The Rise and Fall of Sexual Satisfaction in Couples

4 min read
Photo by We-Vibe Toys on Unsplash

Source: Photo by We-Vibe Toys on Unsplash

How does sexual satisfaction change the longer you’re in a relationship with someone? On the one hand, you might be tempted to think that satisfaction would increase as partners learn how to pleasure each other and develop a deeper emotional connection. On the other hand, however, it might also seem plausible that satisfaction would decline as the initial feelings of sexual passion and novelty begin to wear off.

So which is it? It turns out that it’s a bit of both.

The Science of Sexual Satisfaction

Early research on this subject produced conflicting results, with some studies pointing to increases and others to decreases. However, most of these studies suffered from major limitations, with perhaps the biggest drawback being a persistent focus on cross-sectional data as opposed to longitudinal data.

In other words, most previous studies simply compared a bunch of people in relationships at one point in time rather than tracking changes in satisfaction within relationships over a long period. Another issue is that most of the early research was based on young adults and college students, who are not representative of the broader population.

A more recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior sought to address these shortcomings and provide a more definitive answer to the question of how sexual satisfaction changes with relationship duration.

In this study, researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative longitudinal study of German adults. They looked at the responses of 2,814 participants, all of whom were young to middle-aged (25-41), heterosexual, and involved in committed relationships. Three waves of data (collected approximately one year apart) were included in the analyses.

The main outcome considered was sexual satisfaction, which was assessed with the item: “How satisfied are you with your sex life?” Participants answered with a number ranging from 0 (very dissatisfied) to 10 (very satisfied) during each wave of the survey.

An Early Increase, Followed By a Steady Decrease

So, what did the researchers find? It turned out that there was an increase in sexual satisfaction during the first year of the relationship, especially in the latter half of the year. Following that, however, sexual satisfaction declined.

In other words, sexual satisfaction rose early on in relationships but began to drop shortly after.

What accounts for this pattern of results? The authors speculate that partner-specific learning might account for the first-year increase. Think about it this way: during the first year of a relationship, partners are quickly learning about each other’s sexual likes and dislikes and, ultimately, this knowledge is likely to increase satisfaction for everyone involved.

As for the subsequent decline starting in the second year, part of the story here has to do with changes in the frequency with which partners were having sex. Specifically, people started having less sex around the same time that satisfaction began to drop. The decrease in sex partially accounted for why their sexual satisfaction dropped.

Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that the decrease in satisfaction might also be a function of reduced sexual passion (something we know typically declines within the first few years of a relationship). However, I should note that it’s possible to keep passion alive by regularly engaging in novel activities.

In other words, while the overall trend is toward a steady decline in sexual satisfaction, there is always individual variability. A decline in satisfaction is not inevitable, but it does seem to take some effort to keep passion alive. The most tried and true way of blunting the decline is to keep throwing new and different things into the mix and expanding your sexual horizons together.


While this study builds upon the limitations of previous research in a major way, it has limitations of its own, as all studies do. For instance, we can’t say whether the pattern observed here would be similar or different in older adults, or among persons in same-sex relationships.

Plus, there’s room for improvement in the measurement of sexual satisfaction, especially considering that the item used didn’t tap into different dimensions of sexual satisfaction. A multi-dimensional measure of sexual satisfaction might very well find that certain elements improve (e.g., satisfaction with emotional connection) while others decline (e.g., satisfaction with sexual frequency).

With all of that said, though, these findings are important because they tell us that sexual satisfaction appears to both increase and decrease with relationship length.

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