Sex after marriage: Studies reveal what really happens to desire after tying the knot

You’ve found your dream partner, you’ve planned your dream wedding, you’re loved up and into each other, and you're having sex. It’s pure love magic!

But, what happens once the honeymoon phase is over?

Two new studies outlined in Psychology Today have revealed an emerging mis-match in sexual desire within the early years of marriage.

Shot of a young couple lying in bed and ignoring each other no sex
Two longitudinal studies reveal what happens to your sex life after marriage. Source: Getty Images

Newlywed couples were asked to complete 6-monthly surveys focused on understanding their sexual desires and levels of marital satisfaction.

These longitudinal studies picked up some common trends.


Mis-matched desire emerging four to five years into marriage

A pattern emerged showing a clear decline in the female partner’s sexual desire across the first four to five years of marriage. This included desire for sex with one’s spouse or in general.

On the flip side, the male partner’s sexual desire showed no such decline.

Interestingly, levels of marital satisfaction also fell in line with the female spouse’s falling sexual desire.

Reasons for plummeting sexual desire in marriage

The studies found the drop in sexual desire was not due to childbirth.

Whilst women experienced a steeper decline in sexual desire after becoming a parent, becoming a father increased sexual desire in male partner’s.

Parents and children playing together.
Studies explored the impact of childbirth on sexual desire within marriage. Source: Getty Image

One possible theory put forward by the researchers is that the female partner may experience an increase in sexual desire during the early stages of a relationship (perhaps to help in forming a long-term bond), which then returns to a baseline level over time.

The studies consider this could lead to dissatisfaction later on in a marriage where the relationship has become accustomed to a particular level of sexual desire (and activity), that doesn‘t continue.

The study suggests that male partners may feel they‘ve found their sexual soul mate at the beginning of a relationship, only to see this change over time.

On the flip side, female partners can also be caught off guard by their dropping libido and the questions this raises about their relationship and sex life.

Mis-matched libidos - a natural difference in relationships?

To find out more, Yahoo Lifestyle asked Couples Counsellor and Founder of The Sydney Couples Counselling Centre, Dr Rowan Burckhardt for his insights on changing sexual desires during marriage.

“So what I would say is that mis-matched libidos, whether they are from the start of the relationship or emerge later on, are just another form of differences that will be present in all relationships," says Dr Burckhardt.

Couples Counsellor and Founder of Sydney Couples Counselling Centre, Dr Rowan Burckhardt shares his insights on mis-matched partner libidos. Source: Dr Rowan Burckhardt
Couples Counsellor and Founder of Sydney Couples Counselling Centre, Dr Rowan Burckhardt shares his insights on mis-matched partner libidos. Source: Dr Rowan Burckhardt

“Every relationship has differences, big and small, and they can be in the areas of finances, housework, how to manage in-laws, how to spend our spare time, how to raise children, navigating the physical intimacy, to name but a few.”

So how can couple’s navigate mis-matched libido?

“What is important in making a relationship work well is not finding someone who we don't have those differences with (even if we were to change partners, our next partner would also have differences, just in another area perhaps), but rather, how we resolve those differences," Dr Burckhardt explains.

“This is true for how to raise children, how to share the household chores, and mis-matched libidos.

"To do this, each partner needs to be able to communicate effectively their underlying feelings (called primary emotions), which are the deeper emotions we feel, and to be able to communicate their needs (which arise from those primary emotions). When both partners can do this effectively, they are essentially putting all the 'pieces on the table' and the couple can then figure out how to make them fit together so that both partners get their needs met, as much as possible.

Cropped view of same sex couple communicating. Sitting and talking with cups of coffee.
Experts say communication is key to navigating differences in sexual desire. Source: Getty Image

“It's also important for couples with mis-matched libidos to accept that it is not usually possible to expect the low libido person to initiate sex and so when I work with mis-matched libido couples, that is one thing that I will address.

“Doing this can be hard for some people and if we don't have it naturally within us to do it, we can learn, through effective couples counselling.

“But the key is that the therapy must be an effective one, delivered by a competent therapist who is adequately trained in the approach. The approach that has the strongest amount of evidence that it works is Emotionally Focused Therapy, which is an attachment-based therapy developed by Dr Sue Johnson," says Dr Burckhardt.

Tips for communicating your needs to your spouse

We asked Dr Burckhardt for his top tips on communicating your needs to your partner.

“While couples will usually need a process of transformation through therapy to resolve such an issue, a few tips on how to better communicate about it that I can provide are:

  • Select your moment carefully to raise the issue. Pick a time when you know your partner will be relaxed and more receptive to talking about a difficult topic

  • Ensure that you talk about how you feel rather than blaming your partner for those feelings. It is the difference between 'I feel a sense of loneliness due to our lack of physical intimacy' compared to 'because you won't have sex with me, I feel lonely'

  • Ensure you give space for your partner to express how they feel as well. It is also very important to truly listen and try to understand the other person's experience and feelings. Communicating back to them or showing them that you understand can help

  • Think of ways you can meet your partner's needs in this area of the relationship, as well as asking that your partner meet your needs

  • Be prepared to have several conversations about this over time, it is unlikely that it is the type of issue that a single conversation can fix

  • Always recognise and show appreciation for any effort your partner is making, even if things are still a long way from where you would like them. If you don't, they will quickly feel like even when they try, their partner is still unhappy and so what is the point of even trying.

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