Research has shown that regular physical intimacy plays an important role in most couples’ sense of relationship quality. In general, couples who share regular and satisfying patterns of physical intimacy in their relationship report greater satisfaction, commitment, and emotional closeness than individuals who struggle with this part of their relationship. Experts tend to divide physical intimacy in couple relationships into two parts – sexual intimacy and affectionate touch. Sexual intimacy consists of the frequency and variety of sex in a relationship, as well as the depth of sexual bonding and communication two partners share with each other. Affectionate touch refers to other forms of physical intimacy that don’t involve sex, such as cuddling, holding hands, hugging, kissing, and other forms of physical bonding. It is common for partners to have different preferences for the types of physical intimacy they most enjoy and how often they would like to share these experiences with their partner. Most couples engage in an “intimate dance” of give and take as partner’s initiate and respond to each other’s desires, moods, and preferences for physical intimacy.
Sexual intimacy and affectionate touch have been found to influence many parts of a couple’s relationship. For example, couples who report more intimate touch report that they have more effective communication, less conflict, and easier conflict resolution. Research also suggests that intimate touch buffers stress in couple relationships, with both men and women who report more frequent sexual intimacy reporting less daily stress, less reactivity to stressors, and faster recovery from stress. Sexual intimacy has also been shown to influence emotional closeness and the sense of attachment within couple relationships. Because of the strong symbolic nature of sexual intimacy, couples with more frequent and satisfying sexual relationships also feel that their partner is more concerned with their well-being and responsive to their needs. Although communication and spending time together are essential parts of building emotional intimacy, physical intimacy reinforces the closeness of the relationship and provides a tangible reminder of the partner’s love. As a result, individuals who share affectionate touch and sexual intimacy as frequently as they desire are more likely to have a sense of security in the relationship because they feel safe and cared for by their partner. Consider whether you and your partner are on the same page with the physical intimacy part of your relationship. If you see areas of difference or disagreement, find ways to improve the sexual intimacy in your relationship.
Here is a breakdown of sexual desire differences and suggestions on how to manage them.
You desire more sexual intimacy than is happening.
Having a higher desire for sexual intimacy than what is currently occurring in your relationship is one of, if not the, most common complaint in relationships when it comes to physical intimacy. If you find yourself in this category, don’t feel alone! However, research does suggest that having a discrepancy between desire and frequency when it comes to sexual intimacy can decrease satisfaction in a relationship, increase frustration with one’s partner, and decrease the frequency of intimacy even more over time! The first step to making sure this doesn’t happen in your relationship is to start talking openly with your partner about your desires. This conversation shouldn’t focus on increasing the frequency of intimacy to match your desire, but rather to help your partner understand your perspective and open a dialogue focused on compromise and responsiveness. Often the partner with the lower desire is viewed as the “gatekeeper” of the physical relationship. As the high desire partner, this may make you feel like you are unloved or that your partner is not interested in you (both physically and emotionally). It may be important to ask your partner about their lower desire level. Be a good listener, their low desire may have nothing to do with you! Try to listen to what your partner is looking for that may help them feel more desire in your relationship. It may be different than what makes you feel desire for your partner. Embrace these differences and find ways to make your partner feel loved and appreciated.
You desire less sexual intimacy than is happening.
Having a lower desire for sexual intimacy than what is currently occurring in your relationship is a common complaint in relationships when it comes to intimacy. While research suggests this is more common for women than men, it can occur in either (or both!) partners. So, if this sounds like you, don’t feel alone! A discrepancy between partners in terms of desire for sexual intimacy has been linked in research to several negative outcomes, especially if these mismatched desires exist for a long period of time or create a lingering sense of dissatisfaction for one or both partners. To ensure this doesn't happen in your relationship, you should start talking openly with your partner about your desires. This conversation shouldn’t focus on decreasing the frequency of intimacy to match your desire, but rather to help your partner understand your perspective and open a dialogue focused on compromise. Often the partner with the lower desire is viewed as the “gatekeeper” of the relationship. As the low desire partner, you may feel a lot of pressure in your relationship when it comes to intimacy. This may increase your anxiety about intimacy and make intimate encounters more frustrating than bonding. The first step to improving this area of your relationship is to understand where your lower desire is coming from. This may be due to a physical condition; in which case a medical professional may be able to help. Or it may be more emotional in nature. Perhaps your partner does not fully understand your needs when it comes to physical intimacy in the relationship. Tell them! Try to do so in a way that doesn’t come across as blaming or nagging. Simply be honest about how you feel and what you need to increase the desire for sexual intimacy in your relationship!
You're on the same page with physical intimacy.
Congratulations! You are avoiding one of, if not the, most common complaints in relationships when it comes to intimacy. This doesn’t mean that the intimacy in your relationship will always match your desire. It is normal for intimacy to fluctuate over time in any relationship. To make sure future shifts do not undermine the health of your relationship, consider having open and regular conversations with your partner about the intimacy in your relationship, if you’re not already. The first step to making sure future differences don’t undermine your relationship is to start talking opening with your partner about your desires. This conversation shouldn’t focus on increasing the frequency of intimacy or changing someone’s desire, but to help your partner understand your perspective and open a dialogue focused on understanding each other for when difference may come up. Research shows that couples with similar desires tend to be the most satisfied and happy with their relationship. Since you’re on the same page with higher desires for sexual intimacy, your main focus should be on making sure that commitments outside your relationship don’t get in the way of your time to be together.
Since physical intimacy desires can often be different from affectionate touch desires, here is a breakdown of affectionate touch desire differences and suggestions on how to manage them:
You desire more affectionate touch than is happening.
You are likely a person who values physical touch and feels a sense of bonding when you share affectionate touching with your partner. This may be because you are a “touch focused” person who shares emotions through physical touch, or maybe your partner doesn’t enjoy or seek out affectionate touch as much as you do. This gap between what you desire and what is happening in your relationship may be disappointing to you or perhaps you feel like you’re trying to match up with your partner’s preferences. Either way, your needs matter and it will benefit your relationship if you can find ways to increase the amount of affectionate touch in your relationship. As you identify frustrations, communicate them to your partner and take the time to discuss with your partner how you might make specific goals in the coming weeks to improve this important area of your life.
You desire less affectionate touch than is happening.
This may be because you value other forms of communication than physical touch and you don’t feel as much of a sense of bonding with affectionate touch as your partner does. Or maybe you just don’t enjoy or seek out affectionate touch as much as your partner’s does. It’s not uncommon for partners to have different preferences for different types of physical intimacy. This gap between what you desire and what is happening in your relationship may be frustrating you or it means you are a responsive partner who is willing to meet your partner’s needs. Keep one thing in mind, research suggests that how satisfied both partners are with their physical intimacy is often more important than how often it occurs. This suggests that the most important thing you can do to increase you and your partner’s satisfaction is to not only focus on how often intimacy is occurring, but also on the level of dissatisfied or frustration you feel. As you identify frustrations, communicate them to your partner and take the time to discuss with your partner how you might make specific goals in the coming weeks to improve this important area of your life.
You're on the same page with affectionate touch.
This is great! This type of similarity likely makes this a comfortable part of your relationship where you feel synced up with each other. You likely share a relationship with regular affectionate touch that shares your feelings for each other in more than just words. In fact, you may be tempted to take for granted how easily you and your partner connect through touch. Keep one thing in mind, research suggests that how satisfied both partners are with their physical intimacy is often more important than how often it occurs. This suggests that the most important thing you can do to increase your satisfaction is not to focus only on how often intimacy is occurring but also on the level of dissatisfied or frustration you feel. As you identify frustrations, communicate them to your partner and take the time to discuss with your partner how you might make specific goals in the coming weeks to improve this important area of your life. Continue to focus on your partner’s desires, as well as your own and this will be a strength for your relationship in many ways.
Whether you are at the high end of the spectrum and sharing a regular pattern of physical intimacy and affectionate touch, or at the lower end of the spectrum in your relationship, there is no better time than now to check-in on this aspect of your relationship. Having a healthy match between your desires and the behaviors in your relationship increases the likelihood that you have higher satisfaction in your relationship. Research suggests that there is no “one size fits all” pattern for physical intimacy and affectionate touch in a relationship. Instead, when both partners are mutually content and satisfied with the physical intimacy in their relationship, this is often more important than how often it occurs. If you are curious to know where you stand, take our free assessment, "Are You and Your Partner on the Same Page When It Comes to Sex?"