Who gets bored with monogamy faster in a relationship: men, with their roaring libidos, or women, with their faithful, low-sex-drives? Though new research suggests it’s men who tire more quickly of sex with the same old ball and chain, don’t let the science or the stereotypes fool you. The answer is both men and women get bored with the monotony of commitment, just for different reasons, and at a different clip.
Of course, cultural perception would tell us that women love monogamy like they love a secret sale, but get bored sooner because they don’t like sex as much. But when the University of Kentucky looked back over 64 previous studies on sexual desire dating back to the 1950s to examine the various factors in maintaining sexual desire over the long haul, they found that men aren’t exactly thrilled about monogamous sex either. The results suggest what most of us already know about desire in relationships: It’s extremely important; it’s also hard to maintain over the long haul. And while aspects of desire, such as closeness, attraction, responsiveness and novelty are universal for men and women, it’s also highly individual among people, and men and women can’t help but be influenced by both media portrayals and gendered expectations, so things gets weird.
Those media portrayals don’t do us any favors. By always showing desire as novel, spontaneous and exciting, they don’t give us much of a roadmap for keeping the heat on after the first part of getting together. And gendered expectations, as a result, merely underscore those differences along pink and blue lines.
Even though we portray women as not interested in sex, we’ve culturally always positioned men as the long-suffering victims of monogamy — cheaters at heart, hemmed in by the bummer requirement to screw only one person for the rest of their lives. That’s because we believe they are wired for extreme visual variety, a buffet of choices, fire-hose style seed-spraying in any and all directions, and always with as many women as possible.
But such a drive also means they’ll take it where they can get it, so if a man can at least be guaranteed regular sex in a relationship, we presume him to be happy and satisfied. Moreso than women, we seem to think, who would rather fondle a bridal magazine than a man, much less herself. Women only put out to get security, so as soon as they lock down the guy, the sex vanishes.
While we’ve long known that women lose desire more frequently in relationships, it turns out men lose the interest first because of all this. “Men often lose interest when they feel insecure, when they worry they are losing autonomy in a relationship, or when physical changes cause embarrassment,” Elizabeth Bernstein reported at the WSJ of the study. “Pressure to be the initiator compounds the stress.” Lead study author Kristen Mark told the paper that “we expect male desire to always be high and to be simple, like an on and off switch, while we expect women’s desire to be a complicated switchboard, but they are both complex.”
This makes intuitive sense. Burden one gender alone with the responsibility for keeping the sex going, and make that gender feel like he must always want it and always initiate it, or he isn’t a man, and it’s eventually going to wear him down.
But consider that recent research from Daniel Bergner has also noted that women are the ones who get bored with monogamy faster. Newer studies of female sexual desire and arousal find that women crave more sexual novelty than men, and as a result, find monogamy stifling. Their reasons stem from social pressure, too — only from the other side of the fence. Unlike men, who are told they should always be rarin’ to go sexually, women are told they are innately less promiscuous and need stability and commitment over sex. Add to this the highly desexualized role of women as mothers and caregivers, and they may find it far more difficult to access desire and eroticism, or even reconcile pleasure they want for themselves when there are so many others to prioritize. But make no mistake: women are horny and bummed, too.
“Traditionally we have interpreted a woman’s desire as less — she must have less of an interest in sex,” psychologist Esther Perel told GOOP about why women become bored with monogamy faster. “But no, it’s that women become less interested in the sex they can have. Put that same woman with a new person, in a new story, and suddenly she doesn’t need a role replacement.”
The WSJ talks to a number of experts about what to do about all this, but the suggestions make the problem seem as simple as a Viagra commercial. Talk about what’s at the root of it, preferably over a glass of wine or on a nice walk so no one feels criticized. As for what might be at the root of it, the experts in the WSJ say: maybe it means you’re doomed and not right for each other or maybe not. Maybe the truth is you hate each other. Maybe you no longer see each other as attractive, or sexual. Maybe your body isn’t working right.
Maybe! But maybe the problem is we won’t stop telling men they should always want and crave sex, while simultaneously stunting them emotionally. And maybe we should stop telling women that they only want emotional connection and intimacy, while simultaneously stunting them sexually. Maybe we should not turn men into caricatures of horny lust, and not turn women into caricatures of asexual mommies, and make it clear to men and women that the desire for sexual connection and also being desired is universal and not an either/or proposition. Instead, we insist on painting men as caring only about getting the object of their desire, and women as caring only about being that object.
Looked at in that light, it is no wonder that it’s really, really hard for men and women to have sex with each other for very long. Maybe if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t end up with a lot of people who have to do all this work to get past these damaging received messages, all so they can finally, at long last, activate their own desire on their own terms.