Character  &  Context

Fan the FLAME to Maintain the Spark

a couple dressed warmly in front of a fire in a fireplace snuggle close together

The early days of romantic relationships are like a blazing fire: partners share a great deal of passion, have high levels of sexual desire, and engage in sex frequently. But partners’ sex lives may change as their relationships progress, with sexual frequency and desire often waning over time. Although this is a common experience in long-term relationships, it is not without its consequences: partners’ low or mismatched sexual desire is linked to more thoughts about breaking up, as well as lower sexual and relationship satisfaction. This begs the question: How can couples maintain sexual desire and satisfaction over time?

Amy Muise seeks to answer this question in her program of research, which she overviewed in her presentation titled Fanning the Flame: The Role of Sexual Communal Motivation for the Caryl E. Rusbult Early Career Award Address at the Close Relationships Preconference. Muise proposed that being high in sexual communal strength—or being willing and motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs—is one crucial factor that sustains desire in relationships.

In a series of daily experience, experimental, and longitudinal studies on long-term couples, partners transitioning to parenthood, couples coping with a clinical sexual issue, and consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships, Muise drove home 5 key points about the importance of sexual communal strength in desire maintenance. We can remember these points with the acronym FLAME: foster, lead, accept, mitigate, extend.

First, sexual communal strength Fosters partners’ sexual and relationship quality. Being high in sexual communal strength is linked to higher levels of desire and satisfaction, both in the moment and over time. Second, sexual communal strength Leads partners through the process of navigating sexual discrepancy. More specifically, those high in sexual communal strength have similar levels of sexual satisfaction when they have sex on days when their desire is lower than their partners compared to days when they have the same levels of desire as their partners. Third, because it is not always optimal or feasible to engage in sex, being sexually communal also means being able to Accept when a partner is not “in the mood.” For example, both partners are more satisfied with their sexual and relational lives when new fathers are understanding of their partners’ disinterest in sex after the transition to parenthood. Fourth, sexual communal strength can also be taken too far and is only beneficial for partners when it is Mitigated by one’s own agency. That is, when a person meets their partner’s sexual needs while neglecting their own needs, both partners report lower satisfaction and higher depressive symptoms. Finally, being high in sexual communal strength in one relationship can also Extend benefits to other relationships. In CNM relationships, or relationships where partners agree it is acceptable to have more than one sexual or romantic partner at the same time, perceiving high sexual communal strength in a primary partner is linked to feeling more satisfied with a secondary partner.

Taken together, Muise suggests that “sexual communal strength can maximize the benefits of sex and minimize the effects of sexual differences.” So how might we keep the spark alive in our sexual relationships? It appears as though sexual communal strength may be the way to fan the FLAME!

Written by: Rebecca Horne, PhD Student – University of Toronto

Presentation: "Fanning the Flame: The Role of Sexual Communal Motivation," at the Close Relationships Preconference

Speaker: Dr. Amy Muise, PhD – York University 


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