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.