How Sexual Satisfaction Changes in Long-Term Relationships

Does sexual satisfaction change over the course of a long-term romantic relationship and, is so, how? On the one hand, you might think that satisfaction increases as partners learn how to pleasure each other and develop a deeper emotional connection; on the other hand, however, it also seems plausible that satisfaction might decrease as the initial feelings of passion subside.

Previous research on this subject produced conflicting results. Moreover, most studies suffered from major limitations, with perhaps the biggest drawback being a persistent focus on cross-sectional data, as opposed to longitudinal data (translation: previous studies looked at data from a single snapshot in time rather than tracking actual changes in satisfaction over a longer period). On top of all that, most research has been based on non-representative samples of young adults and college students.

Fortunately, a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior addresses these shortcomings and provides a more definitive answer to the question of how sexual satisfaction changes with relationship duration.

In this study, researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative longitudinal study of German adults. They looked at the responses of 2,814 participants, all of whom were young to middle-aged (25-41), heterosexual, and involved in committed relationships. Three waves of data (collected approximately one year apart) were included in the analyses.

The main outcome considered was sexual satisfaction, which was assessed with a single item: “How satisfied are you with your sex life?” Participants answered with a number ranging from 0 (very dissatisfied) and 10 (very satisfied) during each assessment.

So what did the researchers find? It turned out that there was an increase in sexual satisfaction during the first year of the relationship, especially in the latter half of the year. Following that, however, sexual satisfaction declined.

What accounts for this pattern of results? We don't know for sure, but what the authors speculate is that partner-specific learning might account for the first year increase. Think about it this way: during the first year of a relationship, partners are quickly learning about each other’s sexual likes and dislikes and, ultimately, this knowledge is likely to increase satisfaction for everyone involved.

As for the subsequent decline starting in the second year, part of the story here has to do with changes in the frequency with which partners were having sex. Specifically, people started having less sex around the same time that satisfaction began to drop. This decrease in sex partially accounted for why their sexual satisfaction dropped. Of course, it's also worth mentioning that the decrease in satisfaction might also be a function of reduced sexual passion (something we know tends to decline within the first few years of a relationship--though I should note that it's possible to keep passion alive by regularly engaging in novel activities).

While this study certainly builds upon the limitations of previous research in a major way, it has limitations of its own, as all studies do. For instance, we can't say whether the pattern observed here would be similar or different in younger or older adults, or among persons in same-sex relationships. Plus, there's room for improvement in the measurement of sexual satisfaction, especially considering that the single item used didn't tap into different dimensions of sexual satisfaction.

With all of that said, though, these findings are important because they tell us that sexual satisfaction appears to both increase and decrease with relationship length.

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To learn more about this research, see: Schmiedeberg, C., & Schröder, J. (2016). Does sexual satisfaction change with relationship duration? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 99-107.

Image Source: 123RF/Katarzyna Białasiewicz

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