Key Points: When individuals' sexual ideals are not met by a partner, it can have consequences for their relationship. But new research shows that having a partner high in "sexual communal strength" can help people maintain satisfaction over time, even when some ideals remain unmet.
Take a moment to think about your ideal sexual experience. Which characteristics would your ideal sexual partner possess? And what types of sexual behaviors would you find most satisfying? In a new article published online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Balzarini and colleagues (2021) investigated “sexual ideals,” our thoughts about the traits we would most desire in an ideal sex partner and our desires about the types of sexual experiences we would find most pleasurable. Realistically, our actual sexual partners and experiences may not meet those ideals. Therefore, the researchers also explored the consequences for our long-term relationships when those ideals are not met, and which qualities may protect our relationships from the difficulties associated with unmet sexual ideals.
The researchers conducted six studies examining sexual ideals and the consequences for relationships using cross-sectional studies, longitudinal research, and experimental methodology. The participants were primarily mixed-sex couples, most of whom identified as heterosexual and Caucasian and reported being in long-term monogamous relationships.
Across the cross-sectional studies and the longitudinal research, the authors found that when individuals felt their sexual ideals were not being fulfilled, it had important consequences for their romantic relationships. Feeling that their sexual needs were not met was associated with feeling less sexually satisfied and rating their relationships as lower in quality and commitment. Furthermore, when one partner felt sexually unsatisfied, the other also reported reduced relationship quality and commitment to the relationship. The longitudinal research also showed that these relationship consequences persisted over time; individuals who reported more unmet sexual needs over time also reported lower relationship satisfaction and commitment three months later.
Because the results discussed above were correlational, the authors also conducted an experiment to examine whether unmet sexual ideals can actually cause reduced relationship satisfaction. The researchers manipulated whether participants felt their sexual ideals were being met by asking participants to recall two ways their partner responded to their sexual needs or 10 ways their partner responded to their sexual needs (as well as a control condition in which participants were asked to list five things their partners tended to carry around with them). The authors believed that recalling two instances would be relatively easy for participants and thus they would feel that their sexual needs were met, while recalling 10 instances would be very difficult, and thus participants would feel that their needs were unmet. Then the researchers also provided feedback to the participants which suggested that their partner did not meet their sexual needs because their sexual compatibility was low or that their partner did meet their needs because their sexual compatibility was high. After the experimental manipulation, the researchers found that individuals who believed that their partners were not meeting their sexual ideals felt reduced relationship quality versus those who believed that their partners were meeting their sexual ideals.
These findings may appear discouraging. It is easy to imagine that our real partners and sexual experiences will often fall short of our ideals. However, the researchers also found that a quality which our partners may possess can help to ameliorate the negative effects of unmet sexual ideals. The authors refer to this quality as “sexual communal strength” and when our partners are high in sexual communal strength, this quality can mitigate the negative consequences of unmet sexual ideals for relationship quality.
The authors define sexual communal strength as the “extent to which a person is motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs.” When individuals had partners who were higher in sexual communal strength, even if their sexual needs were not met, these individuals did not report reduced satisfaction, commitment, or relationship quality. Having a partner who expressed care and concern for their counterpart's sexual desires protected relationships from some of the negative associations reported above. The authors suggest that partners who are highly responsive to their mate's needs may be “better at navigating situations of conflicting interests and…more satisfied in their relationships, even when they have different interests or when they sacrifice their own preferences for their partner.” Interestingly, the authors state that individuals who are very responsive to their partner’s needs also experience more sexual desire over the course of their relationships and enhanced relationships satisfaction and commitment over time. The authors suggest that those who are higher in sexual communal strength may “prioritize the benefits for their partner, and in turn, both partners report higher sexual and relationship satisfaction.” It is important to note that couples high in sexual communal strength may still feel that their sexual ideals are not being met; however, they are able to maintain satisfying relationships regardless of those feelings.
The results of these studies suggest that a partner’s sexual communal strength has a larger impact on relationship satisfaction, quality, and commitment than an individual’s own level of sexual communal strength. Moreover, the helpful effects of a partner’s sexual communal strength were not diminished even when the researchers controlled for couples’ sexual frequency and levels of sexual desire.
The authors conclude that this study “provides the first evidence that having a sexually communal partner might help people maintain sexual satisfaction over time, even when they have unmet ideals.” Furthermore, our perceptions of our partner’s sexual communal strength can be enhanced just by remembering a few examples of instances when our partners were attentive, responsive, and motivated to meet our sexual needs.
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Balzarini, R. N., Muise, A., Dobson, K., Kohut, T., Raposo, S., & Campbell, L. (2021). The detriments of unmet sexual ideals and buffering effect of sexual communal strength. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000323