Finding Mr./Ms. Right?
New research explores the reality behind sexual compatibility.
Posted Jan 27, 2017
Whatever you might believe about the idea of "love at first sight," finding a relationship and making it work is never easy.
Countless movies, television shows, and romance novels convey the idea that romantic love and a fulfilling sex life are easy to maintain when your romantic partner is "the one." But the reality is very different. Part of the problem rests in the unrealistic expectations conveyed by popular media, which often lead to disappointment and frustration when real life doesn't measure up.
According to C. Raymond Knee of the University of Houston, success in romantic relationships often depends on the implicit theories we may have about romantic love. Implicit theories deal with the underlying beliefs and biases that can influence how we interact with the world. Concerning relationships, there can be two types of implicit theories: relationship destiny beliefs and relationship growth beliefs.
Relationship destiny focuses on the idea that people can be truly "meant" for one another and that the key to a satisfying relationship is finding the right partner, or one's "soul mate." People who believe in relationship growth, while recognizing that the relationship they're in might not be perfect, are willing to expend the time and effort needed to develop and strengthen their relationship over time.
While both sets of beliefs often come into play in most romantic relationships, belief in romantic destiny can also influence whether or not a relationship will fail, especially in the early stages. Because every relationship experiences "growing pains," with inevitable arguments and other conflicts, people with strong romantic destiny beliefs often decide that the relationship "wasn't meant to be" and move on to another partner, hoping that relationship will be more fulfilling. People high in romantic growth beliefs, on the other hand, are more willing to recognize that it is possible to make necessary changes to save and improve a relationship.
To measure the distinction between destiny and growth, researchers have developed psychometric inventories that are often used in relationship studies. One of these, the Relationship Belief Inventory (RBI), is a 40-item self-report inventory that assesses how people score on specific dysfunctional beliefs about relationships. Items include:
- "Disagreement is destructive to a relationship."
- "Partners should be able to know each other's thoughts and feelings without overt communication."
- "Partners cannot change themselves or their relationship."
- "One must be a perfect sexual partner."
- "The sexes differ fundamentally in their personalities and needs."
The RBI has different sub-scales including the Partners Cannot Change sub-scale, which loads highly on relationship destiny beliefs. Studies have shown the RBI to be a good predictor of marital success, relationship stability, and partner compatibility. Other tests focus more on romantic beliefs, attitudes concerning love, or close relationship beliefs—though they tend to be less useful in teasing out differences in growth vs. destiny.
But what about sexual satisfaction? Because sexual compatibility is an important part of long-term, romantic relationships, it's probably not surprising that growth vs. destiny beliefs often factor into how long these relationships can last. For people with strong destiny beliefs, for example, the concept of "sexual chemistry" is often deemed to be the most important aspect of a new relationship and, when that sense of chemistry fades, they develop serious doubts about the relationship. On the other hand, people with strong sexual growth beliefs are often more willing to work through problems with sexual compatibility and thus more likely to stay together. As you might expect, research tends to show that those with destiny beliefs are more likely to engage in "one-night stands" than people with strong growth beliefs.
Although, to some extent, most people rely on growth and destiny beliefs when it comes to starting and maintaining a committed sexual relationship, how these different beliefs come into play, especially during "rocky periods," can often determine whether a relationship will survive and flourish.
A new article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describes a series of studies looking at how destiny and growth beliefs shape sexual satisfaction and relationship quality. Led by Jessica A. Maxwell of the University of Toronto, the authors developed a psychometric measure of sexual destiny and growth beliefs, which they tested on adults recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. They then used the measure to test how these beliefs influenced different aspects of sexual relationships.
Their measure was adapted from the Implicit Theories of Relationship Scale developed by Raymond Knee and his colleagues. It included items such as:
- "Sexual partners are either compatible or they are not."
- "In a relationship, maintaining a satisfying sexual relationship requires effort."
- "Even satisfied couples will experience challenges at times."
Participants also completed tests measuring sexual and relationship satisfaction, as well as how their relationship beliefs compared to their beliefs about personality (such as whether or not a person's personality can change over time).
The researchers found that sexual growth and destiny beliefs were strongly linked to beliefs about relationships in general. Also, having strong sexual growth beliefs was associated with higher relationship and sexual satisfaction. To explore this link further, Maxwell and her colleagues conducted a second study looking at how different sexual satisfaction beliefs were associated with other relationship factors, including level of sexual compatibility. As expected, individuals with strong sexual destiny beliefs who also reported problems with compatibility, such as frequent arguments, were more likely to report poor relationship quality than participants with strong growth beliefs.
But do growth and destiny beliefs remain the same or do they change over time? To answer, the researchers conducted another study of 80 participants in committed, live-in relationships who were asked to complete a 21-day diary measuring how their sexual and relationship beliefs changed on a day-to-day basis. The researchers found that people high in sexual growth beliefs can still experience daily fluctuations in the level of commitment they feel and the amount of satisfaction they have in their relationship. Yet daily quarrels didn't necessarily cause people high in sexual destiny beliefs to question whether they were with the "right" partner. Regardless of the kind of beliefs people have, it still takes time for relationship problems to reach the breaking point.
In the remaining studies, the team looked at how gender differences related to growth and destiny beliefs; the impact of postpartum stress on relationship satisfaction; and how different relationship and sexual beliefs came into play, as well as how these different beliefs affected their partner's satisfaction.
They found that women with strong sexual destiny beliefs tended to experience greater dissatisfaction with their relationship, particularly in the months after giving birth (something that didn't occur for men). This may be due to the physiological changes of giving birth, which may alter their sense of sexual satisfaction. On the other hand, men and women with strong sexual growth beliefs reported their sexual and relationship satisfaction became even stronger in the months leading up to first-time parenthood, and afterward.
What do these different study results suggest? While Maxwell and her colleagues point out that sexual growth beliefs are only moderately associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction, there is no equivalent association for sexual destiny beliefs. What the researchers found is that people high in destiny beliefs tended to be more sensitive to whether or not they feel their partner is sexually compatible. They're also less inclined to put in the needed work to keep a relationship going.
The researchers also found that, overall, men tended to have stronger sexual destiny beliefs, while women tended to have stronger sexual growth beliefs—though there didn't seem to be any equivalent difference in growth and destiny beliefs regarding relationships in general. How this relates to the different expectations men and women have regarding sex and relationships is something that needs to be examined n future research.
Another question that needs to be looked at is how media influences the kind of relationship and sexuality beliefs people often have. While the idea of "soul mates" and "love at first sight" are often portrayed in movies, television, and books, the reality is often very different, and many people may find themselves frustrated searching for the "perfect match" as a result.
Everyone engages in a certain amount of "comparison shopping" when searching for a life partner, but recognizing that sexual and relationship satisfaction takes time and work seems to be a better formula for domestic bliss in the long run.
Maxwell, J. A., Muise, A., MacDonald, G., Day, L. C., Rosen, N. O., & Impett, E. A. (2017). How implicit theories of sexuality shape sexual and relationship well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,