One of the chief panics within relationships, particularly as they advance and involve more domestic worries and distractions (like kids), is how much sex is "enough." Enough to sustain interest, to keep things flowing, to maintain satisfaction, and to aid personal connection. The good news is that new science has determined that daily sex may not be necessary to keeping partners bonded. Why? Because it appears that the afterglow of good sexual contact lasts and lasts. For up to 48 hours, it seems.
Sexual science can be radically imprecise, partially because it's very difficult to assess how people really think and feel about what is, for most of us, a very private matter. And in studies like this, which are done using surveying techniques rather than, say, saliva samples or MRIs, the responses are hugely personal; but the scientists involved controlled for factors like gender, age, relationship length, and sexual frequency, and the 48-hour afterglow phenomenon still held. And it had intriguing consequences for the future of the relationships themselves, in another demonstration of the importance of pervasive sexual satisfaction for romantic relationship success.
So what does the afterglow effect actually consist of, and how can people who want to grab some of its benefits hack their own sexual practice to benefit?
What Lingering Sexual Afterglow Is
The focus of the study was on newlyweds, who are often in the throes of unique levels of lust, but who still likely don't have time to get down all the time. And what it found was intriguing. The 214 couples involved were first given questionnaires over a 14-day period asking whether they'd had sex that day, and separate ones asking them to rate their satisfaction with their sex life, their partner, and life in general.
The study discovered two things. One was that peoples' rates of sexual satisfaction spiked for up to two days after any sexual contact with their spouse. We tend to think of satisfaction from sexual acts as relatively one-shot, but it turns out that their after-effects can linger for days, with corresponding effects for our sense of sexual health and satisfaction. This is awesome news, but the other element also proved important, too. It was the fact that, over four to six months later, the people who'd reported longer periods of sexual "afterglow" were significantly happier with their spouses and showed less decline in their overall satisfaction in their marriage.
The takeaway from this, the scientists behind the study say, is that afterglow seems to act as a kind of bonding mechanism, keeping people happy in their relationships even though sex doesn't necessarily happen on a regular basis. This is both deeply comforting for people worried about the frequency of their boot-knocking and slightly confusing. What is afterglow, and can we increase it in any meaningful way to help nab some of its satisfaction-boosting effects?
How To Hack Your Afterglow
Afterglow isn't technically a physiological idea; the body doesn't go all tingly for two days after a great sexual encounter. It's not necessarily related to orgasm, either. It's a general term for sexual satisfaction and a sense of connection to your partner, and clearly it's in the interests of people in long-term relationships to know how to increase it. Having better sex isn't the only answer, either. The researchers had one tip on how afterglow could be increased: be in a long-term relationship and be slightly older. They don't have proof for this yet, but they speculate that people who've been bonding using the lingering afterglow for quite a long time will likely see its effects increase as their bond grows closer over years.
There are, however, other studies of the afterglow effect that may give people keen to extend their feeling of wellbeing a few tips. What happens immediately after sex is, according to scientists, as important as the act itself for raising satisfaction levels and nabbing a few more hours of glow. One is "post-sex affectionate exchanges," or cuddling. A 2014 study found that the more people cuddled after sex with their romantic partners, the higher their sexual satisfaction was, and correspondingly so was their relationship satisfaction overall. It seems that the link was stronger for women than men, but men did still find it important — and both "duration" and "quality" of the affectionate exchanges mattered. So desultory kisses for the sake of it wouldn't make the grade. You've got to put the effort in, apparently.
A series of studies done in 2013 highlighted another part of the post-sex ritual that may increase satisfaction: pillow talk. The idea of intimate conversation post-sex that delves into very personal areas is, it turns out, both more frequent and more fulfilling in more committed relationships; the stronger the bond, the more likely people were to say positive things and the more satisfied they felt. It's not entirely clear whether the findings are correlational or causal — whether good relationships cause awesome pillow talk and therefore relationship satisfaction, or vice versa — but it certainly seems as if it can't help to say something charming and adoring to your partner post-clinch while you're cuddling. A 2010 study found, though, that women are more satisfied if their pillow talk includes signals of commitment from their partners, while men may get worried or concerned if their sexual partner starts talking about relationship issues post-sex.
A lot of these studies are based almost entirely on newlyweds who are heterosexual, so it remains to be seen whether there are wider discoveries to be made about afterglows, sexual satisfaction, and relationship bonding in LGBT relationships and people who haven't just waltzed down the aisle. But it's certainly an intriguing way to think about increasing sexual and relationship happiness. Now get your glow on.