You’ve had a long day, and you’re beat. All you want to do is vegetate in front of the TV for a couple of hours and then go to bed. Your partner sits down beside you and cuddles. Then they starting touching you that way they always do when they’re in the mood for romance. What do you do?
A. Tell them honestly that you’re simply not in the mood tonight, but that you’ll make it up to them another time.
B. Go along with it even though you’re not in the mood. You already know you won’t enjoy it—just too many things on your mind.
C. Go along with it even though you’re not in the mood. Who knows, maybe your partner can get you excited, and you’ll have fun after all.
If you’re wondering which response is correct, you should understand that none of them is absolutely right in all situations. However, the choice you make now can impact your relationship downstream, especially if one of these responses has become a habit for you.
Response “A” means that you’re placing your own needs ahead of your partner’s. Sometimes this is necessary, and if you’re usually attentive to their needs, they should understand and cut you some slack. But if you always place your needs ahead of your partner’s, your relationship is in trouble. When your partner isn’t satisfied with the relationship, you won’t be either, at least not for long.
Response “B” means that you’re meeting your partner’s needs at the expense of your own. Occasionally sacrificing for your partner can be a good thing. They get what they want, and you have the pleasure of knowing you’ve satisfied them. But if it’s standard operating procedure, your relationship is in trouble. You can’t be happy in a relationship in which you always give, but never receive. And your partner won’t be all that happy either.
Response “C” means that you’re willing to meet your partner’s needs, but you also see to your own needs. Research suggests that this middle-road approach is more likely to lead to greater long-term relationship satisfaction for both you and your partner.
In a recent article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships , University of Toronto psychologist Emily Impett and her colleagues explored the costs and benefits of putting your partner’s sexual needs ahead of your own. For the study, they recruited 122 couples who’d been exclusively monogamous for at least two years. The ages of the participants ranged from 19 to 67, and length of relationship from two to 48 years. About half were married, and the other half cohabiting.
Each day for 21 days, each partner received an email linking them to a survey, which they were instructed to complete before going to bed. First, they answered a set of questions that probed relationship satisfaction, positive and negative mood, and sexual desire.
These were followed by the simple yes/no question: “Did you have sex with your partner today?” In case you’re wondering, the average was 3.5 times during the 21 days of the study, that is, a little more than once a week. However, responses ranged from 0 (not at all in 3 weeks!) to 17 (almost every day!).
Next came the key questions of the study. Specifically, the researchers were looking at what they call sexual communal strength and unmitigated sexual communion. In simple terms, sexual communal strength means making an effort to meet your partner’s needs while keeping your own in mind. (This would be response “C” above.) Sexual communal strength was measured with responses to statements such as: “Meeting my partner’s needs was a high priority for me during sex.”
Conversely, unmitigated sexual communion has to do with meeting your partner’s needs, while leaving your own needs unmet. (This would be response “B” above.) Unmitigated sexual communion was measured with responses to statements such as: “During sex, it was impossible for me to satisfy my own needs if they conflicted with my partner’s needs.”
Finally, the researchers measured the following:
- Positive partner-focused sexual cues: Questions included items such as, “During sex, my partner was responsive to my needs.” Positive partner-focused sexual cues are indicative of sexual communal strength, that is, a mutual give-and-take during the sexual act.
- Negative self-focused sexual cues: Questions included items like, “During sex, bothersome thoughts disturbed my concentration.” Negative self-focused sexual cues suggest unmitigated sexual communion, namely a sense of detachment from the sexual act.
- Sexual satisfaction: Questions included items such as, “How satisfying was your sexual experience with your partner?” These items measured satisfaction with a particular sexual experience, not with the sexual relationship in general.
The first result showed what all good lovers already know: Pleasing your partner is half the fun. In other words, when you make efforts to meet your partner’s needs, and in turn your partner makes efforts to meet yours, both of you experience an increase in sexual and relationship satisfaction. Thus, sexual communal strength—focusing on your partner’s needs and trusting they’ll reciprocate—is at least one of the keys to a healthy intimate relationship.
The second result, however, surprised the researchers. They expected to find that unmitigated sexual communion would lead to decreases in sexual and relationship satisfaction for both members of the couple. In other words, if you just go through the motions without enjoying it, your partner will sense something is missing and feel dissatisfied as well. But this isn’t exactly the pattern they found.
If you habitually meet your partner’s needs and forego getting your own needs met, you’ll be less happy with all aspects of your relationship, sexual and otherwise. But your partner won’t necessarily be unhappy. They won’t experience a boost, as did the members of couples who reciprocally meet each other’s needs. Instead, they report no change in satisfaction. In short, if you always sacrifice your needs for your partner, you’ll be miserable, and your partner probably won’t appreciate your sacrifice that much either.
The researchers note from previous studies that people who regularly sacrifice their own needs for the sake of their partners suffer from low self-esteem. They often report feeling unworthy of having their own needs met, or they feel unworthy unless they make extreme sacrifices. This mindset does the individual much harm, and it doesn’t do their partner much good either.
The upshot of course is that self-esteem isn’t set in stone. If you feel unworthy of getting your needs met, you need to do some self-reflection on why you feel that way. Perhaps you can do this on your own or with the aid of self-help literature, but a trusted friend, pastor, or counselor can be an important ally in your pursuit of self-growth.
Healthy relationships always involve give and take. Our love for our partner grows as we make sacrifices to meet their needs. But it’s also good to be a little bit selfish. We need to get our own needs met as well. Don’t be afraid to let your partner know what you need. You deserve to be satisfied in your relationship, and your partner will be happier for it as well.
Impett, E. A., Muise, A., & Harasymchuk, C. (2018). Giving in the bedroom: The costs and benefits of responding to a partner’s sexual needs in daily life. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407518787349