By Alice G. Walton
The new study tracked 215 newly wedded couples, and had them report daily for a period of two weeks whether they’d had sex that day. They also reported on how satisfied they were with their marriage in general, with their partner and with their sex life on that particular day. The team also followed up with them four to six months later to see how the were faring.
Sex was linked to sexual satisfaction on that day, and importantly, also in the 24 and 48 hours later, even if those hours didn’t contain any sex. In other words, the afterglow from one sexual experience lasted for up to two days—and the stronger their afterglow, the more likely a couple was to report being satisfied with their marriage over the next several months. As expected, marital satisfaction generally dropped a bit over the course of the study, but for those who reported stronger afterglow after sex, it dropped much less.
"Our research shows that sexual satisfaction remains elevated 48 hours after sex," said lead author Andrea Meltzer. "And people with a stronger sexual afterglow—that is, people who report a higher level of sexual satisfaction 48 hours after sex—report higher levels of relationship satisfaction several months later…. This research is important because it joins other research suggesting that sex functions to keep couples pair bonded."
Afterglow also serves a less romantic and more basic evolutionary purpose: It makes conception more likely to occur. The odds of conception actually rise in the two days after sex—but repeated sex in those days can actually backfire, thwarting sperms’ ascent to the cervix. So not having sex—which might be more likely if you’re still feeling afterglow from your last sexual encounter days earlier—would actually be beneficial, evolutionarily speaking.
But it’s funner for most people to enjoy the interpersonal benefits of afterglow. And interestingly, while lots of other studies have looked at how other types of interactions affect a relationship—like fighting and praise—none have looked at how the length of their aftermath affects a relationship over the long-term until now.
How the phenomenon works over time also isn’t so clear—it may change somewhat, and even expand, as couples have been together for longer. “For example, older individuals in more established relationships for whom reproduction is less important may experience a longer afterglow,” the authors write. The team's future work will look at how afterglow is linked to other things, like infidelity and whether relationships become long-term or turn into marriage.
So can you increase the length of your afterglow? It’s certainly possible, but where it comes from isn’t so clear. Afterglow may not be solely the product anything that happens in the bedroom—it may come at least as much from interactions that happen outside it.
“I would suspect that it's a little of both,” says clinical psychologist Shannon Kolakowski. “Meaning that what creates the afterglow is in part due to the positive circumstances that led to having sex, such as feelings of love and connection, having a good time together, having desire for your partner and feeling desired. And what sustains the afterglow is the sex act itself, the release of bonding chemicals in the body as well as having a shared experience to remember and enjoy, which fortifies these good feelings.”
So may be a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. While the research is still being done, you and your partner can play around with it, and see if you can make afterglow last longer. “Do what you would do with any emotion you wish to foster,” says Kolakowski. “Notice the afterglow, and embrace it. Replay in your mind scenes that made you feel particularly bonded, or close to your partner. And try to create more opportunities in your relationship for those times to happen.”