Sex Question Friday: Why Can’t I Maintain Sexual Interest In One Person?

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a male reader who wanted to know the following:

“I seem to have a problem with sexual arousal and women I am emotionally attached to. When I met my wife, we were very sexually active, but that dwindled as we got deeper into our relationship. I thought at first maybe it was my age, but I have found myself aroused over female friends and acquaintances. The good thing is this has never developed into an affair but I would like to figure out what is wrong with me so that my wife and I can be intimate. This problem predates my wife and in the past, my girlfriends would have to at least pretend to indulge a fantasy of a threesome of them being intimate with someone else (dirty talk about it) just for me to get aroused. So I believe there is a correlation between arousal and degree of familiarity.”

The experience you described reminds me of a concept known as the “Coolidge Effect,” which suggests that when sexual interest begins to wane, it can be reawakened by the novelty of a new partner. This phenomenon got its name from a popular anecdote about a visit that U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife supposedly made to a chicken farm. The story goes something like this: 

“Mrs. Coolidge, observing the vigor with which one particularly prominent rooster covered hen after hen, asked the guide to make certain that the President took note of the rooster’s behavior. When President Coolidge got to the hen yard, the rooster was pointed out and his exploits recounted by the guide, who added that Mrs. Coolidge had requested that the President be made aware of the rooster’s prowess. The president reflected for a moment and replied, ‘Tell Mrs. Coolidge that there is more than one hen.’” [1]

The Coolidge Effect has been documented in several animal species. For instance, consider what we have learned from studies of rats: research has found that when a male rat is placed inside a cage with several female rats that are “in heat,” he will mate with all of them until he appears exhausted. However, if a new female is introduced to the cage, the male will often experience an immediately renewed interest in sex and begin mating with the new female [2].

The Coolidge Effect has been documented to some degree in human men as well. For instance, in one study, male participants were either exposed to constant or varied sexual stimuli while their level of sexual arousal was measured by a device that records changes in penile circumference [3]. The men who were repeatedly shown the same stimuli showed less arousal over time (i.e., they demonstrated habituation); in contrast, those who were exposed to varied stimuli maintained higher levels of arousal.

It is important to note that a similar, but somewhat less pronounced pattern also seems to occur among females. For instance, research on female hamsters has found that after mating with one male hamster until exhaustion, they demonstrate renewed interest in sex when a new male is introduced to the cage [4]. Also, research on human females has found that, just like men, they show some degree of habituation to repeated presentations of the same erotic stimulus [5]. So, the Coolidge Effect isn’t necessarily just a male phenomenon.

Together, this set of research findings tells us that losing sexual interest in the same partner over time and being excited by variety is not particularly unusual—in fact, I know many scientists who would argue that this may actually be normative. That said, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone loses sexual interest in the same person, and some people maintain very high levels of passion for the same partner for many years. Human sexuality is incredibly diverse, and nothing is ever true 100% of the time.  

So what can a couple do if the partners want to address a decline in sexual interest? One possibility would be to consider having an “open” or nonmonogamous relationship. Many couples practice consensual nonmonogamy, in which they explicitly permit some degree of outside sexual involvement. This can take many different forms (e.g., having an open relationship, swinging, an occasional threesome, etc.), and the couples who practice it tailor it to the comfort level of both partners. Of course, consensual nonmonogamy isn’t right for everyone--different types of relationships work for different people (remember what I said about nothing being true 100% of the time?). Only you and your partner can decide whether this is a viable option, and I should caution that the topic may very well be a nonstarter for your partner.

An alternative possibility is to maintain monogamy, but to try incorporating more novelty into both your relationship and sex life. Novelty can breed sexual excitement by facilitating the release of pleasurable brain chemicals. Research has found that the long-term couples who report having the most intense feelings for each other are those who engage in the most new and exciting activities together [6]. In other words, there may be other ways of stimulating that same level of sexual excitement that you receive from sexual variety by bringing more novelty into your relationship in other ways. Some couples may find that trying new things and sharing new experiences (sexual and otherwise) can reignite passion.

That said, if you and your partner are feeling distressed about your sex life, the best advice I can offer is to consider seeing a licensed sex or relationship therapist. Sexual desire discrepancies are one of the most common issues that prompt couples to seek counseling, and therapists are well equipped to deal with them.

For previous editions of Sex Question Friday, click here. To send in a question for a future edition, click here.

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[1] Hatfield, E., & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

[2] Wilson, J. R., Kuehn, R. E., & Beach, F. A. (1963). Modification in the sexual behavior of male rats produced by changing the stimulus female. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology56, 636.

[3] O'Donohue, W. T., & Geer, J. H. (1985). The habituation of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior14, 233-246. 

[4] Lester, G. L., & Gorzalka, B. B. (1988). Effect of novel and familiar mating partners on the duration of sexual receptivity in the female hamster. Behavioral and Neural Biology49, 398-405.

[5] Kelley, K., & Musialowski, D. (1986). Repeated exposure to sexually explicit stimuli: Novelty, sex, and sexual attitudes. Archives of Sexual Behavior15, 487-498.

[6] O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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