A Decline In Sexual Desire May Signal Deeper Relationship Issues, Study Finds
There are so many potential reasons why sexual desire in a relationship may wane over time. You might fall into a sexual routine that fails to inspire much excitement, or you become parents and have little time or energy for anything outside of keeping the house running. Or maybe you just stop prioritizing sex altogether because other areas of life are taking precedence.
But recent research suggests there's one factor that people don't often consider—and this one can have significant implications for the relationship's future.
Your perception of your partner may be changing in a bad way.
The link between sexual desire and partner perception.
In a recent study published in the 1Archives of Sexual Behavior1, researchers had a hunch that sexual desire plays a specific, unique role in the maintenance of relationships. Sexual desire, they hypothesized, "serves as a gut-level indicator of partner mate value that motivates investment in valued partners."
That is, sexual desire is an instinctive barometer of how valuable you perceive your partner to be, which includes the extent to which they possess the qualities of a good partner, how invested you both are in the relationship, and how easily you think they could find a new partner if you weren't in the picture.
Moreover, past studies have shown that people who have sexual desire for their romantic partner are also more likely to engage in behaviors that will help maintain and strengthen the relationship overall.
"Sexual desire for current partners thus apparently tends to spill over outside the bedroom, enhancing the willingness to employ strategies that allow individuals to get closer to their partners and improve their relationships," the researchers write in the paper.
The researchers wanted to see if all these dots were in fact connected, with sexual desire being an indicator of seeing your partner as valuable and—because of that—a motivator to nurture the relationship. A decline in desire, in turn, would align with lower partner perception and declining investment.
Testing the role of sexual desire in relationships.
To test their theory, the team, led by Gurit Birnbaum, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Reichman University in Israel, conducted a series of experiments with a total of nearly 800 people in relationships (mostly college students, except for one experiment that included people up to age 60).
In one experiment, the researchers asked a batch of these romantically involved individuals to recall—in vivid detail—either an event in which they highly valued their partner or an event that made them value their partner less. Then, the participants were asked to rate their level of sexual desire for their partner and then to indicate how many spa treatments they wanted to transfer to their partner (out of five) in case of winning a lottery at the end of the experiment.
Partners who remembered a moment of highly valuing their partner experienced increased sexual desire for them, and those who had more sexual desire for their partner tended to gift them with more spa treatments.
In other experiments, the researchers actually tracked couples throughout their daily lives to see if these trends held true in real life. Over the course of six weeks (in one experiment) and then six months (in another), researchers asked both members of each couple to complete a daily or weekly diary recording their feelings about their partner and the relationship. They tracked their perceptions of their partner's value as a partner (for example, rating their agreement with statements like "If my partner were single, he would have been romantically pursued by other individuals"), their desire to have sex with them ("I was very interested in having sex with my partner today"), and how positively they treated each other ("My partner behaved thoughtfully toward me today," "I often put aside my own interests for the sake of my relationship with my partner," and so on).
Consistently, the findings showed that, at times when a person perceived their partner as being more valuable, they also experienced more sexual desire for them. That increased desire, in turn, predicted a higher likelihood of doing things to nurture the relationship—including nonsexual things like being thoughtful toward the partner and making sacrifices for them.
What this means for relationships where desire is declining.
Past research has linked sexual satisfaction with relationship satisfaction; that is, when a couple is happy with their sex life, they tend to be happy with their relationship overall too.
This study by Birnbaum and her colleagues suggests that there's a specific reason for this: Wanting to have sex with your S.O. is a manifestation of how positively you view them as a partner, and it's a motivator to be more engaged in ensuring the relationship's health.
"Reduced sexual desire, in contrast, may deny the relationship these benefits," Birnbaum and her colleagues note. "Experiencing low sexual desire for one's partner may stem from perceiving this partner to be less valuable as a mate and, second, may be translated into less investment in the relationship, which eventually might hurt the relationship and foretell its demise."
Meaning: If you're noticing you're less sexually interested in your partner than you have been in the past, it may in part be because you're valuing them less as a romantic partner in general. Your perception of them may be becoming more negative.
Viewing your partner through a negative lens has obvious destructive consequences in terms of how happy you are in your relationship and how you treat your partner accordingly.
Birnbaum and her team's research shows that sexual desire is a mediating factor between valuing your partner less and disengaging from the relationship. In other words, it's a bit of a canary in a coal mine situation: When desire for your partner declines, it may be a sign that overall investment in your partner is declining too.
What to do if you're in this situation.
First of all, it's important to again remember that sexual desire in a relationship can decrease for all sorts of reasons. You might have less interest in sex with your partner because of other issues in your relationship, stress, increased responsibilities in other parts of your life, or any other number of reasons.
"Perceived partner mate value is only one of the factors that may affect desire," Birnbaum tells mbg. "Many psychological processes influence relationship quality and stability (e.g., interdependence, commitment, trust) and may contribute to decreases and increases in the level of sexual desire." It's also OK to not want sex from time to time, or at all.
That said, per this study's findings, Birnbaum notes that declines in sexual desire in a long-term relationship may be driven, at least in part, by negative changes in perception of your partner's mate value. "Such decreases are likely to be a prime factor in the well-documented decreases in relationship satisfaction that occur over time in marriage and other marital-like relationships," she explains.
That means, if you notice you're feeling less sexually interested in your partner than you have been in the past, it's important to check in with yourself and your relationship to understand why that might be. Are your opinions about your partner overall changing? Is a negative bias beginning to cloud your view of them?
Maybe that doesn't feel accurate to your situation. Or maybe it is.
The good news is, there are ways to build up positive regard for your partner again, if that's what you want to do. "Make sure that you are paying attention to where your thoughts go," licensed couples' therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, recently told mbg. "While it is important to maintain a realistic understanding of our relationship—which does include having complaints and negative thoughts—we also need to make sure we are making room for the good things, noticing what we appreciate, love, and where our partner is doing things 'right.'"
And as Birnbaum's team write in their paper, working specifically on increasing sexual desire in your relationship again can also have a positive overall effect on the relationship by encouraging more investment and positive engagement with each other.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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