What’s the secret to a happy sex life in a long-term relationship?

It’s a little less sexy than you would’ve thought.
Woman lays on pillow with husband in the background

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What’s the secret to a happy sex life in a long-term relationship? Researchers from the University of Toronto believe they’ve found the answer. No, it’s not chocolate; it’s hard work. (Sorry, it’s a bit anti-climactic.)

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the paper surveyed 1,900 people from heterosexual and same-sex relationships to assess their sexual expectations, or sexpectations, if you will. The researchers found that the happiest couples were those who recognized that sex takes effort to maintain, whereas couples who believed in natural compatibility—good old chemistry—felt worse about their relationships whenever they had a dry spell.

“Your sex life is like a garden,” says lead researcher Jessica Maxwell. “You need to water and nurture your sex life to maintain it.”

Interestingly enough, women are more likely than men to believe that having a good sex life takes work. Maxwell says there’s evidence that it takes more work to keep women sexually satisfied. “For example, women have more difficulty with orgasm than men and need more time with their partners to get comfortable,” she says. And, unlike men, women’s desire tends to be more responsive than spontaneous. In other words, women aren’t always going to feel high desire and may need more time to get in the mood, says Maxwell.

But what’s the ultimate way to test a couple’s sexpectations? The researchers assessed couples who had just given birth to their first child to find out how it affected their relationships. While the new parents’ sexpectations didn’t differ from those of other parents, those who recognize that a happy sex life takes work were better off than those who think it takes natural passion.

“Parenthood really puts your sex life to the test,” says Maxwell. “Research shows that, typically, couples experience more conflict after the birth of a child and their sex life declines, with less frequency and desire—it can be a difficult time. But it’s even more impressive that, during this difficult time, couples who believe that sex takes work feel more satisfied.”

It can be easy to just say that you’ll “put in the work,” says Maxwell. To help put that goal into action, she offers a few tips from her research that might help partners achieve a better sex life.

1. Change the way you think about sex in the long run. “It’s important to remember that, over the long term, sexual satisfaction requires work to maintain. Just be more aware that that’s normal.”

2. Realize that dry spells are normal. “Don’t take it to heart. It doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed.”

3. Make compromises. “If you believe that sex takes work, chances are you’re actually doing things to make your partner happier in the bedroom.”

4. Know that sexual disagreements are inevitable. “For people who believe in a sexual soulmate, it’s important to remember that sexual disagreements are somewhat inevitable in a long-term relationship. They don’t need to freak out and think that their relationship is weird or bad.”

5. Have a growth approach. “You can say ‘Hey, we’re new parents. Our sex might not be as great as it once was, but we can work to improve that.’”

Read more:
Postpartum sex: Why it sometimes hurts
Trying to get pregnant is exhausting: A guy’s perspective
When your kid catches you having sex

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