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The Fragile Spell of Desire: A Functional Perspective on Changes in Sexual Desire Across Relationship Development

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Abstract

The sexual behavioral system evolved to motivate reproductive acts by arousing sexual desire. Building on the idea that this system has also been “exploited” by evolutionary processes to promote enduring bonds between romantic partners, the present article introduces an integrative model that delineates the functional significance of sexual desire in relationship formation and maintenance. This model explains why individuals’ sexual reaction to their partner is context-dependent, clarifying how changes in the nature of interdependence over the course of relationships alter the ways in which specific predictors of sexual desire tend to promote (or inhibit) desire and thereby affect relationship depth and stability. The model postulates that although desire influences the development of attachment bonds, the contribution that it makes varies over the course of relationships. The model also provides new insight regarding fundamental but unresolved issues in human sexuality, such as the vulnerability of sexual desire and the desire-intimacy paradox.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 1
Running Head: SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT
The Fragile Spell of Desire:
A Functional Perspective on Changes in Sexual Desire across Relationship Development
Gurit E. Birnbaum
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
Word count: 23,338
May 5, 2017
Authors' Note. I would like to thank Eli Finkel for his invaluable contribution to this paper. I am
also grateful to Sandra Murray for her insightful and constructive comments on this work.
Send Correspondence:
Gurit E. Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
P.O. Box 167
Herzliya, 46150, Israel
E-mail address: birnbag@gmail.com
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Abstract
The sexual behavioral system evolved to motivate reproductive acts by arousing sexual
desire. Building on the idea that this system has also been “exploited” by evolutionary processes to
promote enduring bonds between romantic partners, the present article introduces an integrative
model that delineates the functional significance of sexual desire in relationship formation and
maintenance. This model explains why individuals’ sexual reaction to their partner is context-
dependent, clarifying how changes in the nature of interdependence over the course of relationships
alter the ways in which specific predictors of sexual desire tend to promote (or inhibit) desire and
thereby affect relationship depth and stability. The model postulates that although desire influences
the development of attachment bonds, the contribution that it makes varies over the course of
relationships. The model also provides new insight regarding fundamental but unresolved issues in
human sexuality, such as the vulnerability of sexual desire and the desire-intimacy paradox.
Key words: attachment; desire; relationship development; romantic relationships; sex
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The Fragile Spell of Desire:
A Functional Perspective on Changes in Sexual Desire across Relationship Development
Sexual desire serves as a powerful motivator in humans, one that can induce ecstatic
pleasure and profound connection (Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015; Birnbaum, Mikulincer, Szepsenwol,
Shaver, & Mizrahi, 2014; Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988). As such, it can promote the
development of a potential or current relationship (Birnbaum, 2014), bringing partners together
initially and increasing the likelihood that they will form or deepen an interdependent relationship
(Berscheid & Reis, 1998). However, the intensity of sexual desire cannot carry the promise of
sustaining quality, such that predicating long-term relationship decisions on current feelings of
sexual desire is risky, as they are likely to change over time. For example, desire tends to be strong
during the early stages of a romantic relationship (Acker & Davis, 1992; Baumeister & Bratslavsky,
1999; Sternberg, 1986) before subsiding gradually, with many couples failing to maintain sexual
desire in their long-term relationships (e.g., Acker & Davis, 1992; Birnbaum, Cohen, & Wertheimer,
2007; Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, & Kolata, 1994).
Fortunately, scholars have identified a variety of variables that can help couples sustain
sexual desire in long-term relationships, including the introduction of novelty (McCarthy & Farr,
2012) and the adoption of a communal approach to sexual interactions (Muise, Impett, Kogan, &
Desmarais, 2013). Indeed, desire is not inevitably doomed to wane as time passes, and not all
people will eventually lose sexual interest in their partner (e.g., Acevedo & Aron, 2009; Muise,
Impett, Kogan, et al., 2013). Still, few studies have addressed when and for whom specific
variables are conductive to the facilitation of sexual desire—and no research has sought to develop
a unifying framework for addressing all of these topics. This insufficient sensitivity to changes
across time within a relationship is surprising, given that when it comes to sex, many people desire
different things at different points in their lives, and as sexual desire changes, it may alter the
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relationship accordingly. For example, catching an unexpected glimpse of one’s partner’s naked
derrière 20 days into the relationship might launch one into a feverish frenzy, whereas the same
experience 20 years later might elicit something closer to boredom.
The present article introduces an integrative model, which provides a broad conceptual
framework for delineating how changes in the nature of interdependence over the course of the
relationship alter the ways in which specific predictors of sexual desire (or behavior) tend to
promote (or inhibit) desire. In predicting sexual desire for one’s partner, this model distinguishes
between (a) the extent to which stimuli linked to the partner normatively afford the pursuit of sexual
behavior with this partner (e.g., the partner is wearing a thong vs. a burka) and (b) the individual’s
readiness to find these particular stimuli desirable in the present context (e.g., the individual has not
seen the partner for two weeks vs. has spent the whole day with the partner). The model also
discerns (c) the circumstances under which the individual acts upon feelings of sexual desire rather
than inhibiting the inclination to do so.
Cross-cutting these distinctions, the model also illuminates the functional significance of
sexual desire in relationship development, clarifying for whom, under which circumstances, and at
which relationship stage desire increases or decreases and thereby affects relationship depth and
stability. In doing so, the model acknowledges that sexual desire likely does not play the same role
in all relationships. For example, in friends-with-benefits relationships or casual affairs, sexual
desire is less likely to lead to relationship advancement as compared with steady dating. In the
present article, the model focuses on the "typical" relationship trajectory from a traditional,
monogamous perspective.
Sexual Desire: Changes in Its Nature over Time
Sexual desire—also called sexual interest, sexual attraction, passion, libido, or lust (Regan,
2015)—means different things to different people (e.g., Brotto, Heiman, & Tolman, 2009;
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Goldhammer & McCabe, 2011; Mitchell, Wellings, & Graham, 2014; Regan & Berscheid, 1996).
For example, some people define sexual desire as the need to engage in sexual activities with a
partner or as the urge to be satisfied sexually by someone they are attracted to. Others define it as a
motivational goal state (e.g., longing, urge, drive, craving, appetite), but lump it together with other
non-sexual needs (e.g., affection, intimacy; Regan & Berscheid, 1996) or with other relational and
sexual constructs, such as attraction, excitement, and arousal (e.g., Graham, Sanders, Milhausen, &
McBride, 2004; Mitchell et al., 2014).
Although this definitional diversity among laypeople extends, to some degree, to the
scholarly domain (e.g., Mitchell et al., 2014; Murray, Sutherland, & Milhausen, 2012), according to
most scholarly definitions, sexual desire involves the subjective experience of an inclination to
engage in sexual activity with a specific individual (i.e., the desire target). This motivational state,
which is sometimes gauged via genital arousal (Beck, Bozman, & Qualtrough, 1991; Janssen,
2011), may lead the person to pursue opportunities to fulfill this desire with the object of desire
(Diamond, 2003, 2004; Gonzaga, Turner, Keltner, Campos, & Altemus, 2006; Regan, 2015).
Hence, similarly to passionate love, sexual desire is targeted toward a specific person. However,
even though these two constructs are correlated, they are not isomorphic; one may feel passionate
love toward another person without acknowledging any feelings of sexual desire, and, vice versa,
sexual desire may be devoid of passionate love (Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Diamond, 2003).
In this sense, sexual desire reflects relationship-oriented sexual arousal (Laan & Both, 2008; Laan
& Janssen, 2007), which may, or may not, accompany passionate love.
Both scholars and laypeople have recognized the contextual and dyadic nature of sexual
desire (e.g., Basson, 2000; Diamond, 2012; Murray et al., 2012; Ridley et al., 2006). Contemporary
models of sexuality (e.g., Basson, 2000, 2001, 2005; Hayes, 2011) conceptualize sexual desire
along a continuum ranging from spontaneous (i.e., generated internally in the absence of apparent
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stimuli) to responsive (i.e., triggered by external stimuli, such as partner sexual advances). Early in
a relationship, partners often experience relatively strong and spontaneous sexual urges. At later
relationship stages, when couples are more likely to experience habituation, one of the partners (or
both) may not necessarily sense sexual desire per se, but rather be motivated to engage in sex for
other reasons (e.g., pleasing the other partner, enhancing the emotional bond). Then, once sexual
activity has been initiated, these individuals may be willing to become sexually receptive and
experience desire for sex itself (i.e., responsive sexual desire; Basson, 2000; Baumeister &
Bratslavsky, 1999). In line with this conceptualization, some scholars have theorized that as sexual
desire declines over time, it becomes more responsive and less spontaneous. Alternatively, all
sexual desires may be conceptualized as responsive, but they differ in determinants of
responsiveness and the conditions that promote them throughout the course of relationships (Meana,
2010; Sims & Meana, 2010).
Qualitative descriptions of people’s experience of sexual desire indicate that many
situational factors may increase desire (e.g., feeling sexy, a partner making one feeling desirable, a
relaxing environment) or decrease it (e.g., feeling unattractive, a partner’s lack of consideration;
Brotto et al., 2009; Murray & Milhausen, 2012; Sims & Meana, 2010). Along with lay people’s
accounts, research has found a variety of factors that may affect the desire to have sex, such as a
stressful work environment (e.g., Laumann, Paik, & Rosen, 1999), relationship satisfaction (e.g.,
Brezsnyak & Whisman, 2004), and hormonally-mediated life events (e.g., the menstrual cycle,
pregnancy; Regan, 1996, 2013). Scholars have loosely categorized these predictors of sexual desire
into several largely atheoretical classes, such as (a) relational vs. non-relational or (b) biological vs.
social vs. contextual (e.g., Goldhammer & McCabe, 2011; McCall & Meston, 2006). The present
article introduces a broad conceptual framework that can integrate this growing corpus of
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knowledge underneath a single conceptual umbrella that addresses the link between sexual desire
and relationship processes.
Developing such a framework has benefits that extend well beyond its integrative potential,
including (a) identifying new research questions at the intersection of sexual desire and relationship
dynamics and (b) offering new insights into several thorny issues in this research domain.
Specifically, research is unclear about why stimuli, such as anxiety-inducing situations, instigate
sexual desire in some people (Graham et al., 2004) but inhibit it in others (Birnbaum, Weisberg, &
Simpson, 2011). Research is also unclear about why the same stimulus may both increase and
decrease desire in the same person, depending on context and timing (Graham et al., 2004). For
example, a sense of emotional closeness is likely to increase sexual desire across the early stages of
an emerging relationship, but is less likely to do so, or may even dampen desire, in later stages
(McCall & Meston, 2006; Perel, 2007; Sims & Meana, 2010).
Given that certain variables influence sexual desire differently across relationship
development, a framework addressing the link between sexual desire and relationship processes
should incorporate information about how relationships normatively change over time. This
framework should also examine the extent to which sexual desire in a given context manifests itself
in sexual behavior, as sexual desire does not necessarily lead to sexual action (e.g., avoiding
initiation of sex because of rejection fears). In fact, sexual intercourse may not always be the end
goal of sexual desire (e.g., Brotto et al., 2009; Regan & Berscheid, 1996). However, in those cases
it is, sexual behavior may have added value in predicting relationship maintenance. For example, a
decreased frequency of sexual intercourse due to consistent refusal of one’s sexual advances may
produce a sense of rejection and harm relationship well-being (Byers & Heinlein, 1989; Davies,
Katz, & Jackson, 1999; Mark & Murray, 2012). Toward these goals, the present article adapts the I3
model (Finkel, 2014) to develop a new framework for understanding sexual desire and behavior and
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integrates this framework with a heavily updated version of the relationship stage model (Birnbaum,
2014, 2015; Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015). The article then employs this integrated perspective to
reconsider the desire-intimacy paradox, how to sustain sexual desire in long-term relationships, and
the effect of sexual desire on relationship quality and persistence.
An I3 Model Analysis of Sexual Desire
The I3 model is a general metatheoretical framework that is flexible enough to guide the
development of new theories and hypotheses on any aspect of behavior. To date, it has been applied
to aggression and intimate partner violence (Finkel, 2014; Finkel, DeWall, Slotter, Oaten, & Foshee,
2009; Finkel & Eckhardt, 2013) and eating behavior (Finkel, 2014). Figure 1 adapts this general
framework to the domain of human sexuality. According to this model, when predicting the
likelihood that an individual will pursue a particular sexual behavior in a given situation (or the
intensity with which the individual will engage in such pursuit), it is necessary to glean insight into
three processes. Two of these processes—instigation and impellance—are essential for
understanding the experience of sexual desire, and the third—inhibition—is essential for
understanding the extent to which sexual desire yields sexual behavior. Before introducing these
three processes and illustrating the integrative potential of adopting an I3 model perspective on
human sexuality, we must consider the existing distinction between excitatory and inhibitory
processes in sexual desire.
Excitatory and Inhibitory Processes in Sexual Desire
Scholars have long lamented that most sex research is largely atheoretical. For example, in
a major article in the Journal of Sex Research, entitled “The use of theory in sexuality research,”
Weis (1998, p. 8) concluded that “if … theory is the heart of the scientific enterprise, then sexual
scientists and sexuality organizations have much work to do.” More recently, Toates (2009, p. 169)
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asserted that “sex research suffers from fragmentation and lack of over-arching theoretical
synthesis.”
Fortunately, in recent years, several scholars have taken major strides toward the
development and refinement of broad theoretical models of sexuality. One of the dominant themes
in this burgeoning literature is that it is crucial, in seeking to understand sexuality, to distinguish
between excitatory and inhibitory processes. For example, Bancroft and Janssen’s dual control
model suggests that “sexual responses involve an interaction between sexual excitatory and sexual
inhibitory processes” (Bancroft, Graham, Janssen, & Sanders, 2009, p. 121; also see Bancroft,
1999; Bancroft & Janssen, 2000), with excitatory processes increasing, and inhibitory processes
decreasing, sexual desire and behavior. The sequence of excitatory and inhibitory processes
underlying sexual responding functions at multiple levels and includes both automatic responses,
which operate outside of awareness (e.g., an initial appraisal of stimuli as sexual or not), and
controlled responses, which bring the sexual meaning into subjective awareness (e.g., cognitively
elaborating on the sexual stimulus; Geer & Janssen, 2000; Janssen, Everaerd, Spiering, & Janssen,
2000). Discrepancies between levels of responding (e.g., appraising sexual stimuli positively at the
automatic level and negatively at the conscious level) may create ambivalence and impair sexual
functioning (Janssen et al., 2000).
In addition to introducing this distinction between excitatory and inhibitory processes in
sexuality, scholars have begun to elaborate the nature of these two processes. To illustrate these
elaborations, consider Toates’s (2009) discussion of three distinct types of inhibitory processes. The
first type is goal-directed inhibition, which involves self-regulatory efforts to reduce sexual arousal
or to restrain sexual behavior. For example, a woman who elects not to have sex with her
boyfriend, or who seeks to avoid experiencing sexual desire for him, due to a vow to “save herself
for marriage” is exhibiting goal-directed inhibition. The second type is aversion-related inhibition,
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which involves reductions in sexual arousal due to the presence of threat-related stimuli in the
environment or to the activation of threat-related thoughts. For example, a college student whose
desire for his girlfriend dissipates when his roommate returns home earlier than expected, or when
he is struck with intrusive worry that he will ejaculate prematurely during intercourse, is exhibiting
aversion-related inhibition. The third type is ejaculation, or orgasm-related, inhibition, which
involves a sudden, strong reduction in the ability to become aroused immediately after one has had
an orgasm. For example, it is typically more difficult for an individual to experience sexual arousal
immediately following a previous orgasm than following a long non-orgasmic interval, an effect
that is especially strong for men.
This sort of analysis is exciting, as developing insight into the processes that increase or
decrease the experience of sexual desire or the enactment of sexual behavior is among the most
important tasks confronting the science of human sexuality. In addition, and of particular relevance
to the present article, it is difficult to imagine that scholars can develop a compelling model of
sexuality in relationships without insight into excitatory and inhibitory processes.
However, as elaborated in the ensuing section, the current discussion of these processes is
limited in two ways. First, in the existing literature, the discussion of excitation confounds two
distinct sets of processes, one that is inherent to one’s experience of a specific sex partner in a
specific context and another that is more general or diffuse than that. Examples of the former
include a woman catching an unexpected glimpse of her boyfriend’s nude body while the two of
them are at a toga party or a man returning home from a trip to an unexpectedly hot greeting from
his wife. Examples of the latter include the woman’s dispositional sex drive strength, her general
tendency to find her boyfriend sexy, or the man’s naughty reveries about the reunion en route home
from the airport. Second, depending upon when the excitatory or the inhibitory process influences
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sexual desire and behavior, each process can function in either of two distinct ways, which suggests
that investigations of these two processes are best conceptualized within a 2 × 2 framework.
Specifically, as depicted on the left side of Figure 2, sexual desire can be excited or inhibited
either before it starts (at baseline) or after it starts (once the individual starts feeling a situational
increase in desire). Accordingly, excitatory processes can function either by increasing sexual
desire strength (upper-left quadrant in Figure 2) or by decreasing the restraint upon the experience
of sexual desire (lower-left quadrant). As depicted on the right side of Figure 2, inhibitory
processes can function either by decreasing sexual desire strength (upper-right quadrant) or by
increasing the restraint upon the experience of sexual desire (lower-right quadrant).
The likelihood and intensity of the pursuit of sexual behavior is strong to the extent that
excitatory processes dominate at both the “before desire onset” stage (thereby increasing desire) and
the “after desire onset/sexual action” stage (thereby decreasing inhibitions on the behavioral
expression of the desire). For example, a man returning home from travelling abroad may initiate
sex with his wife if she passionately welcomes him (i.e., increasing his desire) and updates him that
their kids are sleeping over at their friends' house (i.e., decreasing his inhibition). If inhibitory
processes dominate at the “before desire onset” stage, then the likelihood and intensity of the
pursuit of sexual behavior will be low, either due to lack of desire (if the inhibitory processes
dominate at the “before desire onset” stage) or due to the inhibition of the tendency to act on one’s
desire (if the inhibitory processes dominate at the “after desire onset/sexual action” stage). For
example, a woman might inhibit the desire for sex with her partner or resist his sexual advances
despite experiencing sexual desire for him following a bitter fight between them.
The I3 Model’s Three Basic Processes
The I3 model identifies three key processes for understanding how predictors of sexual
desire and sexual behavior exert their effects. Instigation encompasses exposure to a context-
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specific cue linked to an established or potential sexual partner that normatively affords the pursuit
of sexual behavior with this partner (i.e., how “objectively” desirable the sexual partner is in a set
social context). Example instigators include coming home to find one’s partner dressed in a
seductive outfit or having an attractive stranger whisper an erotic invitation in one’s ear at a dance
club. Impellance encompasses situational or stable factors that increase the likelihood that (or the
intensity with which) one experiences sexual desire in response to a particular instigator. Example
impellors include possessing a dispositionally strong sex drive or having been primed to think about
sex by viewing erotic photos of oneself and one’s partner earlier in the evening. Inhibition
encompasses situational or stable factors that increase the likelihood that one will override the urge
to act upon one’s sexual desire. Example inhibitors include the fear that acting upon one’s sexual
desire will make one excessively vulnerable to the partner or will hurt a mutual friend who is also
romantically interested in this potential partner.
According to the I3 model, these three processes—instigation, impellance, and inhibition—
are conceptually orthogonal; that is, any one of them can vary independently of the other two. For
example, one’s sex drive strength (impellor) and self-control (inhibitor) are in principle orthogonal
not only to each other, but also to whether the partner is wearing nothing but lacy panties versus a
burlap sack (instigator). Nevertheless, these three processes might be correlated in practice. For
example, people who are higher in dispositional sex drive (impellor) might behave in ways that
systematically expose them to more mating stimuli (or more intense ones), such as frequent
attending of singles events (instigation). Moreover, some variables may influence sexual desire and
behavior through more than one of the three processes. For example, the primary pathway through
which dispositional sex drive influences sexual behavior is through impellance. Dispositional sex
drive may still exert some of its effect through (dis)inhibition. Specifically, an individual with a
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high dispositional sex drive might inhibit the desire to enact a given sexual behavior less than is
typical because she believes that doing so would be especially costly or painful for her.
Adding to this real life complexity, perceptions and misperceptions of partners’ desire,
which fuel both desire and its inhibition (Haselton & Buss, 2000; Muise, Stanton, Kim, & Impett,
2016), may serve the processes of impellance and inhibition. A partner putting on sexy lingerie, for
example, may increase one’s desire not only because it reveals more of the partner’s body (i.e., an
instigator), but also because it may indicate the partner’s desire for sex (i.e., an impellor, if it means
that one is only ready to become aroused when the partner is in the mood). Of course, the desire for
sex with this partner may be inhibited if the partner’s intentions are misperceived and the partner
refuses to have sex, claiming to put on this lingerie only because nothing else is clean (and not in
order to signal his or her desire for sex).
Another premise of the model is that instigation varies from low to high, whereas impellance
and inhibition vary from highly negative to highly positive. For example, sexual instigation is low
when encountering an unattractive person engaged in mundane activities, but it is high when
encountering an attractive person engaged in sexually inviting activities. Sexual impellance is
highly negative (“disimpellance”) when the individual is turned off by a particular instigator (e.g.,
by the sight of one’s hated ex-boyfriend at the beach), but it is highly positive when the individual is
especially turned on by a particular instigator (e.g., when one is pleasantly surprised by the partner
wearing one’s favorite sexy lingerie). In other words, dis-impellance makes people especially prone
not to experience strong sexual desire in response to a given sex-relevant stimulus, whereas high
impellance makes people especially prone to experience strong sexual desire in response to a given
sex-relevant stimulus. For example, if a given target stimulus (i.e., the potential “object” of sexual
behavior, the person with whom sexual activity is possible) might typically arouse 10 units of
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sexual desire, an individual currently subject to high impellance might experience 15 units, whereas
an individual currently subject to low impellance might experience 5 units.
Finally, sexual inhibition is highly negative (“disinhibition”) when the individual is
particularly disinclined to override the behavioral inclination to engage in sexual contact (e.g., when
there is no chance that one’s roommate will return home early and find one having sex with a
partner), but it is highly positive when the individual is especially inclined to override the
behavioral inclination (e.g., when there is a good chance that one’s roommate will return home
early). In other words, dis-inhibition makes people especially prone not to override their sexual
desire, whereas high inhibition makes people especially prone to override (i.e., not act upon) their
sexual desire.
The distinction between disimpellance and inhibition is of the most important elements of
the I3 model: If a variable exerts its effects by reducing desire, it is a dis-impellor. If it does so by
reducing the likelihood (or intensity) of acting on one’s desire, it is an inhibitor (see Figure 2).
Hence, regardless of whether desire is high or low, inhibition may be high or low. The likelihood
(and intensity) of sexual behavior is determined by the extent to which sexual desire exceeds
inhibition. Even somebody experiencing intense sexual desire will resist acting upon it, if inhibition
is stronger than that desire. This point is illustrated in Figure 1: Instigation and impellance interact
to predict sexual desire, which in turn predicts sexual behavior unless it is overridden by inhibitory
processes1. Influences in the reverse direction, from engaging in sexual activity to experiencing
desire, are also possible. People often do not feel spontaneous desire before they start engaging in
sex (e.g., Basson, 2000, 2001, 2005; Hayes, 2011). Rather, they are willing to become sexually
receptive to their partners’ sexual initiations, such that their desire for sex may be triggered in
response to these advances (e.g., a partner kissing one’s neck).
Distinguishing Instigation and Impellance
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At a basic level, the I3 model is a balance model in which the individual will pursue sexual
behavior if the strength of the desire to do so exceeds the strength of the inhibitory forces that serve
to override that desire. Conversely, the individual will not pursue sexual behavior if the strength of
the inhibitory forces exceeds the strength of the desire. As such, scholars must discern the
circumstances under which desire will be strong rather than weak. According to the I3 model,
discerning those circumstances requires a clear understanding of the distinction between instigation
and impellance, along with an understanding of how these two forces interact to predict desire
strength (see the three boxes at the left of Figure 1).
The primary distinction between instigation and impellance is that instigation involves
normative reactions to a specific target-relevant cue (i.e., the extent to which a given stimulus is
“objectively” sexually desirable, regardless of the observer), whereas impellance involves
magnification or mitigation of those reactions. The I3 model employs the term affordance to
emphasize that instigation involves the extent to which the specific target-relevant cue normatively
brings sexual behavior into the repertoire of plausible response options. The use of this term builds
upon ideas developed by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson (1966, 1986), who coined the
term “affordance” to refer to the possibilities that a particular environmental feature offers,
provides, or furnishes the organism. For example: “If a terrestrial surface is nearly horizontal
(instead of slanted), nearly flat (instead of convex or concave), and sufficiently extended (relative to
the size of the animal) and if its substance is rigid (relative to the weight of the animal), then the
surface affords support” (Gibson, 1986, p. 127, emphasis in original). If an individual wishes to be
supported, then such a terrestrial surface has demand character for that individual, inviting her or
him to use it for support (also see Koffka, 1935).
This discussion of affordance and demand character has direct analogs in the I3 model
(Finkel, 2014). With regard to sexuality, affordance is analogous to instigation (the left-most box in
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 16
Figure 1) and demand character is analogous to sexual desire (the middle box in Figure 1).
Beginning with the affordance/instigation case, just as instigation refers to the effects of cues that
normatively afford a certain behavior, affordance refers to “properties of things taken with reference
to an observer but not properties of the experiences of the observer” (Gibson, 1986, p. 137,
emphasis in original). That is, an affordance is a behavioral option that the stimulus makes
available to any individual in a parallel situation. For example, unexpectedly encountering one’s
wife in lacy lingerie normatively affords one’s sexual behavior (high instigation), whereas
unexpectedly encountering her covered in newborn spit-up does not (low instigation). This is not to
say that no husband would view the spit-up cue as an instigation to sexual behavior, but rather that
responding to that cue with sexual desire—rather than with sympathy—is not normative (i.e.,
typical). The I3 model captures such non-normative reactions, but they are part of impellance, not
instigation.
Moving on to the demand character/sexual desire case, even though a husband unexpectedly
encountering his wife wearing lacy lingerie is experiencing strong instigation toward sexual
behavior, this cue will only have demand character for him—that is, will only increase how much
desire he actually experiences—insofar as he is, at that moment, willing and able to experience
sexual desire for her. If he has lost all attraction to her as a result of a recent argument, causing the
idea of sexual contact with her to elicit disgust rather than desire, the affordance/instigation
provided by the high-instigation sexual cue will not make him experience the demand
character/sexual desire linked to that affordance.
Impellance moderates the link between instigation and sexual desire either by influencing
the psychological state the individual is experiencing upon encountering the instigator or by altering
the experience of the instigator immediately after encountering it. For example, a man who
generally finds his wife sexually irresistible or who immediately, upon encountering her wearing
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 17
lingerie, begins fantasizing about engaging in sexual activities with her is likely to respond to this
cue with stronger sexual desire than a man who generally finds his wife sexually unappealing or
who immediately begins ruminating about how humiliating it would be if he were to experience
erectile dysfunction during a potential sexual interlude.
In short, instigation refers to sex-relevant cues that are inherent to this particular target
object in this particular situation—not only a wife’s outfit per se, for example, but how appealing
her body looks in that outfit, how flattering the lighting is, and so forth (i.e., the wife’s "objective"
appeal). In contrast, impellance refers to the full range of desire-promoting forces (situational,
dispositional, relational, or cultural) that are not inherent to this particular cue, but make one
especially ready to feel desire in response to this exact instigator—how strong the man’s sex drive
is, whether he is preoccupied with stress at work, and so forth. Hence, any variable that moderates
desire in response to that stimulus is an impellor. As another example, Brad Pitt in boxer shorts is a
stronger instigator than Danny DeVito in boxer shorts, although that difference might be smaller for
somebody who has slept next to Brad Pitt for 10 years in a row (dis-impellance).
Inhibition as an Override Process
According to the I3 model, sexual desire will yield sexual behavior unless it is inhibited (see
the three boxes at the right of Figure 1). That is, once instigation and impellance have combined to
yield a certain level of desire to engage in sexual behavior with a specific partner in a given context,
the individual will act upon this desire unless inhibitory processes intervene. If the strength of
sexual desire exceeds the strength of inhibition, the individual will pursue sexual behavior. If it
does not, the individual will not pursue such behavior. For example, a man might experience a
strong desire to engage in sexual activity with his wife, but he might override that desire if he
knows that their young daughter will wake up from her nap soon and immediately come find them.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 18
Of course, if his sexual desire is sufficiently strong, he might try to sneak in a quickie before his
daughter wakes up, even though he knows that doing so might yield an awkward familial encounter.
Low sexual desire and low frequency of sexual activity, which are common in many
established relationships (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Meuleman & van
Lankveld, 2005), can also illustrate the complex role of inhibition. The model postulates that low
desire may stem from either low instigation or low impellance, whereas low frequency of sexual
activity may stem from low instigation, low impellance, or high inhibition. Some people, for
example, might become practiced at inhibiting desire or its behavioral expressions at particular
instigating cues (e.g., a partner’s sexual advances following a conflict) as a means of controlling or
punishing their partners. They may do so either by dampening the experience of desire (i.e.,
disimpellance) or by resisting sexual behavior despite experiencing sexual desire (i.e., inhibition).
The Relationship Development Model of Sexual Desire
Although the preceding I3 model analysis extended the sexuality literature in potentially
notable ways—for example, it distinguishes instigation from impellance and it conceptualizes
excitatory and inhibitory processes within a novel 2 × 2 framework—it did not address the view that
the processes linked to sexual desire change across relationship development. The present section
addresses this topic directly by introducing the most recent iteration of the relationship development
model of sexual desire (Birnbaum, 2014, 2015; Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015), which delineates the
contribution of sexual desire to the initiation, development, and maintenance of attachment bonds in
adult romantic relationships. Specifically, it presents research demonstrating the relationship-
promoting function of sexual desire. It next outlines how relationships normatively change over
time, the key psychological constructs that often systematically covary with relationship
progression (e.g., partners’ level of commitment, investment, or dependence), and how these
changes may affect the functional significance of sexual desire.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 19
The subsequent section integrates insights from the I3 and the relationship development
models of sexual desire, discussing how variables influence sexual desire and behavior differently
as relationships develop and offering a novel perspective on thorny topics in the sex literature.
Although people do experience sexual desire outside the frame of a relationship (e.g., feeling desire
for a movie star or for a person who is not perceived as a potential partner), the present article
focuses on desire for a current or a potential romantic partner.
Two central ideas form the backbone of the relationship development model of sexual
desire. The first idea is that sexual desire functions as a visceral indicator of romantic compatibility
—of the belief that two partners can function together harmoniously to create a mutually
meaningful, fulfilling, and satisfactory relationship (Ickes, 1985)—with higher sexual desire
predicting greater exertions toward the deepening and maintenance of the romantic relationship. In
support of this idea, research has shown that people tend to view sexual activity as a gauge of
relationship quality (e.g., Elliott & Umberson, 2008; Kingsberg, 2002), such that those who
experience low desire for their partner may have doubts about their compatibility (Augin &
Heiman, 2004; King, Holt, & Nazareth, 2007). Perceived relationship incompatibility, in turn, may
further decrease attraction to one’s partner, while increasing sexual interest in other, more
compatible, mates (Buss, Goetz, Duntley, Asao, & Conroy-Beam, 2017; Gangestad, Thornhill, &
Garver-Apgar, 2005).
The second idea is that the functional implications of experiencing sexual desire may differ
across relationship development. Specifically, sexual desire is an especially strong predictor of
exertions to deepen and maintain the relationship at those stages (and in those circumstances) in
which the relationship is highly vulnerable or precarious, such as when the individual does not have
much information about how the partner feels about the self or when the relationship is under threat.
Sexual Desire and the Promotion of Attachment Bonds
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 20
The sexual behavioral system evolved to pass genes to the next generation; it does so by
producing sexual desire that manifests itself in sexual behavior (Buss & Kenrick, 1998; Mikulincer
& Shaver, 2007). As such, its basic existence is not dependent on attachment processes (Diamond,
2013; Fisher, 1998; Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li, & Brown, 2002). Indeed, sexual urges and emotional
attachments are not necessarily connected—people frequently “mate without bonding” or “bond
without mating” (Diamond, 2003, p. 174). Still, pregnancy and birth are not sufficient for the
survival of human offspring, whose prolonged altriciality has long rendered biparental caregiving an
adaptive reproductive strategy. Specifically, selection pressures have produced mechanisms that
keep human sexual partners bonded to each other so that they can jointly care for their offspring,
thereby improving the chances that their offspring will survive and, eventually, reproduce
(Eastwick, 2009; Fisher, 1998; Fletcher, Simpson, Campbell, & Overall, 2015).
Several characteristics of human sexuality suggest that sexual needs and the resulting
behaviors serve such a function (Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015; Eastwick & Finkel, 2012; Hazan &
Zeifman, 1994). Humans, for example, typically have sex privately; prefer the “missionary” sexual
position, which allows partners to maintain face-to-face contact during sexual intercourse; and sleep
together after sex (Ford & Beach, 1951; Reinisch & Beasley, 1991). Additional evidence for the
function of sex as a promoter of attachment bonds derives from studies that have revealed activation
of similar brain regions during experiences of sexual desire as of romantic love (e.g., the caudate,
insula, putamen; Cacioppo, & Cacioppo, 2013; Diamond & Dickenson, 2012), pointing to a
neurobiological pathway through which sexual desire can affect attachment processes (and vice
versa). In fact, the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin, which are secreted during sexual
activity (e.g., Carter, 1992; Filippi et al., 2003; Murphy, Seckl, Burton, Checkley, & Lightman,
1987), facilitate bonding behaviors among both humans and other mammals (Acevedo & Aron,
2014; Carter, 2014; Young, Liu, Gobrogge, Wang, & Wang, 2014).
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 21
Phenomenological accounts of sexual experiences have revealed that both men and women
often indicate that sex enhances intimacy between partners and cultivates their emotional
connection (e.g., Birnbaum, 2003; Birnbaum & Gillath, 2006; Meston & Buss, 2007). To be sure,
people not only associate sex with relationship maintenance, but also act accordingly, such that they
are more inclined to employ relationship-promoting strategies when their sexual system is activated
(Birnbaum et al., 2017; Gillath, Mikulincer, Birnbaum, & Shaver, 2008; Maner et al., 2005). For
example, experiencing heightened feelings of passion for one’s partner and gratifying sex predicts a
higher probability of engagement in behaviors that strengthen the relationship (e.g., displays of
intimacy and affection; Birnbaum, Reis, Mikulincer, Gillath, & Orpaz, 2006; Debrot, Meuwly,
Muise, Impett, & Schoebi, 2017; Rubin & Campbell, 2012).
The Functional Significance of Desire during Relationship Development and Transitions
The literature reviewed above suggests that sex contributes to attachment formation and
maintenance. The present, updated version of the relationship development model of sexual desire
(Birnbaum, 2014, 2015; Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015) delineates key normative transitions, and their
associated psychological processes (e.g., interdependence, investment, and commitment), as
relationships progress from new and emerging to more established, deeper ones. The model also
includes the fiery limbo state through which many couples go once they break up.
In emerging relationships, two individuals may typically move from an opening stage in
which A forms some evaluative impressions of B, but the two of them have not interacted, to initial
encounters and to dating. In established relationships, the two individuals have already formed a
full-fledged romantic attachment. Throughout relationship development, A’s behaviors and
experiences are becoming influenced by B’s behaviors and experiences (and vice versa), such that
their level of interdependence gradually increases, at least in the case of successful relationships
(Reis, Collins, & Berscheid, 2000). More specifically, events associated with changes in
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 22
relationship trajectories (i.e., relationship turning points), such as repeated distress-relief
interactions, and normative transitions (moving in together, getting married) provide partners with
the opportunity to learn about each other and about the self-in-relation-to-partner (e.g., If I’m upset,
then my partner will comfort me). This learning is reflected in enduring changes in the mental
representations of the individuals in the dyad, such that the two individuals’ affective, cognitive, and
behavioral responses gradually become attuned to one another (Zayas, Gunaydin, & Shoda, 2015).
These life challenges, which confront the couple, and the resulting dyadic cognitive system may
affect the experience of sexual desire and its implications for relationship maintenance.
The relationship development model suggests that sexual desire functions as a crucial
gatekeeper in the relationship development processes—it is one of the central determinants of
whether A seeks to deepen or maintain the relationship with B rather than ending the relationship.
When considering how the functions of sexual desire vary across the relationship, the model takes
into account that although many intimates maintain their relationship till death parts them, some
partners break up. Among those who break up, some go through a fiery limbo state, during which
they continue to experience desire for the ex-partner.
The next section provides a more detailed discussion of the functional value of sexual desire
across relationship development. While doing so, it focuses on what the individual desires, but
considers that it takes two people to understand the sexual dynamics within a relationship. Indeed,
partners can do more than just elicit desire; they can also actively frustrate desire or nurture it [i.e.,
(dis)impellors in the case of things the partner does that increase or decrease one’s desire;
(dis)inhibitors in the case of things the partner does that increase or decrease the extent to which one
acts upon one’s desires]. The trajectory of sexual desire cannot, therefore, be accurately predicted
without studying the attractions and inhibitions of both partners.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 23
Desire discrepancies can well illustrate this point. In many long-term relationships, one
partner reports experiencing chronically higher levels of desire than the other does (e.g., Matthews,
Tartaro, & Hughes, 2003). Moreover, most couples may experience some degree of desire
discrepancy, at least on some days (Mark, 2014). The manner in which partners manage such desire
discrepancies in their relationships may influence perceptions of their regard and motivations and
thereby affect whether desire is sustained in the long run. For example, individuals who are less
interested in sex but consistently respond favorably to their partner’s sexual advances to avoid
conflict are less likely to instigate desire in their partner over time as compared to individuals who
respond favorably to such advances because they wish to intensify the relationship (Muise, Impett,
& Desmarais, 2013). In I3 model's terms, these people's lack of desire may inhibit the link between
their partner’s desire and their partner’s behavior (inhibition), such that over time, their lack of
desire might reduce their partner’s desire (dis—impellance).
The Normative Development of Romantic Relationships
Emerging Relationships. In the opening stage of emerging relationships, one individual
becomes aware of the other individual’s existence in a context that includes the possibility of a
romantic connection. A might notice B under any of a vast range of possible circumstances—in a
college biology course, at a local pub, in an online dating profile, and so forth. At this stage, several
factors influence how likely A is to initiate contact with B to explore the possibility of a romantic
connection, including A’s assessment of whether B is romantically available and likely to be
interested in her or him (Curtis & Miller, 1986; Stinson, Cameron, Wood, Gaucher, & Holmes,
2009). According to the relationship development model, an important predictor of initiating
contact is the extent to which A experiences sexual desire: As likelihood of initiating potential
romantic contact with B (e.g., sending a first-contact e-mail through an online dating site) is higher
to the extent that A’s sexual desire for B is strong rather than weak.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 24
Once A encounters B, A gets an initial sense of whether the two of them might have some
romantic potential. After A and B have, following their first date, begun seeing each other, A begins
to get a sense of whether the two of them could potentially build a serious relationship. Indeed,
although scholars have largely neglected the influence of the first encounter and follow-up dates as
a watershed period for determining whether the relationship will ultimately yield a romantic
connection (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008a), the relationship development model suggests that it is
extremely important, as the potential relationship is especially fragile during this period (Eastwick
& Finkel, 2008b).
At this early stage of relationship development, several factors influence how likely A is to
keep dating B to explore the possibility of building a serious relationship, including how similar
partners feel to one another overall (e.g., Tidwell, Eastwick, & Finkel, 2013). Nevertheless,
attachment between partners is not fully formed and other aspects of the relationship (e.g., intimacy,
commitment) only start to develop (Hazan, Gur-Yaish, & Campa, 2004). Hence, an important
predictor of A’s efforts to deepen the romantic relationship with B is sexual desire: A’s likelihood of
seeking to deepen the romantic relationship with B following in the days, weeks, and perhaps
months after their first date (e.g., by spending more time together and beginning to establish some
level of interdependence) is higher to the extent that A’s sexual desire for B is strong rather than
weak (Birnbaum & Gillath, 2006; Gillath et al., 2008).
The relationship development model postulates that sexual desire is a central determinant of
not only whether A seeks to exert effort to build a deeply intimate relationship with B, but also of
whether an emotional bond between them is actually built. Supporting this view, a recent
longitudinal study of newly dating couples has demonstrated the reassuring effect of sex, showing
that relationship-specific attachment insecurities declined over time, but only among individuals
who reported relatively high levels of sexual desire and high frequency of sexual intercourse
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 25
(Mizrahi, Hirschberger, Mikulincer, Szepsenwol, & Birnbaum, 2016). These findings imply that
sexual desire carries the potential to assuage relationship insecurities that are inherently typical of
the early phases of dating (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008b), thereby producing a relationship
environment conductive to the build-up of genuine intimacy (see also Rubin & Campbell, 2012).
Established Relationships. After A and B have been dating for a while, they increasingly
conclude that the two of them should become committed relationship partners. Hence, at this stage,
the two individuals have already formed a full-fledged romantic relationship. In contrast to
emerging relationships, scholars have devoted an immense amount of attention to established
relationships (Finkel, Simpson, & Eastwick, 2017). Their studies have shown that several factors
influence how likely A is to establish a committed romantic relationship with B, including
compatibility (Luo & Klohnen, 2005; Wilson & Cousins, 2003), satisfaction with the relationship,
and investment of resources into it (Rusbult, 1983; Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998). According to
the relationship development model, one of the predictors of A’s efforts to establish a full-fledged
romantic relationship with B is sexual desire: A’s likelihood of seeking to transition from the
exploration of potential compatibility with a potential partner to the formation of a well-defined
romantic relationship (e.g., by becoming increasingly central as an attachment figure and
establishing high levels of structural interdependence) is higher to the extent that A’s sexual desire
for B is strong rather than weak (Elliott & Umberson, 2008).
Research has long demonstrated the relationship-maintaining function of sexual desire in
these later stages of relationship development (e.g., Brezsnyak & Whisman, 2004; Oggins, Leber, &
Veroff, 1993). However, it has also shown that sexual desire may become relatively less important
to relationship maintenance as the relationship progresses and other aspects of the relationship take
over and sustain the relationship (Kotler, 1985; Reedy, Birren, & Schaie, 1981; Sternberg, 1986).
The relationship development model suggests that the relationship-enhancing effect of desire may
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 26
turn out to be prominent again when other aspects of the relationship fail to yield such an effect.
For example, passionate and frequent sex may particularly benefit the relationships of partners who
have problematic dispositions. For these couples, the reassurance conveyed by sexual desire may
satiate the otherwise unmet needs for security and love, thereby reducing the adverse consequences
of such negative dispositions (e.g., relationship insecurities, neuroticism; Birnbaum et al., 2006;
Little, McNulty, & Russell, 2010; Russell & McNulty, 2011).
Ironically, because negative experiences tend to capture more attention than positive ones
(Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001), partners may not fully realize the
relationship-maintaining function of sexual desire until desire has faded away. In these cases, lack
of sexual desire may raise concerns about the relationship as well as doubts about loving or being
loved by one’s partner (Augin & Heiman, 2004; Kingsberg, 2002). Indeed, the absence of sexual
desire has been considered an important index of disrupted relational harmony (e.g., Kaplan, 1995;
Leiblum & Rosen, 1988), depriving relationships of intimacy and vitality (McCarthy, Bodnar, &
Handal, 2004; Stephenson & Meston, 2012), and often leading to breakup and divorce (Regan,
2004; Sprecher & Cate, 2004).
Unfortunately, some of the key transitions that occur during this period of relationship
development (e.g., becoming a parent, reproductive aging) may adversely affect sexual desire and
interfere with relationship functioning (e.g., Birnbaum et al., 2007; Call, Sprecher, & Schwartz,
1995). Contrary to the turning points typical of emerging relationships, which tend to be essentially
exciting events (e.g., first kiss, first sexual encounter; Baxter & Erbert, 1999), the excitement
associated with many of the transitions typical of established relationships, such as moving in
together and getting married, is mixed with major increases in relationship commitment (Baxter &
Bullis, 1986). With this increase in commitment often comes a sense of strain, monotony, and
burnout (e.g., Aron & Aron, 1986; Caughlin & Huston, 2006; DeLamater & Sill, 2005). The
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 27
consequent desire-dampening effect may add to that of other stressful physiological, psychological,
and behavioral changes in partners’ life, which are inherent to several of these transitions (e.g.,
childbirth, going through menopause; Hayes & Dennerstein, 2005; von Sydow, 2007).
The relationship development model postulates that, as a gauge of relationship compatibility,
sexual desire should be particularly responsive to other relational aspects (e.g., partners’ provision
of support) during such trying periods in couples’ lives. Consequently, the manner in which
partners cope with the challenges posed by each transition will determine whether sexual desire will
be sustained or wane and the implications for relationship well-being. This view derives support
from research revealing that sexual desire is less likely to show the documented decline during these
transitions as long as other aspects of the relationship provide the emotionally nurturing atmosphere
needed for attenuating the adversities associated with the transition. For example, new mothers
who reported higher dyadic empathy also experienced higher sexual desire (Rosen, Mooney, &
Muise, in press). Similarly, women going through the menopausal transition were less likely to
experience decreased sexual desire if they perceived their relationship as highly intimate (Birnbaum
et al., 2007).
Fiery Limbo. Whereas many couples continue to deepen their relationships and increase
commitment until death, others break up. The fiery limbo stage represents a potential post-breakup
state in which the partners remain attracted to each other. As such, it may be conceptualized as
having both aspects of newer, emergent relationships (e.g., less commitment, greater uncertainty
about the future of the relationship) and of longer-term relationships (e.g., familiarity, comfort with
one’s partner’s company). Scholars frequently, albeit implicitly, conceptualize a breakup as an
event rather than a process, but this conceptualization may mischaracterize how breakup typically
works. To be sure, there are cases in which the romantic relationship terminates at a discrete
moment in time and the partners go their separate ways from that moment forward. But the more
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 28
typical case—at least for relationships that have reached the established relationship stage—is that
the decision to break up transpires over the course of days, weeks, months, or even years. In
addition, following the decision to break up, the two partners sometimes stay in touch, experience
deep emotional intimacy, and even have sex (Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2003; Mason, Sbarra,
Bryan, & Lee, 2012; Spielmann, Joel, MacDonald, & Kogan, 2013).
According to the relationship development model, if sexual desire is weak during this post-
breakup period, then the partners are likely either to become friends or to part ways altogether,
pending their level of nonromantic compatibility. Of course, numerous other factors can influence
the likelihood of relationship dissolution or revitalization. If the couple has invested heavily in the
relationship (e.g., raising children together), for example, they may be compelled to get back
together to avoid losing or harming that investment. Likewise, A may be willing to get back
together with B, even without experiencing desire for B, because A receives other benefits from B
(e.g., companionship, emotional support), which outweigh sexual desire, and does not perceive
viable alternatives to B (e.g., Rusbult & Martz, 1995; Rusbult et al, 1998).
If, in contrast, sexual desire is strong, then the partners are likely either to return to their
established relationship or to hover in fiery limbo, pending whether they are certain or uncertain
about whether they are willing to get back together. Once in the fiery limbo stage, one of the
predictors of A’s willingness to consider getting back together with B rather than solidifying the
breakup is sexual desire: A’s likelihood of returning to an established relationship with B (e.g.,
initiating a conversation about the possibility of getting back together) is higher to the extent that
A’s sexual desire for B is strong rather than weak.
Sexual desire may exert its effects on the tendency to return to an established relationship by
increasing A’s perception that the two of them are romantically compatible (e.g., Birnbaum,
Glaubman, & Mikulincer, 2001; Elliott & Umberson, 2008). This presumed effect may be
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 29
manifested not only in greater longing for ex-partners, but also in more frequent contact and in the
pursuit of an intimate relationship with them (Marshall, 2012; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2003).
Although heightened desire cannot guarantee that partners will return to their established
relationship after a period of fiery limbo, primarily if the desire is one-sided, it is undeniably likely
to impede the detachment process (Davis et al., 2003, Mason et al., 2012).
Overall, throughout relationship development, sexual desire may promote a range of
relationship maintenance mechanisms that increase the likelihood that A and B will sustain their
relationship over time. For example, to the extent that A feels more (vs. less) sexual desire for B, A
is less likely to feel attracted to alternative mates and to think about ending the current relationship
(Regan, 2000). Thus, regardless of the stage of relationship development, sexual desire carries the
potential to operate as a relationship-promoting device that motivates partners to invest resources in
the current relationship. Indeed, having gratifying sexual interactions with one’s partner is
associated with acting positively toward this partner following these interactions (e.g., providing
support, expressing love; Birnbaum et al., 2006) and enhancing partners’ relationship satisfaction
over the long term (Meltzer et al., 2017). And yet, although desire propels the relationship forward
across the lifespan of a relationship, throughout relationship development there are critical periods
during which sexual desire may be particularly responsive to cues of partners’ regard and more
critical for relationship maintenance (e.g., relationship-challenging events; Birnbaum & Finkel,
2015).
Integrating the I3 and Relationship Development Models of Sexual Desire
Many scholars have recognized that relationships progress through a sequence of stages,
which involve changes in how the partners relate (e.g., Hazan et al., 2004; Knapp, 1984; Levinger
& Snoek, 1972). However, these stage models have largely neglected how the developmental
sequence and the psychological processes associated with it (e.g., interdependence, investment, self-
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 30
disclosure, commitment, trust; Berscheid & Regan, 2005; Huston & Burgess, 1979) affect the
functional significance of sexual desire vis-à-vis attachment processes and alter how specific stimuli
influence sexual desire and behavior. To be sure, existing models recognize that the effectiveness of
some potential stimuli of sexual desire may change across relationship development. For example,
some models have observed that emotional closeness is more likely to increase the amount of desire
one has for sex with the partner early in a relationship than later on (Perel, 2007; Sims & Meana,
2010). However, these models are not clear about when and why a given predictor of sexual desire
or behavior is especially potent.
This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the failure to distinguish between the objective nature
of the instigating stimulus itself and the individual’s reaction to that stimulus. For example, the
same close presence of a partner may have different contextual meanings at different relationship
stages. One might view this proximity as an opportunity to engage in exciting sexual activity with a
desirable partner in initial encounters, but as an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation
in later stages. These distinct interpretations of the instigating trigger (close proximity) influence
the extent to which one experiences sexual desire in response to it. The lack of appreciation for the
ways in which relationship development moderates the extent to which people experience sexual
desire (or pursue sexual behavior) in response to a given set of circumstances has produced a
literature that is fragmented and incomplete.
An integration of the I3 and relationship development models of sexual desire offers an
overarching framework that helps to address the “when” and “why” questions. Indeed, although
these two models yield important new insights regarding sexual desire on their own, their most
significant contributions arise in concert. This article therefore seeks to integrate the I3 model’s
emphasis on the three core processes relevant to understanding sexual desire and behavior
(instigation, impellance, and inhibition) with the relationship development model’s emphasis on
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 31
how the implications of sexual desire vary over the course of relationships. Doing so allows us to
ask sophisticated new questions that do not emerge from any existing conceptual framework and, as
noted previously, to develop novel perspectives on classic, controversial topics in the sexuality
literature (e.g., the desire-intimacy paradox). The present section discusses how relationship
development influences the extent to which various predictors affect sexual desire and behavior,
dividing this discussion into subsections on impellance and inhibition.
Relationship Development as Impellor
Relationship development functions as an impellor in two distinct ways. First, it exerts a
disimpelling main effect, such that, all else equal, the readiness to experience high (rather than low)
levels of sexual desire in response to a given instigator tends to be stronger in emerging
relationships than in established relationships. Sexual reactions in the fiery limbo stage are more
complex because of relationship ambivalence and uncertainty that often characterize this stage.
Second, even accounting for this disimpelling main effect, relationship development moderates the
extent to which individuals are likely to experience strong sexual desire in response to some
instigators but not others. To be sure, the overall disimpelling main effect means that instigators are
more likely to trigger strong sexual desire during the earlier stages of relationship development than
later on, but there are exceptions to this general trend, with some instigators triggering stronger
sexual desire during the later than during the earlier stages. Figure 3 adapts Figure 1 to illustrate
this moderating effect of relationship development on the instigation-desire link (left half of figure).
This section provides concrete examples to illustrate how relationship development can
function as an impellor. It begins by discussing instigators that tend to yield strong sexual desire
regardless of relationship development. Next, it discusses instigators that tend to trigger stronger
sexual desire at the earlier than at the later stages before pivoting to a discussion of (the relatively
rare) instigators that tend to trigger stronger sexual desire at the later than at the earlier stages. This
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 32
section intends to be illustrative rather than exhaustive; it emphasizes how the effects of instigation
on sexual desire frequently depend upon relationship development, which could function as an
impellor in and of itself.
First, some instigators tend to elicit strong sexual desire across all relevant relationship
stages. For example, consider the case in which B, in a seduction attempt, removes A’s jeans and
gives A oral sex (see Figure 4, set of bars on the left). Such an instigator may normatively elicit
strong sexual desire across relationship development (unless its quality decreases with time). To be
sure, due to the enhancing effects of novelty, the strength of sexual desire triggered by this instigator
might be slightly stronger in emerging relationships than in established relationships, but
nonetheless it is a normatively potent instigator throughout relationship development. Other
examples of instigators that yield strong desire across relationship development include having B do
a striptease for A or any other sex-related instigators that are intense or positively surprising and
may thus reach the threshold for eliciting desire. Such an effect, as well as the other effects
described in this section, is, of course, further moderated by other variables (e.g., whether the
striptease reveals a body that is more vs. less attractive than anticipated), but the basic moderational
effect of relationship development should be robust on average.
Second, some instigators trigger stronger desire in emerging relationships than in established
relationships. For example, consider the case in which A catches an unexpected glimpse of B in the
nude (see Figure 4, set of bars in the middle). In the context of emerging relationships, when it is
perhaps reasonable for A to expect that the experience might progress to sexual contact, catching an
unexpected glimpse of B in the nude normatively triggers strong sexual desire. Eventually,
however, once A has caught such glimpses hundreds or thousands of times—as is characteristic of
the established relationships—the effect of any particular glimpse on A’s sexual desire tends to
become much weaker. As such, although these glimpses certainly retain the ability to trigger sexual
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 33
desire throughout the relationship, this effect is much weaker in established relationships than in
emerging relationships.
There are many interesting variations of the case in which instigators trigger stronger desire
early in relationship development than later on. In particular, some circumstances normatively
trigger sexual desire in emerging relationships, but they normatively trigger minimal sexual desire
in established relationships. The model surmises, for example, that having A put her or his hand on
B’s knee, while the two of them are watching television together, will normatively trigger sexual
desire in emerging relationships, but it will normatively trigger relatively little sexual desire in
established relationships. Such physical contact is probably more likely to signal seductive intent
early in the relationship development process, whereas it is probably more likely to signal
emotionally affectionate intent later in the process. In comparing the fiery limbo stage to the other
stages, given that the fiery limbo stage follows a period of relational uncertainty, and perhaps a
period of reduced sexual access to the partner, such instigators may normatively inspire more desire
then than they do in the established relationship stage. In this sense, the desire instigated in the
fiery limbo stage may occupy a middle ground between the emerging relationship stage, on one
hand, and the established relationship stage, on the other hand.
In some cases, circumstances that normatively trigger sexual desire during the earlier stages
actually come to undermine sexual desire during the later stages. One might speculate, for example,
that viewing a partner drenched in sweat following a workout may normatively trigger sexual desire
in emerging relationships, when it is perceived as raw and animalistic, but it might normatively
trigger sexual aversion in established relationships, when it is perceived as repulsive. That is, in this
latter stage, A’s desire for B might be significantly lower than it would be under typical
circumstances.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 34
Third, although such cases are less common, some instigators trigger stronger desire during
the later than the earlier relationship stages. For example, consider the case in which B discusses a
ménage à trois fantasy with A (see Figure 4, set of bars on the right). The model predicts that such
an instigator will normatively elicit stronger sexual desire in established relationships than in
emerging relationships. Within the context of emerging relationships, revealing such a fantasy
carries the risk of infusing the erotic encounter with a potential threat that can reduce A’s desire for
B, as fledgling relationships are at greater risk of breakup compared to established relationships.
Within the context of established relationships, in contrast, this effect might be (partly or wholly)
counteracted by the higher levels of dependence and trust. Hence, revealing such fantasies
potentially holds the promise of infusing sexual novelty and excitement into the relationship
(Newbury, Hayter, Wylie, & Riddell, 2012; Ziegler & Conley, 2016).
Other examples of instigators that (for similar reasons) trigger stronger desire during the
later than the earlier relationship stages include engaging in sexual role-play and revealing less
socially acceptable desires. Such activities require that one become highly emotionally vulnerable
and are therefore frightening early and only become arousing once trust is established.
Alternatively, when one is less familiar with, and thus less trustful of, the partner, such instigators
may signify sexual adventurousness and may be more threatening. And yet, for some people (e.g.,
highly anxious people who are preoccupied with abandonment fears; Newbury et al., 2012)
revealing an interest in less socially accepted desires may be more threatening at later stages. In
new relationships that are highly sexual, they may feel excited to introduce such sexual activities.
However, over time, once relationships are committed, they might be daunted by the implications of
making their partners feel that they have not truly known them for the time they have been together.
The integrative model suggests that the reason behind the changing in the importance of
instigators across relationship development is that sexual desire is differentially sensitive to distinct
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 35
partner characteristics and situational qualities from one relationship stage to another. For example,
at the earlier stages, readily apparent surface traits (e.g., friendliness, physical attractiveness; see
Murstein, 1987) are more salient than deeper traits (e.g., emotional stability, responsiveness; Cattel,
1966). Hence, sexual desire should be more sensitive to surface traits when gauging initial romantic
compatibility, but it should be more sensitive to deeper traits when gauging long-term romantic
compatibility. For example, partners’ naked body should be more important to instigating desire
during the earlier relationship stages than during the established relationship stage, when people are
already habituated to their partners’ body (Basson, 2000; Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999). In
contrast, partners’ responsiveness may turn out be more important to instigating desire during the
later stages of relationship development (Birnbaum et al., 2016), as desire becomes especially
sensitive to deeper qualities, than during the earlier stages (Birnbaum & Reis, 2012).
Relationship Development as Inhibitor
Just as relationship development functions as an impellor in two distinct ways, it also
functions as an inhibitor in two distinct ways. First, it exerts an inhibiting main effect, such that, all
else equal, the tendency to inhibit the pursuit of sexual behavior when experiencing sexual desire is
stronger during the early stages of emerging relationships than during later stages. A primary reason
for this prediction is that people may consider the possibility that sexual advances are less likely to
be welcome earlier than later or may be still uncertain about their or their partner’s intentions.
Second, even accounting for this inhibiting main effect, relationship development moderates the
extent to which individuals are likely to inhibit the pursuit of sexual behavior in response to some
inhibitors but not others. To be sure, the overall inhibiting main effect means that individuals are
more likely to inhibit sexual behavior during the earlier than during the later stages, but there are
exceptions to this general trend, with some factors inhibiting sexual behavior more strongly during
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 36
the later than during the earlier stages. Figure 3 illustrates this moderating effect of relationship
development on the desire-behavior link (right half of figure).
This section provides concrete examples to illustrate how relationship development can
function as an inhibitor. It begins by discussing inhibitors that tend to be powerful regardless of
relationship development. Next, it discusses inhibitors that inhibit sexual desire and behavior more
strongly at the earlier than at the later stages before pivoting to a discussion of (the relatively rare)
inhibitors that inhibit sexual desire and behavior more strongly at the later than at the earlier stages.
As when discussing relationship development as an impellor, this section intends to be illustrative
rather than exhaustive; it emphasizes how the effects of inhibitors on sexual desire and behavior
frequently depend upon relationship development, which could function as an inhibitor in and of
itself.
First, some inhibitors are so powerful that they tend to inhibit the pursuit of sexual behavior
across all relationship stages. For example, consider the case in which A experiences strong sexual
desire for B under circumstances where, due to a lack of privacy, it would be socially inappropriate
to engage in sexual behavior (see Figure 5, set of bars on the left). This inhibitor typically exerts a
strong inhibiting influence on the pursuit of sexual behavior across all relationship stages. To be
sure, the inhibiting influence of lack of privacy may be slightly less powerful in emerging
relationships—if A is in a limerent stage that fosters a willingness to throw caution to the wind—but
nonetheless it tends to be a potent inhibitor across all relationship stages. Other examples of
inhibitors that yield strong inhibition across relationship development include a partner’s clear lack
of interest in having sex, conditions in which sex poses a clear health hazard, and normative or
religious sanctions that delegitimize sexual intercourse during certain periods. In all such cases, the
cost of engaging in sexual intercourse is relatively high, which serves as an inhibiting force that,
when stronger than the desire force, will cause people not to pursue sexual behavior.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 37
Second, some inhibitors reduce the pursuit of sexual behavior more strongly during the
earlier than during the later relationship stages. For example, consider the case in which A
experiences strong sexual desire for B despite possessing the belief that relationship commitment
must precede sexual behavior (see Figure 5, set of bars in the middle). This inhibitor typically
exerts a stronger inhibiting influence on the pursuit of sexual behavior in emerging relationships
than in established relationships. After all, it is unlikely that A will experience strong relationship
commitment—at least in terms of exclusivity and long-term expectations—during the earlier stages
of an emerging relationship, whereas it is likely that A will experience such commitment during the
established relationship stage. The fiery limbo stage is likely to be intermediate in the extent to
which A believes that the relationship has achieved the requisite level of commitment; the
relationship has likely achieved that level of commitment in the past, but A might interpret current
levels of uncertainty about the status of the relationship as indicating insufficient commitment at
present. Other examples of inhibitors that are speculated to yield stronger inhibition during the
earlier stages than later on include the belief that playing hard to get will promote relationship
initiation and the belief that one has to be strongly bonded to a partner before engaging in sexual
intercourse.
Third, although such cases are less common, some inhibitors reduce the pursuit of sexual
behavior more strongly during the later than the earlier relationship stages. For example, consider
the case in which A experiences strong sexual desire for B but is anxious about a major work
deadline tomorrow (see Figure 5, set of bars on the right). This inhibitor typically exerts a stronger
inhibiting influence on the pursuit of sexual behavior in established relationship relationships than
in emerging relationships. Sexual access tends to be less certain within the context of emerging
relationships than in established relationships, which means that the sexual opportunity is more
likely to be a fleeting one. Passing up a sexual opportunity when one is confident another one will
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 38
be available again soon is easier than relinquishing such an opportunity when one is unsure it will
be available again soon. Corroborating this claim, research has found that people tend to express
more desire for sex when they have fewer opportunities for satisfying their sexual needs than when
they have many such opportunities (Gebauer, Baumeister, Sedikides, & Neberich, 2014).
The model suggests that the reason behind the changing importance of inhibitors across
relationship development is changes in the goal of inhibiting sexual desire. Inhibiting desire
typically serves the goal of preventing negative outcomes across all stages (Toates, 2009). Still, in
the earlier stages, which tend to be suffused with uncertainty (Afifi & Lucas, 2008; Eastwick &
Finkel, 2008b), the goal of preventing negative relationship outcomes is likely to be more salient.
For example, inhibiting sexual desire at the earlier stages is often oriented toward preventing a
partner’s rejection (De Gaston, Weed, & Jensen, 1996; Leigh, 1989). Hence, even though sexual
desire is theorized to be especially important in solidifying a relationship early on, its behavioral
expressions are more likely to be inhibited in the earlier than later stages of a relationship, primarily
when they are perceived to threaten the future of the relationship. In later stages, when attachment
between partners has become well consolidated and people feel more certain about their partner’s
intentions and commitment to the relationship, the goal may shift to preventing negative personal
outcomes, such as failure in the workplace. Accordingly, the model theorizes that relational
concerns (e.g., requiring relationship commitment before engaging in sexual behavior) are more
likely to inhibit sexual desire in the earlier stages, and non-relational concerns (e.g., a work
deadline) are more likely to inhibit sexual desire in the later stages.
Novel Perspectives on Major Topics in the Sex Literature
This article has introduced an integrative theoretical framework that can deepen our
understanding of the functional significance of sexual desire in relationship development by
clarifying for whom, under which circumstances, and at which relationship stage sexual desire is
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 39
likely to increase (or decline) and thereby affect relationship development. Specifically, this
framework (a) argues that the instigators and inhibitors of sexual desire may have different
contextual meanings at different relationship stages and (b) delineates how relationship
development interacts with types of instigators and inhibitors to predict sexual desire and behavior.
By doing so, it sheds light on why specific instigators and inhibitors are particularly potent in
influencing sexual desire and behavior during certain stages.
Obviously, as indicated by the proposed 2 × 2 framework, the interaction between
relationship development and various stimuli may, at times, be complex and lead to ambivalence.
For example, relationship context may function as both impellor and inhibitor, such that certain
stimuli (e.g., shared threesome fantasies) may increase desire because they introduce novelty, but
also its inhibition (due to their threatening nature), primarily when trust between partners is shaky,
and the relationship feels less secure (Newbury et al., 2012). This section illustrates how the
proposed model can yield new insights into fundamental questions about the nature of human
sexual desire.
The Desire-Intimacy Paradox
Because sex is a prominent pathway through which people seek a sense of felt
understanding and caring (Birnbaum & Reis, 2006), it is easy to understand why the desire for
greater intimacy is likely to increase the desire for sex with a partner (e.g., Cooper, Barber,
Zhaoyang, & Talley, 2011; Meston & Buss, 2007). Nevertheless, the relational environment that
many people strive for is not necessarily conductive to the facilitation of sexual desire (Sims &
Meana, 2010). Indeed, the effect of the existence of intimacy between partners (i.e., feelings of
understanding, closeness, and connectedness as well as mutual expression of affection and caring;
Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999) on their desire to have sex with each other is much less
understood than that of the need for intimacy. In particular, the literature is inconclusive about
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 40
whether, or when, increased intimacy promotes (e.g., Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Rubin &
Campbell, 2012) or undermines sexual desire (e.g., McCabe, 1997; Perel, 2007; Sims & Meana,
2010). Some scholars have argued that extremely high intimacy, or a lack of differentiation
between partners, stifles sexual desire (e.g., Ferreira, Narciso, & Novo, 2012; Perel, 2007;
Schnarch, 1997). Others have argued that an increase in intimacy, or a positive change in intimacy
over time, is a virtual prerequisite for experiencing sexual desire (e.g., Baumeister & Bratslavsky,
1999).
The model suggests that the effect of intimacy on A’s sexual desire for B cannot be fully
understood without taking into account the developmental stage of their relationship, the specific
circumstances at a certain stage, and the individual characteristics of both partners. Specifically,
sexual desire is most likely to be high when the relationship is relatively vulnerable, such as in the
early stages of emerging relationships (e.g., Eastwick & Finkel, 2008b), in couples with partners
who have certain negative characteristics (e.g., attachment anxiety; Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2004;
Little et al., 2010), or under relationship-threatening events (e.g., Birnbaum Svitelman, Bar-Shalom,
& Porat, 2008). In these cases, people may strategically use sexual desire to achieve intimacy, such
that sex can serve as a relationship-promoter.
For example, at the earlier stages of relationship development, when people are uncertain
about their partner’s intentions and insecure about the fate of the relationship (Eastwick & Finkel,
2008b), they are more likely than later to covet sex to assess the partner’s interest in the self
(Cooper et al., 2011). Thus, at this stage, a partner’s expressions of intimacy outside the bedroom
may increase the desire to have sex so as to create an even more intimate experience with this
partner (Birnbaum & Reis, 2012). In later stages of a relationship, when certainty about partners’
commitment intentions is relatively high, sex is less functionally needed, and therefore expressions
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 41
of intimacy are less likely to heighten sexual desire (e.g., McCall & Meston, 2006; Sims & Meana,
2010).
Of course, changes in context may affect the reasons for engaging in sex (Cooper et al.,
2011; Davis et al., 2004). For example, intimacy-related reasons are more strongly endorsed under
threatening conditions (Birnbaum et al., 2011), which may explain why in some cases, sexual desire
may rise following relationship-threatening events and breakups (Birnbaum et al. 2008; Davis et al.,
2003). Hence, the critical factor in associating intimacy with desire may well be the need for
intimacy rather than its change or degree. Specifically, intimacy cues are most likely to heighten
sexual desire when engaging in sex is most likely to build or repair the relationship by further
fostering these expressions of intimacy. When intimacy already exists between partners, the need
for intimacy-promoting sex is less likely to be high, simply because people are less likely to desire
what they already have. In these cases, other sexual motives are more likely to prevail (e.g.,
hedonism, self-enhancement), such that intimate interactions require more than intimacy per se to
heighten desire (e.g., novelty, change, uncertainty; Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Perel, 2007).
The possibility that level of intimacy is much less important than desire for intimacy in
predicting sexual desire may be extended to the more general case of compatibility between
instigators and motives. In particular, the model suggests that sexual motives are impellors that
moderate the extent to which people experience strong sexual desire in response to a certain type of
instigation. Instigators are predicted to have a stronger effect on sexual desire to the extent that they
are compatible with the reasons behind one’s desire to engage in sex. For example, people seeking
pleasure might experience especially strong desire when the instigator conveys that the partner is in
a pleasure-giving mood. In contrast, people seeking emotional connection might experience
especially strong desire when the instigator conveys that the partner seeks sensual love-making.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 42
Given that sexual motives change across relationship development and circumstances
(Cooper et al., 2011; Davis et al., 2004), the influence of specific instigators on sexual desire should
change across development and circumstances as well. For example, a given person during a given
relationship stage might want a rough sexual interaction with a partner under some circumstances,
but a nurturing lovemaking session with the same (or other) partner under other circumstances.
According to the integrative development model, this person is more likely to experience strong
sexual desire in response to teasing interactions than to emotional conversations in the first case, but
more likely to experience strong sexual desire in response to emotional conversations than to
teasing interactions in the second case. Future studies should consider these possibilities,
examining the situational factors that lead people to engage in sex in pursuit of various goals. For
example, such studies may follow couples over time and examine whether intimacy expressed in
diverse relational contexts (e.g., intimate conversations, conflicts, relationship threats) elicits
different goals (e.g., sexual vs. non-sexual) and has differential effects on partners’ desire to have
sex with each other.
Sustaining Sexual Desire in Long-Term Relationships
Acknowledging the fragility of sexual desire and its detrimental relational implications (e.g.,
McCarthy, Bodnar, & Handal, 2004; Regan, 2000), scholars have searched for effective strategies to
mitigate its decline in long-term relationships (McCarthy & Farr, 2012). Therapists have advised
established couples to value non-demand reciprocal pleasuring; to devote efforts to introducing
eroticism, novelty, and variety to their sexual routines; and to keep sex playful by being innovating
with sensations and fantasies (e.g., Granvold, 2001; McCarthy & Farr, 2012). Scholars have noted
that foreplay ordinarily starts outside the bedroom. Hence, engaging in shared activities that offer
novelty, create opportunities for self-expansion, and instill a sense of intimacy outside the bedroom
(e.g., learning new things about one’s partner, making one’s partner feel special and desired) may be
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 43
just as important for revitalizing passion as engaging in corresponding activities inside the bedroom
(e.g., Acevedo & Aron, 2009; Aron, Norman, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000; Baumeister &
Bratslavsky, 1999; Birnbaum et al., 2016; Impett, Muise, & Peragine, 2014; Perel, 2007; Sheets,
2014). Indeed, not all people experience such a decline in sexual desire to begin with, as specific
couple dynamics (e.g., a positive relational approach, a communal approach to sexual interactions)
predict sustained sexual desire over time (Impett, Strachman, Finkel, & Gable, 2008; Muise, Impett,
& Desmarais, 2013; Muise, Impett, Kogan, et al., 2013).
This overall view on the clinical and empirical literature on sustaining sexual desire suggests
that a wide diversity of instigators and impellors can affect sexual desire within the context of long-
term relationships. Nevertheless, the literature does not provide a clear answer as to whether, when,
how, and why specific instigators or impellors are conductive to the facilitation of sexual desire in
long-term relationships. Stimuli, such as relationship threat (e.g., Birnbaum et al., 2008; Davis et
al., 2004), that increase sexual desire in some people may inhibit it in others. The same stimulus
that instigates desire in a certain individual in a specific context may hamper this individual’s desire
in in a different context (e.g., partner’s sighs of passion when the possibility of being overheard is
low versus high). In addition, a stimulus that arouses desire in a specific relationship stage may fail
to do so during other relationship stages (e.g., a partner’s sweat post-workout at the initial stages of
the relationship versus later stages).
The integrative development model introduced in this article offers new insights by
considering the possibility that the effect of each instigator and impellor on sexual desire varies
across individuals, contexts, and relationship stages. In doing so, it suggests that different processes
help sustain sexual desire at different relationship stages and contexts. Accordingly, attending to
changing relational circumstances and stages, as well as to individual variation in sexual responses
to various stimuli, is crucial for understanding passion maintenance. In particular, the model
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 44
proposes that instigators and impellors acquire their meaning from the change in circumstances,
such that what actually varies in individuals, across contexts, and over time, is the functional
meaning of those instigators and impellors. Consider a woman who has been married to a man for
many years but has developed a new crush. The proposed model can speak to the circumstances
under which her desire for each partner will emerge. The same instigator (e.g., a partner’s naked
body) can differentially influence the sexual desire of this woman (a strong increase in the case of
her new lover vs. a small increase in the case of her spouse) because the stage of each of her
relationships offers different meaning to a partner’s naked body (a novel vs. habituated stimulus).
As discussed above, the model also predicts that sexual desire is more likely to last when the
meaning of the instigators is compatible with motives for engaging in sex. Because these motives
are context and time dependent (Cooper et al., 2011), the strategies people use to increase desire
should fit the changing motivations. A man who desires to have sex to add an element of adventure
to his life is not especially likely to feel sexually excited following an emotional conversation with
his long-term partner, although similar conversations used to excite him when they just started
dating and he coveted the reassurance of an emotional connection with his partner. This man may
still seek emotional reassurance through sex following a fiery conflict with his partner if he expects
her to respond favorably to such advances (Birnbaum, Mikulincer, & Austerlitz, 2013).
Future studies should explore whether people who are aware of changes in their and their
partner’s sexual motives and are willing to adjust their desire-enhancing strategies accordingly are
more likely keep the spark alive than people who are not aware or not willing to adjust to such
changes. Past research has already indicated that people who are sexually communal and are
focused on meeting a partner’s needs are especially likely to sustain sexual desire in their
relationships (Muise, Impett, Kogan, et al., 2013). The model suggests a few explanations for why
these people are able to keep the spark alive: These people may not require a strong match between
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 45
instigators and the motives for sex due to their flexibility; they may have a broader range of ongoing
motives; or inhibitors might affect them less strongly. These possibilities warrant further
investigation.
Sexual Desire and its Connection to Relationship Fate and Quality
The model suggests that sexual desire is, all else equal, particularly important as a
relationship-promoter in the earlier stages of relationship development. In these stages, other
aspects of the relationship, such as intimacy and commitment, only start to develop and their effects
on the fate of the relationship are less strong. In support of this view, research has found that sexual
attraction is a stronger predictor of the desire to meet a date’s again throughout the relationship
formation processes than other aspects of a date’s personality (Fugère, Chabot, Doucette, &
Cousins, in press; Poulsen, Holman, Burney, & Carroll, 2013; Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, &
Rottman, 1966). Of course, non-sexual aspects, such as perceived similarity in attitude and traits,
also affect romantic attraction to a date (Montoya, Horton, & Kirchner, 2008; Tidwell et al., 2013)
and may determine the fate of emerging relationship along with sexual desire for this person.
Sexual desire may also be particularly important to sustaining the relationship during the
fiery limbo stage, when levels of relationship uncertainty are high. As discussed above, in both
emerging relationships and the fiery limbo state, most people may experience sexual desire in
response to minimal sexual instigation (low threshold for the experience of desire; e.g., Basson,
2000; Davis et al., 2003). In established relationships, when other relational aspects may become
more important than sex to relationship quality and longevity (e.g., Kotler, 1985; Reedy et al., 1981;
Sternberg, 1986), people tend to require a great deal of sexual instigation before they experience
sexual desire (e.g., Basson, 2000; Meana, 2010).
The correspondence between the increasing vulnerability of sexual desire and its decreasing
importance as a relationship-promoter raises the possibility that desire is inclined to reflect
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 46
relationship quality and become susceptible to being interrupted by negative relationship factors as
the relationship progresses (i.e., desire becomes vulnerable to increased inhibition). For example, a
heated fight is less likely to deter newly dating couples than established ones from having sex
(Christopher & Cate, 1985). Because sexual desire is a crucial tool for assessing mate suitability at
the early stages, lack of sexual desire in these stages typically prevents relationship initiation (e.g.,
Berscheid & Reis, 1998; Birnbaum & Reis, 2012). Hence, when sexual partners do keep dating,
they apparently also desire each other, regardless of the quality of other aspects of their relationship.
That is, in these early stages, although sexual desire determines the fate of the relationship, it is less
indicative of its overall quality (e.g., Poulsen et al., 2013). In later stages, in contrast, desire
becomes more susceptible to influence from deeper qualities, which tap relationship compatibility,
and is therefore more likely to be indicative of the relationship overall quality (Augin & Heiman,
2004; Kingsberg, 2002).
The model predicts that although sexual desire matters more to relationship development
earlier than later, it is especially likely to affect relationship quality and stability in certain people or
under specific circumstances even in later stages. In particular, if the quality of the relationship is
not very good and other aspects of the relationship cannot compensate for lack of sexual desire, the
decline in sexual desire is likely to make the whole relationship more fragile and even to bring out
the termination of the relationship so that the individual can pursue a new, potentially more
promising (or at least hotter) relationship (see also Buss et al., 2017). Conversely, if the relationship
is strong, other relational aspects will sustain it, even as desire declines (Birnbaum et al., 2006). In
fact, to the extent that sexual desire serves to assess relationship compatibility, desire is less likely to
decline as sharply in such cases (Birnbaum et al., 2007; Birnbaum et al., 2016; Impett et al., 2008).
Therefore, sexual desire should be particularly susceptible to relational influences (impellance and
inhibition) among couples who most need it as a gauge by which to measure relationship
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 47
compatibility (e.g., those who suffer from relational difficulties). For these couples, sexual desire
may be most beneficial, but also most detrimental, to relationship well-being, depending on whether
their sex lives are good enough to compensate for relational deficiencies (Birnbaum et al, 2006;
Little et al., 2010).
Discussion and Implications
The sexual behavioral system evolved to motivate reproductive acts (Buss & Kenrick, 1998)
by arousing sexual desire (Diamond, 2003). Building on the idea that this system has also been
“exploited” by evolutionary processes to promote the initiation and maintenance of enduring bonds
between adult romantic partners (Birnbaum, 2014; Hazan & Zeifman, 1994; Eastwick & Finkel,
2012), the present article has introduced an integrative development model that delineates the
functional significance of sexual desire in relationship development. This model explains why and
how the individual’s reaction to sexual stimuli depends on its contextual meaning, clarifying for
whom, under which circumstances, and at which relationship stages sexual desire is likely to
increase (or decline) and thereby affect relationship development.
Changes in the Functional Implications of Sexual Desire across Relationship Development
The model postulates that sexual desire functions as a tool for assessing relationship
compatibility across all stages of relationship development. Nevertheless, sexual desire becomes
sensitive to different partner traits over the course of the relationship, such that it is likely to be
particularly responsive to surface-quality traits (e.g., friendliness, physical attractiveness) earlier in
the relationship (e.g., Poulsen et al., 2013), and to deeper traits (e.g., sensitivity, responsiveness),
which reveal themselves as a relationship progresses, later in the relationship (e.g., Birnbaum et al.,
2016). Regardless of stage, the experience of sexual desire serves as a signal that the relationship
has value and is worth pursuing. In particular, high levels of desire for a potential or a current
partner may denote relationship compatibility (Elliott & Umberson, 2008) and motivate the
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 48
individual to pursue this partner and to invest in their emerging or ongoing relationship (Birnbaum
et al., 2016). Conversely, low levels of desire may signify low relationship compatibility and
motivate the individual to detach from the current partner and pursue a more suitable one
(Birnbaum & Reis, 2012; Buss et al., 2017).
The model postulates that although sexual desire influences the initiation, development, and
maintenance of attachment bonds, the contribution that it makes varies over the course of
relationship development. Specifically, sexual desire may affect the fate of the relationship at all
stages. However, it is especially influential in assessing relationship compatibility at the early
stages, when the absence of desire frequently yields relationship termination (Berscheid & Reis,
1998; Birnbaum & Reis, 2012). Similarly, the presence of sexual desire is generally most important
as a relationship-promoter in earlier stages, when it is the major motivation for pursuing the
relationship (Poulsen et al., 2013; Walster et al., 1966). In later stages, once the emotional
connection between partners has been established, sexual desire may lose some of its importance as
a binding force and other non-sexual processes come to be more influential (e.g., Hinchliff & Gott,
2004; Kotler, 1985; Sternberg, 1986).
And yet, if non-sexual aspects of the relationship fail to sustain the relationship, the
importance of sexual desire for relationship assessment and persistence may become apparent in
later stages. Indeed, frequent and gratifying sexual activity can mitigate the adverse relational
effects of chronic relationship deficiencies (e.g., neuroticism, poor communication; Litzinger &
Gordon, 2005; Russell & McNulty, 2011). Still, there are cases in which relationship restoration
seems less feasible (e.g., an intractable conflict), and doubts about relationship compatibility arise.
In these cases, sexual feelings about one’s partner (e.g., loss of sexual interest) are likely to reflect
these relational difficulties and motivate the individual to resolve the problems either within the
current relationshipsor by detaching from the current partner.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 49
Loss of sexual interest in one’s partner may also motivate initiation of an extrapair
relationship (Buss et al., 2017; Gangestad et al., 2005). The proposed model indicates when and for
whom a relationship becomes more vulnerable to outside influences. For example, partners are
more likely to grow apart, and seek alternative partners, when their desire for each other is low and
there is nothing left in the relationship to compensate for this deficiency and keep them together.
Ironically, sex may be most needed and thus most beneficial to relationship well-being during those
times of relationship vulnerability, when relationship uncertainty is relatively high. Indeed, whereas
non-sexual aspects can compensate for sexual difficulties mostly in later stages, sex can compensate
for relational deficiencies mostly in anxiety-provoking circumstances, such as during the early
stages of emerging relationships (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008b) and under relationship-threatening
events (Birnbaum et al., 2008; Birnbaum et al., 2011). In such cases, attachment-related goals of
proximity seeking are especially prominent (e.g., Mikulincer, Gillath, & Shaver, 2002), and the
intimacy inherent in sexual contact may provide an alternative route for satiating attachment needs
for security and love (Birnbaum, 2014; Davis et al., 2004).
Changes in the Contextual Meaning of Instigators, Impellors, and Inhibitors of Sexual Desire
across Relationship Development
The ideas contained in the proposed model are consistent with the assertion that sexual
desire thrives on novelty, change, and uncertainty (e.g., Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Perel,
2007), which typically characterize new relationships. When novelty naturally gives way to
familiarity, desire tends to decline (e.g., Sims & Means, 2010). Of course, couples can introduce
novelty into their relationship. Typically, however, this is less likely to happen in most relationships
without a conscious effort, as indicated by the rising numbers of men and women who suffer from
low sexual desire and turn to therapy for assistance (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994; Meuleman & van
Lankveld, 2005; Rosen, 2000; Simons & Carey, 2001). The model distinguishes between the nature
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 50
of the instigating stimulus itself and the individual’s reaction to that stimulus. Accordingly, it
suggests that although novelty inspires desire across all relationship stages, what constitutes novelty
changes throughout the relationship (e.g., a partner’s naked body in the earlier stages vs. a new role
played by the partner later on).
This suggestion holds true in general. All instigators, impellors, and inhibitors of sexual
desire gain their meaning from changing contexts and relationship stages. The model postulates
that such changes in meaning increase the extent to which desire functions as an assessment and
relationship-promoting tool. Specifically, what determines which factors instigate (or inhibit) desire
is not the stimulus in and of itself, but its contextual meaning. We might speculate, for example,
that a partner’s sex-related exploration tendencies will be perceived as a threat to the relationship in
its early stages, and may therefore inhibit desire for this partner (and lead to relationship
deterioration). In later stages of relationship development, when trust between partners has
developed, the same exploration tendencies may be perceived as an opportunity for relationship
growth and may thus heighten desire.
A sense of emotional closeness, by comparison, may inspire sexual desire during the earlier
stages (Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999), as it helps reduce relationship insecurities (Mizrahi et al.,
2016), but may fail to do so later on, when security has been so well consolidated that the
relationship lacks desire-inducing frisson (McCall & Meston, 2006; Sims & Meana, 2010). At the
same time, a partner’s lack of responsiveness to one’s needs is more likely to inhibit one’s sexual
desire during later stages, when it might be perceived as an unwillingness to invest in the
relationship (Birnbaum et al., 2016), but not necessarily during the early stages of an emerging
relationship. Indeed, a lack of responsiveness may even inspire desire in some people during these
early stages, as it is likely to be interpreted positively then (e.g., an expression of being hard to get
and having a high mate value; Birnbaum, Ein-Dor, Reis, & Segal, 2014; Birnbaum & Reis, 2012).
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 51
Acknowledging these changes in the contextual meaning of instigators, impellors, and inhibitors of
sexual desire is the key to sustaining desire in the long run rather than sticking with old routine that
used to inspire desire once.
Overall, the integrative model suggests that relationship development changes the meaning
of stimuli, determining which particular combinations of impellors and instigators are crucial for
fostering sexual desire. However, such stage-dependent changes in the meaning of stimuli do more
than merely affect sexual desire; they influence desire in a way that ultimately helps to maintain the
relationship. For example, attachment anxiety apparently has different effects on sexual desire over
the course of relationship development: Increasing desire during the early stages of emerging
relationships (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008b) vs. dampening desire later on (Birnbaum, 2007). Relying
on the integrative model, we may postulate that in the early stages of relationships, which are
immersed in uncertainty (Afifi & Lucas, 2008), attachment anxiety serves as a means for promoting
intimacy. When relationships are more established and partners’ sexual rejection may be more
hurtful (Murray, Derrick, Leder, & Holmes, 2008; Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006), attachment
anxiety may serve as a means for maintaining distance.
Additional support for the view that the contextual meaning of stimuli for relationship
maintenance governs the effect of stimuli upon desire comes from research on misperceptions of
partners’ sexual intentions. Perceptions (and misperceptions) of partners’ sexual interest may act as
stimuli that either enhance sexual desire (e.g., if both partners seem to be interested in having sex)
or inhibit it (e.g., if the partner who considers initiating sex perceives the other partner as
uninterested and wishes to avoid sexual rejection; Brotto, Bitzer, Laan, Leiblum, & Luria, 2010;
Muise et al., 2016). Past research has shown that the direction of men’s misperceptions of their
partners’ sexual intentions changes from overperception to underperception across relationship
development. The integrative model theorizes that these changes help to promote the relationship.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 52
More specifically, during initial encounters, men tend to perceive greater sexual interest in a
woman’s behavior than she herself reports (Abbey, 1982; Haselton & Buss, 2000), probably
because overinferring women’s sexual intent minimizes the cost of missing mating opportunities
(Haselton & Nettle, 2006). In contrast, in established relationships, men are inclined to see their
partners as being less interested in sex than these partners report. This tendency for sexual
underperception bias is associated with benefits for the relationship, either because it motivates men
to invest in the relationship to entice their apparently less interested partner or because it reduces the
likelihood of being sexually rejected and its adverse relationship implications (Muise et al., 2016).
It therefore seems that what determines whether partners’ sexual intentions are over- or
underperceived is the meaning of these misperceptions for relationship development, which changes
as relationships progress from initial encounters to serious dating (i.e., a possible successful pursuit
of mating opportunities that encourages relationship initiation, a reduced risk of sexual rejection
that enhances relationship well-being, respectively).
These changes in the contextual meaning of sexual instigators and impellors may also
explain a conspicuous anomaly of sexual desire: Its tendency to diverge from other aspects of the
relationship (e.g., Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Sternberg, 1986). Indeed, although sexual
desire is affected by relational aspects, such as intimacy and affection (e.g., Birnbaum et al., 2007),
it cannot be equated with them. Given that desire initially evolved to facilitate reproduction rather
than the emotional bond, this should come as no surprise. The desire to have sex with or to feel
close to a partner may be motivated by similar reasons (e.g., need for reassurance). Nevertheless,
these two processes are often motivated by different needs, and this divergence may be more
noticeable in later stages of relationship development than early on.
Consequently, many sexual desires are difficult to reconcile with those qualities that make
long-term relationships successful (e.g., nurturance, responsiveness). For example, the desire for
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 53
sex may be inspired by aggressive urges and the need for conquest, factors that can be difficult to
reconcile with the loving bond one might experience toward one’s long-term partner. These
potentially incompatible needs may escalate and take the form of a “Madonna-Whore conflict” in
which people find it difficult to desire the person with whom they share intimacy and
responsibilities, because they cannot feel the needed adventure, freedom, and, under some
circumstances, roughness (Hartmann, 2009).
A Glimpse into the Future
The integrative model introduced in this article is an important step toward garnering
empirical answers to fundamental questions in the sex literature. For example: Is sexual desire
important to relationship stability and quality? Why is intimacy not always conductive to increasing
sexual desire? How can sexual desire be sustained in long-term relationships? Which relationships
are most likely to benefit from sex? As the literature reviewed above suggests, attending to variation
in sexual responses across individual and contexts and over the course of relationship development
is the key to answering such questions. The integrative model brings this issue to the fore and,
consequently, raises a slew of exciting new questions, such as: Would interventions tailored to
address sexual concerns be more successful in improving relationship well-being during anxiety-
provoking circumstances than during other periods in the relationship? Would instilling relationship
uncertainty during later stages attenuate the desire discrepancy between stages of relationship
development or would the potential positive effect of uncertainty on desire only emerge when the
uncertainty is assuaged?
Some of these questions address the processes underlying the instigation of sexual desire
throughout the relationship as well as the mechanisms through which sexual desire promotes
emotional bonding. The model presented in this article embodies three components that could
modify the functional significance of sexual desire for relationship development: person, context,
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 54
and time. As mentioned above, sexual desire is apparently more likely to affect attachment
processes when the relationship is more vulnerable and relationship uncertainty is relatively high,
such as in couples with partners who have negative characteristics (Birnbaum et al., 2006; Little et
al., 2010), during conflicts that endanger a relationship (Birnbaum et al., 2008), or in the early
stages of emerging relationships (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008b). However, although the model
indicates for whom, under which circumstances, and when desire is more likely to rise and to
influence relationship persistence, it is less specific about the processes by which such effects occur
in each stage of relationship development.
In particular, it is unclear whether different processes help sustain desire at different
relationship stages (e.g., the need for increased intimacy in the early stages vs. the need for a variety
later on)or whether similar processes operate over the course of relationship development. For
example, desire may be fueled by the need for novelty across all stages, and what changes is which
stimulus is considered as novel. Similarly, desire may be motivated by the need to reduce
relationship uncertainty, regardless of stage, and what changes during relationship development is
the intensity of this need. Such examples raise the possibility that it is not relationship development
per se that leads to the documented decrease in sexual desire, but rather the need for uncertainty
reduction, which tends to decrease as partners gradually feel more certain about their willingness to
invest in the relationship. Indeed, when conflict or other relationship threatening events interrupt
this process of earning relationship-specific security, desire may rise again in an attempt to regain
security through physical consolation (Birnbaum et al., 2013).
Similar questions arise when it comes to the mechanisms by which sexual desire promotes
relationship development. Whereas some relationship-promoting mechanisms are likely to be
activated by sexual desire across all relationship stages, other mechanisms are more likely to be
stage-specific. For example, sexual desire for one’s partner may contribute to stabilizing the
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 55
relationship across all its stages by activating mechanisms that are known to shield it from the
temptation of attractive alternative partners (e.g., reducing attention to other attractive targets,
derogating attractive others as potential partners; Lydon & Karremans, 2015). Conversely, sexual
desire (and the resulting sexual experiences) is more likely to reduce attachment insecurities during
the uncertainty stage of dating than during later relationship stages, when certainty about partners’
commitment intentions is relatively high. Future studies should keep pursuing this line of research
and focus on processes that underlie the desire-relationship linkage across relationship
development, examining whether relationship uncertainty reduction is one of the motivational
forces behind the contribution of relationship development to instigating desire.
As a final note, although sexual acts often occur outside the context of committed
relationships and, as such, they may be devoid of affectional bonding, the present article focuses on
the functional significance of sexual desire in romantic relationships. Future studies should thus
address the longitudinal effect of sexual desire on attachment processes in relationships that were
originally motivated by sexual gratification rather than by relationship promotion (e.g., casual
affairs, “friends with benefits”). Further research is also needed to explore whether the effects of
sexual desire on relationship development vary in alternative lifestyle relationships that involve
desire for, and attachments to, more than one person at the same time (e.g., consensual non-
monogamous relationships; Conley, Ziegler, Moors, Matsick, & Valentine, 2013) or in relationship
arrangements that do not follow the normative developmental trajectory described in this article
(e.g., arranged marriage in which partners may meet each other only shortly before the marriage;
Epstein, Pandit, & Thakar, 2013).
Such relationships can proceed to the established relationship stage because of numerous
other non-sexual factors (e.g., commitment, investment) without partners engaging in sexual
intercourse (although they may experience sexual desire for each other). Indeed, many factors can
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 56
influence the advancement of these and other relationships; some of which systematically covary
with relationship progression (e.g., trust, interdependence) and are what is likely to actually be
driving the level of sexual desire and occurrence of sexual behavior. These constructs should be
measured in future studies that test the validity of the proposed model.
Conclusions
Sexual desire is one of the forces that drive the development of romantic relationships and
influence their quality and fate (Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015; Birnbaum, Mikulincer, et al., 2014;
Shaver et al., 1988). However, the forces that affect desire, as a relationship progresses, are
contextual and elusive as much as desire itself. The integrative development model of sexual desire
introduced in this paper offers an overarching framework that incorporates information about how
relationships normatively change over time and how these changes affect the functional significance
of sexual desire vis-à-vis attachment processes. Specifically, the model arguesthat sexual desire
functions as a visceral indicator of romantic compatibility that motivates relationship persistence,
and suggests that sexual desire is especially important to relationship persistence when the
relationship is highly vulnerable and otherwise struggling.
The model also delineates how relationship development interacts with types of instigators
and inhibitors to predict sexual desire and behavior. When considering why individuals’ sexual
reaction to their partner is context-dependent, the model postulates that the instigators and inhibitors
of sexual desire acquire different contextual meanings across relationship development, such that
these changes in meaning increase the extent to which desire functions as an assessment and
relationship-promoting tool. Overall, the integrative model of sexual desire sheds light on
longstanding questions about the nature of human sexual desire, and opens new avenues for
theoretical and empirical developments in the study of the dual potential of sexual desire for both
relationship promotion and deterioration.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 57
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SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 71
Footnote
1. Sexual desire is a hot, visceral state. It is the most common pathway through which instigation
and impellance yield increased tendencies toward sexual behavior. However, it is not the only
pathway through which they do so. In some cases, these two forces yield a proclivity toward
sexual behavior that is cooler and less affect-laden. For example, if a married couple is, for the
sake of baby-making, trying to have sex for the fifth time during a three-day window, they
might initiate sexual behavior even in the absence of sexual desire. To build an all-
encompassing model, the “sexual desire” box in such instances should perhaps be replaced by
something like a “sexual proclivity” box.
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 72
Figure 1. An I3 Model perspective on sexual desire and sexual behavior.
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SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 73
Figure 2. Reconceptualizing “excitatory” and “inhibitory” processes within a 2 × 2 framework.
“Excitatory” “Inhibitory”
Before desire
onset
Increase desire (impellance) Decrease desire
(disimpellance)
After desire
onset/Sexual
action
Decrease inhibition of desire
(disinhibition)
Increase inhibition of desire
(inhibition)
SEXUAL DESIRE AND RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT 74
Figure 3. Relationship development as both (a) impellor of the link between instigation and sexual
desire and (b) inhibitor of the link between sexual desire and sexual behavior.
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Development as
Inhibitor
Development as
Impellor
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D
Sexual Desire and Relationship Development 75
Figure 4. Relationship development as impellor: Three cases in which instigation is moderated by relationship development.
Sexual Desire and Relationship Development 76
Figure 5. Relationship development as inhibition: Three cases in which the link between sexual desire and sexual behavior is moderated
by relationship development.
... That means that interactions in the domain of sexuality, affiliation, and exploration do not all need to be concurrently optimal to instigate dyadic sexual desire. In the same way as non-sexual aspects of the relationship may compensate for sexual difficulties, and sexual activity may make up for relational challenges during fragile relationship phases (Birnbaum, 2018), we propose that interactions in each domain may compensate for less than optimal interactions in the other domains. For example, affiliation-related interactions between partners (e.g., being able to share our thoughts, understand, and comfort one another) may suffice as fertile ground for dyadic sexual desire when sexual and/or exploratory interactions are less advantageous (e.g., having trouble understanding and satisfying each other's sexual needs, or combining conflicting professional ambitions), while sexual exchanges may make up for less fruitful interactions in the domains of affiliation and/or exploration. ...
... For example, the "honeymoon phase," identified by Aubin and Heiman (2004) as the first phase of couple development, is said to be accompanied by strong feelings of sexual desire between partners, while later relationship phases (i.e., working/responsible phase and retirement phase) are expected to involve more sexual problems and diminished dyadic sexual desire. On a similar note, Birnbaum (2018) suggests that sexual desire is more readily triggered during the earlier stages of relationship development than later on, implying a typical decline of dyadic sexual desire with relationship duration. However, Birnbaum's relationship development model also postulates that sexual desire is sustained or wanes depending on how couples cope with transitional challenges, and points to research findings showing that relational interactions may prevent sexual desire's decline for one's long-term partner (Birnbaum et al., 2007;Rosen et al., 2017). ...
... Specifically, the "honeymoon phase" is proposed to be accompanied by mutual support, positive, loving behaviors, and verbal and non-verbal exploration of sexuality, while later relationship phases often coincide with increased responsibilities that cause reduced couple time and attention ("working/responsible phase"), and mental or physical health conditions that may result in challenging changes to the couple interaction ("retirement phase"). A similar distinction between dyadic interactions on different relationship phases is implicit in Birnbaum's (2018) work, where emerging relationships are described in terms of mutual exploration and initial development of intimacy, while established relationships are considered to involve increases in commitment that often bring a sense of strain, monotony and burnout. Empirical findings support such theoretical assumptions about changing relational contexts. ...
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In most theoretical models, sexual desire for one’s partner is predominantly conceptualized from an individual perspective. There is, however, a growing body of empirical evidence on the dyadic aspects of sexual desire. That evidence is as yet not well-integrated into theoretical conceptualizations of sexual desire. Aiming to fill this gap, we present the Dyadic Interactions Affecting DyadIC Sexual desire model (DIADICS), a new conceptual model inspired by systems theory that describes how dyadic interactions between partners influence dyadic sexual desire in romantic relationships. After defining dyadic sexual desire, we discuss (1) the structure of dyadic interactions, (2) their content, and (3) the process through which they affect dyadic sexual desire in a romantic relationship. Thereafter, we review theoretical, clinical, and empirical insights underscoring the relation between dyadic interactions and (dyadic) sexual desire, use DIADICS as a framework for understanding fluctuations in dyadic sexual desire in long-term relationships, and conclude by discussing implications of DIADICS for research and clinical practice.
... Another construct oftentimes used interchangeably with relationship closeness is intimacy (Birnbaum, 2018;Dibble et al., 2012). In 1988, again the early times of relationship research, Sternberg declared relationship closeness and intimacy as conceptual twins, claiming they are likely to covary nearly perfectly. ...
... For sex and marital therapy, the results suggest that targeting marital intimacy (and IOS) may enhance the efficacy of interventions aimed at increasing sexual satisfaction, decreasing sexual distress and treating sexual problems. Muise et al. (2019) focused on the decline of sexual passion or desire that is typically found in relationships after some years (Birnbaum, 2018;Klusmann, 2002;Lobitz & Lobitz, 1996;McNulty et al., 2016;Murray & Milhausen, 2012;Sprecher, 2002). Self-expansion theory suggests that engaging in novel, self-expanding activities as a couple can revive feelings of sexual passion from earlier stages of the relationship (Aron & Aron, 1986;Aron et al., 2013;Aron & Aron, 1996;Rubin & Campbell, 2012). ...
... Traeen et al. (2017a, Traeen, et al., 2017b showed in many of their own studies and extensive review of the literature, that when considering sexuality in older adults, one needs to account for various health factors which impact their experience. Furthermore, relationship duration is highly dependent on age and there is much research to show how relationships and sexuality change over time (e.g., Birnbaum, 2018). ...
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Closeness, in the sense of inclusion of other in the self, has been found to be an important factor for relationship well-being, satisfaction and pair-bonding. In the past ten years, the self-expansion theory has also been incorporated into sex research, although studies are still very scarce and not without limitations. The present research aimed at further elucidating the relevance of relational factors for couple’s sexuality, and to clarify the role inclusion of other in the self plays for sexual satisfaction and sexual distress. A broadly representative sample of 3,046 men and women aged 18 to 75 was taken from the German Health and Sexuality Survey (GeSiD). Throughout analyses, inclusion of other in the self and love were positively related to sexual satisfaction. Furthermore, inclusion of other in the self was negatively related to how strongly someone was distressed by experiencing sexual problems. Closeness seems to have a compensatory role especially for women with sexual problems, protecting them from experiencing sexual distress. In future research, couple’s sexual satisfaction should not be compartmentalized from relational aspects. Results clearly promote the Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale as an interesting tool for both research and treatment.
... 16 Feelings of sexual desire for ex-partners can be stronger after the breakup than when the relationship was ongoing. 17 Moreover, people who communicated with their ex-partners (vs. those who did not) reported more romantic feelings for their ex and, if they had entered a new committed relationship, reported lower commitment to their current partner. ...
... One reason is that CMC may lead to sexual activity. Communicating with ex-partner back burners may communicatively create fiery limbo, 16,17 tempting admirers to move beyond mere communication and engage in sexual activity with their back burner. The connection between CMC and sex is not surprising: social media helps facilitate sexual flirtation 18,19 (as well as other behaviors related to infidelity). ...
... Because of sexual precedence and fiery limbo, 16,17 there should be increased interest to communicate with back burners who are exes compared with back burners who are not. As a result, we predict more digital communication with back burners who are ex-partners than with back burners who are not ex-partners (H1). ...
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Back burners are people with whom one communicates to potentially establish a future romantic or sexual relationship, and these relationships are common among college students. Using a sample of noncollege adults currently in committed relationships (N = 246) obtained via Amazon's MTurk, this study examines how a prior relationship role with a desired back burner (i.e., whether a back burner was an ex-partner or not) affects digital communication and sexual activity with back burners, and participants' negative affect. Sequential mediation analysis revealed that when the most-desired back burner was also an ex-partner (vs. not), participants digitally communicated more, increased communication was positively related to sexual activity with that back burner, and sexual activity was associated with negative affect in the participant. Even in the absence of sexual activity, both increased digital communication and simply having an ex-partner as one's most-desired back burner were associated with negative affect. Limitations and implications for staying in touch with ex-partners are discussed.
... Sexual compatibility is a very important factor in forming sexual function in an intimate relationship. In fact, researchers have found that sexual compatibility has a significant relationship with sexual satisfaction (Birnbaum, 2018) and sexual desire (Hezarjaribi et al., 2017). In addition, it was found that it enhances the sustainability of a marriage (Nekoolaltak et al., 2019). ...
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Sexual desire is considered as an integral part of an identity and characteristic of a human being, which affects the way to behave with spouse. This study aimed to study the effect of cognitive-behavioral counseling (CBT) on sexual compatibility of new married couples in Sanandaj City, in 2018. This research was a randomized clinical trial study and the participants were 80 new married couples who were randomly divided into the intervention and control groups and their information were recorded at the premarital counseling centers. The intervention group received 8 weekly 120-min sessions of group consultation with cognitive-behavioral approach. Data were collected using the National Sexual Compatibility Scale before the intervention, by passing 8 weeks from counseling, and by passing 2 months from the last counseling session. The obtained data were analyzed using chi-squared/ Fisher’s exact test inferential statistics and independent t-test or nonparametric Mann-Whitney test. The analysis of covariance was also used to control potential confounders. The mean values of sexual compatibility in the two intervention and control groups before counseling were 94.20 ± 3.30 and 93.41 ± 6.84, respectively. These scores reached 100.11 ± 2.96 in the intervention group and 98.83 ± 3.66 in the control group immediately after performing the intervention. In addition, 2 months after the end of counseling, this rate was 101.98 ± 4.03 in the intervention group and 98.83 ± 3.66 in the control group. The intra-group comparison to sexual compatibility scores calculated before and after counseling and 2 months after the intervention, showed a statistically significant difference (P < 0.001). Notably, the trend of the changes in the control group was not significant (P > 0.05). There was a significant difference between these two groups in level of scores by passing 2 months from the intervention (P < 0.001). CBT was effective on improving the level of sexual compatibility between new married couples’ partners. It is recommended to use this method of counseling along with other services provided at pre-marriage counseling centers, in order to continue and improve the quality of sex and vitality of couples. Trial Id: 34386 IRCT Id: IRCT20181006041254N1 Registration date: 2018-11-03, 1397/08/12.
... less) committed to their relationship before the COVID-19 pandemic might have felt better equipped to discuss and adjust their lifestyle to context demands. Given that relationship functioning is intrinsically associated with sexual desire (e.g., Birnbaum, 2018), one could also argue that sexual and relationship functioning could shape perceived changes in sexual desire at the onset of the pandemic. However, research has suggested that changes in sexual desire reliably predict relationship quality over time (Dewitte & Mayer, 2018;Kim et al., 2021) and is a stronger predictor of sexual satisfaction (Vowels & Mark, 2020). ...
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Lifestyle changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had mostly negative consequences for individual, relationship, and sexual functioning. However, some individuals have reported increases in sexual desire and made new additions to their sex lives. Given that stress-provoking situations can sometimes make mortality more salient and heighten sexual desire, it is possible that lifestyle changes and fear of COVID-19 infection may have benefited some relationships. We conducted a cross-sectional study with 303 romantically involved adults (58.1% men) and found that lifestyle changes were associated with negative changes in one’s sex life, unrelated to wanting to spend time with one’s partner, and positively associated with relationship quality. Lifestyle changes were also positively associated with sexual desire, but only for participants with high (vs. low) fear of COVID-19 infection. For these participants, sexual desire was associated with positive changes in one’s sex life and wanting to spend time with one’s partner, but not with overall relationship quality. Results were consistent after controlling for pandemic-related anxiety and demographic variables. This study advances literature focused on the importance of romantic relationships in stress-provoking situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic by shedding light on the association between sexual desire and personal and relational well-being.
... These results support the distinction between both types of dyadic sexual desire (partner-focused and for an attractive person) because they can act independently and differently [52,[69][70][71]. It is known that sexual desire plays a basic role in partner relationships [72] and it is an indicator of sexual functioning [71]. Experiencing abuse by the intimate partner affects the partner-focused dyadic desire and it has negative repercussions on the sexual functioning of partner relationships. ...
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According to dating folklore, playing "hard-to-get" is an effective strategy for attracting prospective mates. However, some research suggests that this strategy could backfire if it leads prospective mates to withhold their attraction in return. The present research aimed to review the scope of research on the link between playing hard-to-get - i.e., appearing uncertain in one's interest and/or difficult to attract - and romantic or sexual outcomes. A scoping search was conducted in the electronic databases of PsycINFO, Sociology Source Ultimate, Anthropology Plus, and Academic Search Ultimate using key words related to playing hard-to-get in the context of dating. A total of 18 studies were included in the review. Research suggests that playing hard-to-get may work if optimal levels of perceived uncertainty and difficulty are achieved. Additional variables were identified as being important when evaluating the tactic's efficacy. These include the pursuer's own level commitment to the pursued partner and aversion to uncertainty, and both the pursuer and pursued partners' gender and attachment styles. Directions for future research and the relevance of sociocultural norms in dating are discussed. Keywords: playing hard-to-get, dating, romantic relationships, mating strategy, attraction.
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