Most couples in long-term relationships remain happy with their sex lives, even into their 60s, new research says.
The British Sociological Association's annual conference in Manchester heard that while it was not uncommon for couples to disagree about how often they should have sex, this did not alter the commitment to the relationship.
Professor Jacqui Gabb, of the Open University, and Professor Janet Fink, of the University of Huddersfield, surveyed more than 5,000 heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual people aged 16 to 65 to ask about their relationships. They found that:
- around 60% agreed with a survey statement that sex was an important part of their relationship, with around 15% disagreeing. Others neither agreed nor disagreed.
- around 33% of women agreed with the statement that their partners wanted sex more than they did, and 40% said this was not the case
- around 10% of men said that their partners wanted sex more than they did, and 60% said this was not the case.
Professor Gabb told the conference that although a minority of couples disagreed about the frequency of sex, they and other couples were still happy with their relationship.
"What's really interesting is that couples are saying that differences in sexual frequency and desire are just part and parcel of the relationship cycle and are accepted as not particularly significant," she said.
"What couples talk about is finding a compromise - other ways of sharing and expressing feelings, acknowledging issues and accommodating these and, for older couples especially, not taking it all too seriously."
The researchers also looked specifically at women's feelings about their sex lives over time.
They found that 20% of heterosexual women at the beginning of the relationship said their partner wanted sex more than they did, rising to 45% among women in a relationship for 16 years, but falling to 36% among women in a relationship that had lasted over 20 years.
For LGB women, 15% thought their partner wanted sex more than they did at the beginning of the relationship, rising to 36% for those in a relationship had lasted 20 years, falling to 15% for those in one that had lasted over 20 years.
When asked what they least liked about their relationship, women were more likely to choose 'not sharing childcare and housework fairly', 'poor communication' and 'money worries' than problems with sexual intimacy.
For men, different expectations of sexual intimacy were the second most often problem cited, after 'arguments or conflicts'.
The researchers found that for men and women, being given compliments, sharing the housework and being listened to were more important in feeling appreciated than sexual intimacy.
The researchers also interviewed 50 couples and found that many older participants still took pleasure in their sex lives even when sex was not as frequent.
Professor Gabb said: "Fluctuations in desire are inexorably tied into other life factors, but it is the sharing of a life together, the investment in that joint venture, and the acceptance of change as an integral part of this shared life which enables couples to weather the ebbs and flows that characterise sexual intimacy and the passage of time in long-term relationships.
"The longevity of partnerships seems to be connected with couples' capacity to negotiate changing circumstances. For older couples, the first blush of a new relationship may have worn off but the relationship has not tarnished."
Quotations from couples interviewed:
"In terms of sex, we're probably down to once a week or once every two weeks now, because we have been really busy. We've been together for five and a half years and as you can imagine we would have sex more often when we started going out. The good thing is that we can talk to each other a lot about these things."
Heterosexual woman, aged 25-35, childfree
"It's not an important part of our relationship, if it's available and it's okay, then we'll do it. I don't ever feel like we're having too much sex or too little sex, we've never had an argument or pressured the other person into sex or anything like that."
Gay man, aged 18-24, childfree
A woman said that sex was: "one of the prerequisites of a relationship for me. But there are other areas of a relationship which I think need a lot more work and are far more important, like trust, money, love, teamwork."
Heterosexual woman, aged 55-65, childfree
"It's such a cliché isn't it? [Partner] would like to find more time for that [sex], I'm less bothered because I'm exhausted and sometimes when I get to bed I just want to sleep. I don't always have the kind of emotional energy to get from just being a really tired mum who's got to go to work in the morning to a woman in a relationship - I'd rather just go to bed, whereas [partner] is not like that, like most men, I think.
Heterosexual woman, aged 25-34, children living at home
"I think it's got better and better. When we were younger it was a lot less frequent, because we were both working hard full-time and were knackered, basically. It's not always been the same, but it's always been a good part of the relationship."
Heterosexual woman, aged 35-54, children left home