For spouses or partners who have been together for many years, their sex lives have a lot to do with how they interact outside of the bedroom. A recent study finds that couples’ levels of responsiveness—how attentive they are toward each other and how special they make each other feel—is directly associated with how much they desire each other sexually.
The study, published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, takes on a concept known to psychologists as the “intimacy-desire paradox.” The closer and more comfortable people feel with each other, this theory suggests, the less physically attracted they may be. (It’s a big part of why couples often “fall into a rut” or look to “spice things up.”)
But this new research suggests that intimacy doesn’t have to breed boredom and inhibit desire, say the study authors—as long as it’s the right kind of intimacy.
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That’s where responsiveness comes in. As part of the study, researchers from the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology in Israel and the University of Rochester asked 100 couples to keep diaries for six weeks. Both partners recorded their own levels of daily sexual desire, as well as their perceptions of their partners’ responsiveness. They also reported how special they felt each day, and what they perceived their partners’ “mate value” to be.
The results showed that when someone perceived their partner as responsive, they felt special and thought of their partner as a valuable mate—which boosted the partner’s sexual desirability. The effect on women’s desire was stronger than on men’s, although it was significant for both.
So what is responsiveness, exactly? “People who perceive their partner as responsive believe that this partner understands and appreciates their needs, as well as reacts supportively to their goals,” says lead study author Gurit E. Birnbaum, PhD.
This is important, she adds, because it shows that you not only care about your partner’s well being, but that you truly understand his or her wants and needs. Simply “being nice” isn’t necessarily good enough, she adds, since kindness alone isn’t based on this type of closeness. “When a partner is truly responsive, the relationship feels special and unique,” she says.
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Partners can show responsiveness simply by paying better attention to each other, Birnbaum says. “Allow sufficient time to engage in mutual conversation and listen with an open mind—really listen, without interrupting or pre-judging or showing off,” she says. “Then do one’s best to give the partner’s needs, wishes, and desires every bit as much importance, if not even more, than one’s own.”
Practicing responsiveness can also help you learn new things about each other, show you care for each other in new ways, and share new experiences together, she says.
Some people are naturally more responsive than others, Birnbaum says, but it’s also possible for a person’s responsiveness to change over time or within different contexts. “For example, a responsive partner may make you feel more secure, and thus affect your ability and willingness to respond to others’ needs.”
We asked Birnbaum whether responsiveness could help couples have a satisfying sex life, even if they’re no longer in the hot-and-heavy, tearing-each-other’s-clothes-off stage.
“Desire has many manifestations,” she replied. “Responsiveness instigates desire for one’s partner—and following such interactions, partners may even find themselves tearing each others clothes off!” But no matter what desire means to you and your partner, she says, truly responding to each other can have deep and long-lasting effects.
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