Theories and Research on how Sexual Desire Changes by Gender over Marriage Time

I’m going to invest some time in blogging each week so I hope you will enjoy the new format and the content to follow.

Intended audience: More towards professionals but also those interested in translating couples research into practical action

Reference: McNulty, J. K., Maxwell, J. A., Meltzer, A. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). Sex‑Differentiated Changes in Sexual Desire Predict Marital Dissatisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48, 2473–2489.

Problem identified by authors: Since couples regularly come to see me because of sexual desire differences, I’m regularly trying to better understand how couples can best manage this issue. This article that I’m discussing today appears to partly address this problem that heterosexual couples often experience. It causes people to question whether they can stay together, whether the seeming incompatibility in sex drives is tolerable or stifling, and whether they can compartmentalize this problem and just grin and bear it while they try to raise their kids. What are the factors that drive sexual desire issues with heterosexual couples? And what does that mean for a couple’s relationship satisfaction?

Context and previous research: I’ve always remembered a story that my PSCYO 105 prof told the class about how the Coolidge Effect got its name. Turns out that US president Calvin Coolidge and his wife were visiting a chicken farm and Mrs. Coolidge remarked that the rooster must have remarkable sexual stamina to reproduce so often, as there was only one rooster for the entire farm. Mr. Coolidge responded by saying, “I’d like to remind Mrs. Coolidge that the rooster’s remarkable stamina was owed in large part to the fact that the rooster had a variety of partners and was not stuck with the same partner, which would result in Mrs. Coolidge’s dissatisfaction.” Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing from my memory. But it was an important contextualization, albeit during a time of misogyny and patriarchal repression of female sexuality. Regardless of its origins or the politics of it, the Coolidge Effect suggests that novelty is more important to sexual desire for men than women. It may be interesting to further understand the possibility of how the Coolidge Effect merely represented an adherence to gender roles.

That’s the second contextual factor I’d like to speak to before we get into examining what the article found. Is it really biology that drives the differences between genders? (apologies for not using a non-binary research study, I will try to include articles that are more inclusive). Could testosterone explain the changes in sexual desire over time? Research has indicated that men’s testosterone levels decline over time after full maturity but women’s testosterone levels also drop after menopause. Could the cultural expectations of our society be the larger influence? Meaning that if men and women are expected to behave in certain ways, they will conform unconsciously to fit in. And we already know how problematic gender roles have been for sex positivity and freedom of expression. How many people do you know where it is the man who wants more sex and how many people do you know where it is the woman who wants more sex? My clients are about 50-50 when they come to see me. Have you ever asked anyone else? Or do you assume that you know what must be happening in their sexual dynamic? Does that make you feel shameful? Even though you don’t really know?

Research has demonstrated that child-birth and child-rearing still impact women more than men and stress appears to impact women’s sexual desire more than for men. Research also has demonstrated that women are twice as likely to be “responsive” in terms of sexual desire, rather than “spontaneous,” which is twice as likely for men. Again, it is unclear if this is due to biological differences or gender role expectations. So, it’s a real thing that women seem to more often bear the stress of child-rearing, and that this stress is likely to impact their sexual desire while men are less likely to undergo such changes.

Another contextual factor to think about is Helen Fisher’s research on the 3 stages of love that she identified by observing different brain processes in response to a relationship partner over time. At first, lust is the driver as our brains are stimulated by dopamine and adrenaline, evolution’s trick to try and get us to reproduce, accidentally or not. The dopamine-release habituates to that partner after between 6 and 18 months, and that’s when those relationships end. In order to continue, Fisher says that the brain must rely on the serotonin neurotransmitter to perpetuate the pair-bond. She calls this the love stage and it is also temporary, up to about 4 years into the relationship, long enough for evolution to get us to raise a child together to an age it can survive more independently. To stay together after year 4 requires attachment, yes that same thing I’ve talked about lots. Only with attachment do we stay together. And only when we can repair our attachment injuries can we tolerate the waves of being in a relationship for a long time. But wait, does this mean that we are predestined to shift from a sex-heavy courtship to a more secure and loving (which isn’t that sexy) long term bond? Maybe.

Some researchers pin the blame on women, saying that women use enhanced sexual desire and activity to attract a man, but as security increases over time, they have less reason to behave sexually to keep him. This narration makes it sound as if women have a plan to trap a man by giving them lots of sex as a way to ensnare him, which is followed quickly by a sexless and unsatisfying marriage. This stereotype is unfair and hurtful to women, just as is the stereotype that men are horn-dogs and don’t need to be courted into getting turned on too. Maybe there are some evolutionary or biological factors involved in female courtship, but those factors are conflated by women bearing more of the stress of child-rearing, so if male participation could unburden mothers and make it more equal, maybe women wouldn’t lose so much sexual desire after having a child. Do they also have to deal with the extra burden of household responsibilities too? Is that still a bit of an expectation from many men?

Research findings: “Results of this study demonstrated that women’s sexual desire declined more steeply over time than did men’s sexual desire, which did not decline on average. Further, childbirth accentuated this sex difference by partially, though not completely, accounting for declines in women’s sexual desire but not men’s. Finally, declines in women’s but not men’s sexual desire predicted declines in both partners’ marital satisfaction. These effects held controlling depressive symptoms and stress, including stress from parenthood. In sum, compared to their husbands, wives demonstrated lower levels of initial sexual desire that (1) declined more steeply over time, (2) were partially, but not completely, attributable to the birth of children, even after controlling stress, including stress associated with parenthood, as well as depressive symptoms, and (3) ultimately predicted changes in marital satisfaction for both members of the couple (though somewhat less reliably for husbands) and thus lower levels of marital satisfaction at the end of the of the study for both members of the couple… Changes in wives’ sexual desire predicted changes in both partners’ marital satisfaction, not because they predicted change in couples’ sexual frequency, but because they predicted changes in their sexual satisfaction. Our findings might reassure some couples that the emerging mismatch in marital sexual desire is normal and typical.”

Interesting results. I read it to say that women have lower sex drives than men generally (which could be biology or adherence to gender norms), and that women’s sexual desire goes down steeply over time while men’s sexual desire remains unchanged (even though testosterone levels go down over time). Some of the changes in sexual desire could be attributed to child rearing but not all (so maybe changes in testosterone or changes in gender norms due to increasing age whereby older adults are expected and considered to be less sexual than younger adults). And when women’s sexual desire levels went down, satisfaction in their relationship also went down for both partners. Interestingly, the dissatisfied couples appeared to have the same amount of sex as satisfied ones, but when women had less desire both partners experienced less sexual satisfaction. The lesson – women’s sexual desire matters in relationships. My take – how couples manage these sexual desire issues is what matters. Is this true – if men can satisfy and nurture their partner’s sexual desire throughout the years, both partners will be happy.

Remaining questions: Does testosterone have any impact? Or is it only when testosterone changes to outside the normal range that it becomes an issue? Why doesn’t men’s sexual desire drop more as they get older? Are women’s sexual desire levels supposed to drop because of evolution, biology, and reproductive success? Or is that a bunch of bullshit that has been fed to us in order to control our sexuality? I’ve met too many clients who experience a sexual awakening after a 20-year marriage ends to believe that we are hamstrung to outdated notions of heteronormativity, ageism, and an emphasis on the differences between men and women, as if in an attempt to reinforce an unconscious bias towards a binary understanding of gender. And those sexual awakenings are maintained well beyond what could be explained by the “lust phase” of relationships. Provide a context for your partner to be sexual, and not just based on what you think it should be, and it appears your relationship is more likely to stay strong throughout the years. 

Let me know your thoughts.

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