Thursday during the sexuality preconference, Gurit Birnbaum and Eli Finkel gave a talk about how the functions of sexual cues and desire change across different phases of a relationship. People in relationships tend to think about sex as having several different functions. Sex feels good, helps us to intimately connect with our partners, and is necessary for reproduction–these are just a few examples.
But the truth is that these functions matter more or less depending on how long a couple has been dating. Sex, the presenters argued, is more crucial to building a relationship at the beginning stages compared to later stages. Their reasoning is that in the early phases of a relationship, other aspects of a relationship that make people feel secure and safe–like trust and commitment–have not yet been built. These qualities simply take more time to develop, so early on in the course of dating, sex plays a bigger role in relationship building. Later in a relationship, sexual desire may serve as more of a coping strategy in the face of relationship-related stressors. The presenters theorized, for example, that when couples experience a threat to their relationship–maybe an attractive stranger flirts with one member of a couple– this event activates pro-relationship motivations that include sexual desire.
The meaning of specific behaviors (sexual cues) also changes over the course of a relationship. For example, what if you walked into a room and found your partner naked and sweaty after an intense workout? This event is much more likely to be sexually arousing if you’re in the beginning stage of a relationship compared to after you’ve been together a while. What about if one partner suggests that they bring in a third person to have a threesome? This is more likely to increase sexual desire in a later stage (perhaps with older couples looking to spice things up in the bedroom) compared to an early stage where sex is still relatively new.
Sexual cues can also inhibit rather than boost sexual desire. For example, the belief that people should develop an intimate relationship before engaging in sexual behavior is more likely to inhibit sexual desire at the beginning of a relationship, but will have little effect on sexual desire in a later stage. Conversely, if one partner has a major work deadline coming up, that event is more likely to inhibit sexual desire at a later stage of the relationship. In essence, couples are inclined to think, “Well, we can have sex anytime, let’s take care of work stuff first” compared to an early stage, in which couples are more likely to let sex distract them from work duties.
So to summarize, sexual cues and behaviors may change significantly across the course of a relationship. What turns you on after 5 months may not be the same thing that turns you on after 5 years.