It’s quite common to think of sexual attraction and desire when you think of romantic love. It seems that the steamy, aching feelings that rise with sexual desire pair so perfectly with that crazy first stage of love. It’s also the way that it’s told in all the stories—that true love will automatically lead to good sex. The truth is, it turns out that lasting sexual desire is ruled by somewhat different forces than what shape a strong love and relationship.
When it comes to sex, what’s love got to do with it?
It’s easy for there to be more sexual desire, arousal, and attraction at the beginning of a relationship because of how prominent dopamine is during that time. Early in a relationship, more dopamine is released whenever you have contact with a new partner, causing you to pay more attention to them. This also results in an easier release of other neurotransmitters that play a part in driving sexual arousal. But it is clearly known that different parts of the brain light up when someone feels love than when someone feels lust. Interestingly, feelings of lust can lead to increased feelings of love, but not the other way around. Yes, you heard that correctly.
So what increases sexual desire?
Instead, cravings for sexual stimulation and activity are shaped by lots of different things—expectations of what you’ll get out of it, your ideas of what sexy are, previous experiences, and desire to get continued physical arousal to name a few. Isn’t it wonderful though when you can get that from someone you love, someone you have fun with, someone you trust, and someone who you like as a person! This is why a long-term romantic partner is a great choice for a long-term sex partner. But so many couples find that their sex life seems to peter out, even if they find they are strongly in love and that everything else is going well.
Sexual desire works differently than love.
In order to keep sexual desire strong, it’s important to exercise ways to keep both your intimacy and your sense of adventure strong. As I discuss in my book Wanting to Want: What Kills Your Sex Life and How to Keep It Alive, you cannot expect that sexual desire will continue to beat strongly without some attention and effort on your part. Those couples who expect that it should just come automatically and spontaneously—even after children, or during times of stress—are in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately, many of these couples start to think that they just aren’t attracted to each other anymore and give up on the relationship (or at least the sexual relationship).
Both love and sex require nurturing and attention.
There are specific interventions that are necessary to keep your overall relationship on track. These include supporting each other emotionally, mutual respect, connecting positively with the other person, and understanding your partner’s point of view. But for sex, what’s needed is feeling open to the other person, being able to focus on your own erotic space, and eliminating those things that interfere with your experience of pleasure (even if they are just in your head). In fact, what’s needed for a good sex life can sometimes seem selfish to some people, but really works for the good of the couple. So it’s true when they say, “What’s love got to do with it?”