men and women, penile-vaginal intercourse and the consistency of being able to reach vaginal orgasm were associated with sexual satisfaction.
She points to the "special role that vaginal orgasm (as distinct from other orgasm triggers) had in maintaining higher-quality intimate relationships."
Anik Debrot, Ph.D. - alongside Dr. Muise and other colleagues from the University of Toronto Mississauga - recently studied the link between affection and sexual activity.
In her study paper, which was published this year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, she explains that "when engaging in sex, people not only seek an intimate connection, but indeed experience more affection, both when having sex and in the next several hours."
"Thus, sex within romantic relationships provides a meaningful way for people to experience a strong connection with their partner," she adds.
To her, this indicates that sex is important in romantic relationships because of the emotional benefits that we feel. Dr. Debrot suggests, "[When sex may be impaired], affection could help maintain well-being despite decreased sex frequency."
The effect of time
A study by Prof. Julia Heiman, from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington, studied 1,000 couples in five countries (Brazil, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the United States).
Although the length of the couples' relationships ranged from 1 to 51 years, half had been together for at least 25 years.
Prof. Heiman found that "[w]omen reported significantly more sexual satisfaction than men and men more relationship satisfaction." In particular, "Men who valued their partner's orgasm were more likely to report relationship happiness."
Women's sexual satisfaction increased from 40 percent at the start of the relationship to 86 percent once they had been with their partner for 40 years.
From these studies, penile-vaginal sex, affection, and the time spent in the relationship are key ingredients to a happy sex life. But there is one more factor that could be key: open communication.
Talking about sex
In Dr. Velten's study, open communication about sexual wishes and frequencies had a positive effect on the quality of sex that the participants reported.
Likewise, participants in Prof. Graham's study who found it easy to talk about sex with their partner were more interested in sex.
She told MNT that "[their] findings underline that open communication with a partner about sex is one of the most important things you can do to try to maintain sexual interest in a relationship."
Sexual desires and preferences are, by nature, intrinsically personal and individual. Research in this field is complex, and while studies can show associations and trends, they will not be able to tease apart the reasons for an individual's sexual satisfaction.
"I don't think that there is any 'secret' to long-term sexual satisfaction! Human sexuality is too diverse and 'fluid' for this to be the case - but [...] open communication about sex with a partner should go some way to preventing sexual problems from developing."
Prof. Cynthia Graham
Talking about sex may be a good starting point. Finding a way to fit sex into the pressures of daily life may be challenging, but affection and time together might well help.