How Does Sexual Satisfaction Change Over Time in Relationships?
December 17, 2015 by Justin Lehmiller
What happens to sexual satisfaction over the course of time in a romantic relationship? Does it increase as partners learn how to pleasure each other? Or does it decrease as those initial feelings of passion subside?
Previous research has led to conflicting conclusions. In addition, most of the studies in this area suffer from major limitations. Perhaps the biggest is a persistent focus on cross-sectional rather than longitudinal data (i.e., looking at data from just one snapshot in time, as opposed to tracking actual changes in satisfaction over a period of months or years). Moreover, a lot of the research is based on non-representative samples (e.g., focusing only on young adults or college students).
A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior addresses these main shortcomings in an attempt to perhaps provide a more definitive answer to the question of how sexual satisfaction changes with relationship duration.
In this study, researchers considered data from a nationally representative longitudinal study that took place in Germany. Specifically, they looked at the responses of 2,814 adults, all of whom were young to middle-aged (25-41), heterosexual, and involved in a committed relationship. Three waves of data (collected about one year apart) were considered in the analyses.
The main outcome of interest was sexual satisfaction, which was assessed with the item “How satisfied are you with your sex life?” Participants provided a number between 0 (very dissatisfied) and 10 (very satisfied) at each assessment period.
The results revealed that there was an increase in sexual satisfaction during the first year of the relationship, particularly in the latter half of that year. Following that, however, sexual satisfaction declined.
What accounts for this pattern of results? We can’s say for sure, but here’s what the authors think is going on:
They speculate that partner-specific learning might account for the increase we see during the first year. In other words, during the first year of a relationship, partners grow to learn about each other’s sexual likes and dislikes and, ultimately, this is likely to enhance their satisfaction.
As for the subsequent decline that begins in the second year, the data suggested that changes in sexual frequency partially accounted for the changes in sexual satisfaction. In other words, the decline in sexual satisfaction may have been at least partially due to a decline in the frequency with which partners were having sex. Of course, decreases in sexual passion could also be contributing.
Although this study builds upon a lot of the limitations of previous research, it has limitations of its own. For example, we cannot say to what extent the pattern observed here might be similar or different in much younger or older adults or persons in same-sex relationships. In addition, there is room for improvement in the measurement of sexual satisfaction—perhaps we might see different patterns if we were to explore different dimensions of satisfaction.
That said, these findings suggest that sexual satisfaction both increases and decreases with relationship duration.
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To learn more about this research, see: Schmiedeberg, C., & Schröder, J. (in press). Does sexual satisfaction change with relationship duration? Archives of Sexual Behavior.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >