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Ask Dr. Loving: Does Sexual Chemistry Matter?

Nicole asked, "If every other sought after characteristic is present, can a relationship thrive on a long-term basis if there is no sexual chemistry?"

 Dear Nicole;

The makers of Viagra® would have you think such an idea is sheer lunacy!  Ultimately, it depends on what you mean by “thrive.” There is surprisingly little direct research on the concept of “sexual chemistry”, which refers to more than just sex drive, sexual frequency, sexual or relationship satisfaction, or physical or sexual attraction.1 Sexual chemistry is all of these things, but also something unique and nebulous (i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). Research suggests that relationships will have a difficult time getting going without some sexual chemistry, given the role played by feelings of passion.2 In other words, a little sexual chemistry keeps us drawn to another (a very important component for budding relationships). But, sexual chemistry is by no means a panacea when it comes to promoting ‘thriving’ relationships. Think about it: unless you’re Hugh Hefner, the vast majority of your waking (and sleeping) time with your partner is spent NOT having sex, especially as your relationship progresses.Put another way, given the variability of passion, sexual chemistry has a hard time surviving on a long-term basis. In fact, in a classic survey, the two most frequent responses provided by couples who were married for at least 15 years when asked the secret of their success were: (a) My spouse is my best friend, and (b) I like my spouse as a person4 (culled from Miller et al.’s Intimate Relationships). Over the long haul, successful relationships require far more than sexual fireworks (not that they hurt). And keep in mind that sexual chemistry may come natural for some couples, but requires work for others; some doses of exploration and communication are very likely the key ingredients in that sexual chemistry kit.

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1Leiblum, S., & Brezsnyak, M. (2006). Sexual chemistry: Theoretical elaboration and clinical implications. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 21(1), 55-69. 

2Fisher, H. E. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature, 9(1), 23-52. 

3Call, V., Sprecher, S., & Schwartz, P. (1995). The incidence and frequency of marital sex in a national sample. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 57(3), 639-652.

4Lauer, J., & Lauer, R. (1985, June). Marriages made to last. Psychology Today, pp. 22-26.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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