New relationships usually come with strong attraction and high sexual desire, but low levels of intimacy and security. In time, sexual desire slowly dwindles down and makes way for a stable bond. The problem is, that while desire and the resulting physical interaction promotes familiarity and security, in time they fade to a more comfortable and stable dynamic. This natural and common process, leaves us continuously thinking of new and ingenious ways to relight that primal fire.
Theorists refer to it as the ‘Intimacy – Desire Paradox’. When a relationship is new, sexual desire is at its highest. Desire is a key factor in promoting intimacy and strengthening a couple’s bond. Yet, when a strong bond is finally established, and a relationship endures, sexual desire often subsides.
Yet we mustn’t be discouraged. Recent research suggests that the ‘Intimacy-Desire Paradox’ may not always be true.
Dr. Gurit E. Birnbaum, Associate Professor at Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at IDC Herzliya, in collaboration with Harry Reis, a Professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, set out to extend previous research about the effects of intimacy on desire, by trying to establish a causal connection (as oppose to simply a correlation between factors) between expressions of responsiveness, which is the linchpin of intimacy and sexual desire.
Until now, the contribution of intimacy to sexual desire has been acknowledged by researchers, yet systematic research and experimental manipulation on the subject has not been pursued.
The researcher’s sought to explore the effects of partner responsiveness on sexual desire, and to delineate the underlying mechanism by which responsiveness might enhance sexual desire. They found that partner responsiveness enhances sexual desire by promoting a sense of uniqueness in a relationship, and alters perceptions of partner mate value.
Researchers defined a partner’s responsiveness as the belief that this partner understands and appreciates one’s need, as well as reacts supportively to one’s goals. Responsiveness is “more than just being nice”; meaning, partner responsiveness is addressed specifically at their mate, conveying the feeling of being special, valued, and that their partner is invested in the relationship.
The study was conducted through three different studies: In study 1, which was designed to create a causal link between responsiveness and sexual desire, participants were led to believe they were engaged in an online conversation with their partner during which they disclosed a significant life event (positive and negative)to their partner, when actually they received from a confederate standardized responses that were responsive or non-responsive. Study 2 aimed to replicate the findings of study 1 in a natural face-to-face interaction. Specifically, participants discussed a personal event face-to-face with their partner, and then, partners were invited to express physical intimacy (e.g., caressing, kissing) with each other. Couples were filmed during these interactions. These tapes were then analyzed by trained judges for displays of responsiveness and desire (using objective signs of desire and responsiveness successfully coded in prior research). Finally, in Study 3, couples were asked to keep a daily journal reporting responsiveness and sexual desire for 42 days, in an attempt to determine whether the effects of responsiveness on sexual desire that were measured in the lab would apply in a more natural setting.
All three studies showed that although both sexes are influenced positively by expressions of partner responsiveness, women respond to it significantly stronger. These findings coincided with theorist’s views that women are more influenced by their partner’s willingness to invest in a relationship (as indicated by responsiveness in this research) than men.
Studies showed that when participant’s felt their partner being responsive, reports describing feeling special increased, so did views about partner mate value. These sensations brought on higher sexual desire toward one’s partner.
Findings showed, desire is instigated not merely by a sense of intimacy, but it also relies on its contextual meaning; expressions of intimacy are more likely to enhance desire when it conveys the impression a partner is valued and worth pursuing.
This research is the first of its kind to establish a causal relation between responsiveness and desire. It suggests, that the connection between desire and intimacy may be more complex than just a simple negative dependence as we ordinarily think of it.