What keeps romance alive – and the sex hot – in a long-term relationship?

Newlywed couple after the wedding

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How can you keep the romance alive — and the sex satisfying — in a long-term relationship?

Here’s some science behind love, and what contributes to a satisfying long-term sex life
Try something new

Researchers have confirmed what many of us probably already know about keeping the relationship with your partner passionate (even if most of us don’t always do these things) — but they also had some other insights that might surprise you.

So what’s the secret? Chapman University psychological researchers published a study examining the sexual satisfaction — or dissatisfaction — of heterosexual couples in long-term relationships, and what contributes to keeping sexual passion alive.

“Sexual satisfaction and maintenance of passion were higher among people who had sex more frequently, received more oral sex, had more consistent orgasms, incorporated more variety of sexual acts, took the time to set a mood and practiced effective sexual communication,” says David Frederick, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University and lead author of the study.

He also notes, “Almost half of satisfied and dissatisfied couples read sexual self-help books and magazine articles, but what set sexually-satisfied couples apart was that they actually tried some of the ideas.”

Specifically, the research team found that sexually-satisfied men and women…

  • engaged in more intimate behaviors, such as cuddling, gentle and deep kissing and laughing together during sexual activity.
  • incorporated more acts of sexual variety such as trying new sexual positions or acting out fantasies.
  • more frequently set a romantic or sexual mood such as lighting candles or playing music.
  • used communication effectively, such as saying “I love you” during sex or sending a teasing text earlier in the day.

They also found that sexually satisfied men and women gave and received more oral sex, orgasmed more frequently, and had sex more frequently.

How can you reboot the romance in a long-term relationship?

Sexual satisfaction over time

To gauge sexual satisfaction over time, couples were asked to rate their sex satisfaction in the first six months together, and then rate it for now. Dr Frederick’s team learned that the overwhelming majority (83 percent) of people reported they were sexually satisfied in the first six months of the relationship.

Only half of people, however, reported currently being satisfied (43 percent of men and 55 percent of women), with the rest feeling neutral (16 percent of men and 18 percent of women) or dissatisfied (41 percent of men and 27 percent of women). Another set of items addressed whether respondents believed their sexual passion was the same, less or better now than early in their relationship.

“We looked at common romantic and sexual behaviors that are rarely assessed in the literature but are likely important contributors to sexual satisfaction,” Dr Frederick says.

“For example, while sexual variety is deemed important for sexual satisfaction, evidence on the effectiveness of specific forms of variety — such as showering together or wearing lingerie or use of sex toys — is lacking.”

Long-term love in your relationship: 5 secrets for success

Couple kissing in doorway

What satisfied and passionate couples do right

Some key findings of the research included:

1. Satisfied men and women were more likely to report that their last sexual encounter with their partner was “passionate,” “loving and tender,” or “playful.” Nearly half of sexually dissatisfied women (43 percent) said that they were “just going through the motions for my partner’s sake” compared to only 13 percent of sexually dissatisfied men during their last sexual encounter. Few people reported feeling pressured into sex by their partner (2 to 3 percent).

MORE: First comes laughter, then comes love

2. About half of satisfied men (49 percent) and women (45 percent) reported their last sexual encounter lasted more than 30 minutes, compared to only 26 percent of dissatisfied men and 19 percent of dissatisfied women.

Satisfied men and women were more likely than dissatisfied men and women to say they tried a new sexual position, wore sexy lingerie, took a shower or bath together, talked about or acted out fantasies, gave or had a massage, went on a romantic getaway, tried anal stimulation, made a date night to have sex, or used a sex toy together.

MORE: Couples who have sex weekly are happiest

3. Feeling desired by their partners appears to be more of a problem for men than for women. Only 59 percent of men compared to 42 percent of women reported they felt less desired by their partner now than in the beginning. In contrast, two-thirds of men compared with half of women reported feeling as much desire, or more desire, for their partner now as in the beginning of the relationship.

MORE: 5 tried-and-true ways to strengthen your relationship

4. Most men and women reported feeling the same or more emotional closeness during sex now than in the first six months of their relationship (69 percent of men and 72 percent of women). Less than half of dissatisfied men and women, however, felt this way.

Dr Janet Lever, a co-author on the study, says,”It was encouraging to learn that more than one-third of couples kept passion alive, even after a decade or two together. That won’t happen on autopilot; these couples made a conscious effort to ward off routinization of sex.”

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

We're Nancy and Betsy, and we've been adventuring in the digital world since the mid-90s -- truly making us that type of entrepreneurial internet pioneer Gen X is known for! We started Myria.com back in 1998 and later launched SheKnows.com -- among various other online and print projects. Our partnership has spanned decades and crossed state lines (multiple times!). Nancy currently resides Arizona, and Betsy's newest home base is Minnesota. It's been an incredible journey of collaboration and innovation. You can read more about our story here!

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