When sex goes stale through repetition

On the futile revolt against the Coolidge effect

"May her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love." Proverbs 5:19

It is one of the great tragedies of life when the fire of sexual passion dies in a romantic relationship. "The lust of the creatures is mixed with bitterness," medieval mystic Meister Eckhart already noted. In fairy tales and in the myths of popular culture it is all about the exciting moments of meeting and falling in love (phase A), while the daily routine of a relationship (phase B) at best is fit for a delightful farce like “Married with children”. From the viewpoint of behavioral science, too, there is no avoiding the fact that, in the long run, monogamy breeds monotony.

Long-term relationships and especially marriage have long got a bad rap in terms of the erotic. The German poet Gottfried Benn, for example, stated: "Marriage is an institution for the paralysis of the sexual instinct" Even women like the American author Erica Jong join in the lament. "Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge, no danger." That such remarks are not far-fetched, psychologist Kirsten von Sydow from the University of Hamburg has verified with a comprehensive literature review. 

As for the pure sex drive, the findings undoubtedly underscore the global downturn. The importance of sexuality decreases more than that of tenderness: "While sex is important in three-quarters of young couples, this applies to only a small part of the old couple," The sexual interest in the partner decreases with increasing duration of the relationship, and this is true for men and women. The male interest - at least the one in coitus - is initially larger, but then wanes more strongly, so that couples in their 60 usually both have only little interest in sex. 

This loss of libido in marriage is also called the "Coolidge effect". Among cattle breeders, it is known as the bull's reluctance to mount the same cow repeatedly, with the libido returning after the encounter with a new cow. The name Coolidge refers to an American President, and strangely enough it is not Bill Clinton who would have better fitted the bill. It is the 30 U.S. President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). According to a famous anecdote, Mr. Coolidge once visited a farm with his wife where Mrs. Coolidge became aware of a cock who just mounted a hen. When they told her that the cock accomplished this feat up to twelve times a day, she replied: "Tell that to my husband!" When the president learned of the miracles, he asked: "Always with the same hen?" When he was assured that it was another one every time, he replied: "Tell that to my wife!" 

As we all know, this effect does not only apply to American presidents. It is not a rooster-like male fantasy, but it is also detectable in other animals. If breeders want to educe the maximum amount of priceless semen from their breeding bulls, they have to exchange the scent of the cow at every act of simulated copulation. In rats, and, according to a study from 2013, even in our humble cohabitant the fruit fly Drosophila, sexual arousal wanes with familiarity.  From the perspective of evolutionary biology, the Coolidge effect is a rational strategy to increase genetic fitness: Because males can not multiply their reproductive success by repeated sex with the same female, there is a mechanism in their brain that redirects their libido after a while to a lucrative alternative. Sexual diversity and the availability of "fresh meat" can thus nullify the male refractory period to a certain degree.

The Coolidge effect can be expressed in numerical values, says von Sydow. "In the first year of living together, the weekly coital activity of three times drops to just under twice, then it further diminishes over two to three years." With regard to the further course, the results are contradictory. Most studies have identified an additional, but slower decline in libido. Only seven percent of all married Americans concede that they comply with their "marital duties" four times a week or more, psychologist Roy Baumeister from the Case Western University points out. Exactly twice as many acknowledge that they had sex at most a few times in the past year - or none at all. For gay and lesbian couples, the decline in coital frequency is at least as strong. And this is not a question of age, because after a divorce and with a new partner, the sex drive is easily rekindled.

Apart from the pure rate of copulation, enthusiasm also decreases. Spouses who have been married for more than 10 years seem to enjoy sex less than newlyweds. According to Baumeister, three-fifths of all male and four-fifths of all female marriage “veterans” concede that they at times had made love without any enthusiasm - only to do their mate a favor. Especially for men, sex obtains its stimulating appeal only by the charm of novelty and variety. Having a greater desire for “diverse” sex also means that it’s non-occurrence generates much more pain and frustration. Men think more about sex and feel sexual arousal more often. They yearn for a greater number of sexual partners and sexual experiences. They indulge in more frequent sexual fantasies and “do it”  much more often to themselves. Within relationships they want to “come down to business” much earlier.

"Men love the idea of getting between the blankets with a woman just for fun, including with a woman with whom they do not want to have a long-term relationship," Baumeister points out. "From the standpoint of these men, sex affords pleasure, and sex with new partners affords a particularly great pleasure. Why shouldn’t they have it off other with those women without tying up? Unfortunately for these men, most women do not share that view. "

The male sex drive is doomed to be unsatisfied. "The crux is that the average man would like to have sex with many women, but most of these women do not want sex with him. Even if he puts on the “sexual" straitjacket” of a monogamous bond,  he probably meets a partner who needs "it" less strongly than he. "If he gives up the lifestyle of a single with its potential possibilities for extramarital affairs and one-night stands and commits to a woman, he does not yet experienced the fulfillment of his sex drive." This result is an ongoing struggle with lack and sexual frustration.

Not even rich and famous men who have a lot more opportunities for sex are exempt from this frustrating fate. The effect of habituation has the consequence that even these "lucky" ones after a while cease to find their sexual status quo particularly exciting. The world of men is probably a world of people who envy each other, Baumeister stresses. "The young man who never had sex at least yearns for one woman. The man who already has a partner now wants two or three. The man, who had six is possibly toying with ten.

Even the men who hop from one bed to another are never really satisfied. Even the supposedly lucky after a while run out of desire. The male "orgasm addiction will never be satisfied at its heart. "Men are under the curse to spend a large part of their adult life in a chronic state of sexual frustration. They are doomed to be horny. "  In addition, many men are suckers for the exaggerated “success stories” of other men and for the sex-hyped representations in the media. Everyone thinks everyone else is having a field day behind his back. In the end, their own sex life must seem completely unsatisfactory. "You do not even get as much as other men, so you must feel underprivileged." 

Married men and singles look at each other askance: From the view of the "marriage prison" the sex lives of singles smack of freedom and adventure. However singles feel envy in the face of the seemingly "regular" sex life of married people; it appears to them like an orgasm-land of plenty. Both parties are blind to the shadows that dim the landscape on the other side. The single misjudges how much sexual passion gets stale in the daily grind of the relationship routine. Married couples lack awareness of how many dreary nights singles waste with the unsuccessful search for a sex partner. 

According to Baumeister, men are trapped in a real tragic conflict by their sexuality. "The male sex drive seems to be predestined to prevent happiness because it is like an emotional treadmill. It may be that male sexuality is never granted a lasting feeling of satisfaction.” Men like to make external circumstances responsible for their frustration, such as the lack of cooperation by women or the institution of marriage. But it seems that ultimately every arrangement provides them with dissatisfaction. And it does not seem that a complete abolition of all public sex stimuli – like the one practiced by fundamentalist muslims  - would defuse the tragedy of male sexuality. 

The results of psychological research do not leave behind the impression that women are obsessed by their sex drive just like men, Baumeister says. Alfred Kinsey found out more than half a century ago that bachelors and bachelorettes handle the inevitable sexual "dry spells" in their lives differently. Single men, who suffer significantly from the absence of pleasure, bridge the torturing gap with excessive masturbation. Single women, however, usually seem to get over the "drought" pretty easy and without increased masturbating.

More good stuff on sex:

No escape from a sex starved world


Sex under false pretenses


If there was a God, the clitoris would sit in the vagina


Sodom and Kandahar


Pleasures of the flesh and of the palate

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