Sexual desire is easy to come by, but hard to retain. It remains one of the most common issues reported in couples therapy. Now, a review of 64 studies tackles the question of how to maintain sexual desire in a long-term relationship. The answer? Keep your expectations in check, don’t make a big deal about it, and stop assuming that a healthy relationship means a fixed amount of sex.
“Sexual desire does not always have to be high to be maintained or good,” according to the study. “In fact…if people expect sexual desire to fluctuate, they may be better off in their relationship.”
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Sex After Kids
Part of the struggle with understanding sexual desire is that it is a difficult feeling to define or measure. Sexual frequency is related to desire, but multiple past studies confirm that there is not necessarily a correlation between the two—people occasionally engage in sex without having the desire. Meanwhile, studies have shown that desire is not quite the same thing as arousal (you can be aroused and not want to have sex). The authors ultimately settled on a two-pronged definition of sexual desire. There’s spontaneous desire (when desire starts before arousal) and responsive desire (when arousal starts before desire). The key to long-term relationship satisfaction is responsive desire—becoming aroused by one another, and then parlaying that arousal into sexual desire.
After entirely desexualizing sex (thanks, science), the authors examined 64 studies and identified 19 factors that drive sexual desire, including expectations, attraction, attachment, self-esteem, sexual compatibility, and egalitarianism. They also found that sexual autonomy is important in maintaining desire overtime, which may influence couples to be more adventurous in the bedroom. But most importantly, the studies largely pointed to the same conclusion—when couples have open, frank discussions and understand that desire fluctuates, they get it on more often.
While it may seem best to mentally prepare for these shifts in desire in a marriage, the good news is that’s not a guarantee either. The authors note that some couples stay hot for one another over long periods of time without much fluctuation. “The decline of sexual desire over the course of long-term relationships is a common, but not necessary, part of long-term relationships,“ they write.
Who knows, maybe you’ll get really lucky.