Why you should care
Because feeling special might lead to mind-blowing human connection.
Want to keep the fire burning in your relationship? Or eager to up your Tinder ratios? This story is part of OZY’s series on the Science of Dating — check out the rest here. Because numbers don’t play games.
Those of us who have been in long-term relationships know the stages. At first, you can barely keep your hands off each other. Fast-forward two years and you’re popping each other’s zits and griping about work as the other listens from the toilet.
And isn’t that true intimacy? But for many couples, achieving that level of closeness comes at a cost. Namely, less sexual desire for each other, aka the so-called intimacy-desire paradox. Partners trade the uncertainty that fuels sexual desire for comfort and security. Of course, not all longtime couples fall prey to bed death. Their secret? Make your partner feel special. As unsexy as it sounds, researchers have found that …
Understanding, acceptance and care are a potent aphrodisiac.
We’re talking about a certain type of intimacy — responsiveness — that can rekindle desire even in long-term relationships, especially for women. It goes beyond feeling comfortable around each other, or treating each other nicely. “Responsiveness is the linchpin of intimacy,” Gurit Birnbaum of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, who led the study, wrote in an email. “When a partner is truly responsive, the relationship feels special and unique … Thus, engaging in sex feels like it’s improving an already valuable relationship.”
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study included three experiments, each involving around 100 or more straight couples. First, the researchers told them they would be instant-messaging their partners — who, unbeknownst to them, was actually a researcher messaging standardized replies, either responsive (such as “You must have gone through a very difficult time”) or unresponsive (“Doesn’t sound so bad to me”). The participants then filled out surveys to measure how responsive they perceived their partner to be, and how much they wanted to have sex with him or her. Desire didn’t differ significantly between men who received responsive versus unresponsive replies — but women thirsted after their partners more when they received responsive feedback.
In the second experiment, participants talked about a personal event with their partner in person. Then the researchers turned up the heat, asking the couples to kiss, make out, caress each other — basically, act physically intimate. They videotaped and analyzed both the conversation and the cuddle sesh for signs of responsiveness (listening and getting the facts straight, for instance) and desire (like seductive smiles and gazes). The more men and women saw their partner as responsive, the greater their sexual desire — but again, this correlation was stronger among women.
Feeling special and cared for revved up sexual desire, especially for women.
Finally, participants kept a journal for six weeks, during which they kept track of their levels of sexual desire, their partner’s responsiveness and how special their partner made them feel. They also recorded their partner’s so-called “mate value,” the collection of factors, like intelligence and attractiveness, that makes someone desirable. For both men and women, the more responsive they perceived their partner to be, the more special they felt and the higher they rated their partner’s mate value — so, the more they wanted to bone them.
In other words, feeling special and cared for revved up sexual desire, especially for women. Since they typically invest in parenting more than men do and therefore have more at stake when picking a partner, they pay more attention to behavioral cues — like responsiveness — that hint at a partner’s willingness to invest in the relationship, Birnbaum explained. In other words, “feeling cared for is especially important in determining, not just being correlated with, women’s sexual desire,” Margaret Clark of Yale University, who wasn’t involved in the study, wrote in an email.
To be sure, the couples were straight, relatively young (around 20 to 40 years old) and of a single nationality (Israeli), and most had been together for just a few years, so the findings might not prove universal. April Bleske-Rechek of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who wasn’t part of the study, thinks the researchers’ working definition of intimacy and responsiveness as discussed in the introduction of their paper was somewhat unclear. She also wonders whether women’s desire grows more sensitive to responsiveness as they approach their 30s and 40s, when their own mate value likely dwindles and their partner’s likely increases. Still, the use of a clever manipulation in the instant-messaging part of the study to experimentally link responsiveness and desire “was pretty huge,” and gave weight to the other two parts of the study, she told OZY. Although the authors don’t establish a cause-effect relationship, “it’s certainly a really nice attempt. It’s getting close.”
In a LTR and wondering how to get the motor running between you and bae again? Birnbaum suggests allowing enough time to engage in conversation and really listen to each other. Prioritize your partner’s needs and wishes as much as your own, and seek new experiences to heighten intimacy. Besides fueling desire, responsiveness might also safeguard partners against the allure of any attractive individuals they encounter, a hypothesis Birnbaum and colleagues plan to test in future research. It’s like they say — treat her like a queen and she’ll make you her king.