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When Your Romantic Partner Fails to Meet Your Sexual Ideal

Do you have unmet sexual needs?

  • Having unmet sexual needs can harm a relationship; each partner must be willing to make sacrifices.
  • Relationships are all about giving and taking, as well as compromise. If a partner attempts to meet your needs, your relationship may last for the long haul.
  • Sometimes, however, it's better to remember that you can't change another person, and rethinking a relationship may be what's needed.

Sex is the defining characteristic of a romantic relationship. When their sexual needs are met, couples feel not only high levels of sexual satisfaction but also a great degree of relationship satisfaction and commitment as well. Likewise, when sexual needs go unmet, the resulting dissatisfaction bleeds into all other aspects of the relationship.

Previous research has shown that each of us maintains a sexual ideal, that is, a mental image of our perfect romantic partner. This ideal includes not only physical appearance and personality characteristics but also other aspects such as intelligence or social and economic status. We use this ideal to guide our search for a romantic partner.

In addition, our sexual ideal includes a repertoire of sexual acts that we would like to engage in with our mate, as well as those acts we’d rather not get involved in. This makes finding the “perfect partner” a double challenge. That is, even when they match our mental image in terms of looks and personality, they likely won't have the same ideal sexual repertoire. They won’t want to do things we’d like to do and vice versa.

How do people cope when their romantic partner fails to meet their sexual ideal? This is the question that Texas State University psychologist Rhonda Balzarini and colleagues explored in a study they recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Making Sacrifices to Meet a Partner's Needs Helps Mitigate the Impact of Unmet Sexual Ideals

Balzarini and colleagues start with the concept of communal strength. This refers to a person’s willingness to make sacrifices to meet their partner’s needs, and this can range from simple acts such as deciding what to have for dinner to moving to another city for their partner’s career advancement. Research shows that couples who are high in communal strength are typically happier than those couples who are low in this trait. Rather than demanding that their needs be met first, they instead enjoy meeting their partner’s needs, trusting that they’ll reciprocate.

In the current study, the researchers focused on sexual communal strength. People who are high in sexual communal strength are willing to have sex with their partner even though they’re not especially in the mood. They’re also understanding when their partner turns down a sexual advance, trusting that they did so for a good reason and that they’ll make up for it as soon as possible.

We know from previous research that when their partners do not meet their sexual ideal, people not only experience lower sexual satisfaction but also less relationship satisfaction and reduced commitment to the relationship. However, Balzarini and colleagues hypothesized that sexual communal strength would help mitigate the negative impact of unmet sexual ideals.

Your Partner May Not Meet Your Ideal, But Their Attempts at Meeting Them Help

This hypothesis comes in two parts. First, the researchers proposed that people’s levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction as well as commitment would be higher when their partner exhibited high levels of sexual communal strength. That is, even if your partner doesn’t completely meet your sexual ideal, their attempts to meet your needs may be good enough.

Second, the researchers proposed that people’s own sexual communal strength should buffer against the negative effects of not getting their sexual ideal met. This is because people high in sexual communal strength are forgiving toward their partner when they can’t completely meet their needs. That is, they understand their partner is doing as much as they can.

The Link Between Unmet Sexual Ideals and Sexual Communal Strength

The researchers conducted four separate studies that included surveys, long-term diary studies, and even an experimental manipulation. Together, the results point to a clear relationship between unmet sexual ideals and sexual communal strength.

The first part of the hypothesis was supported. That is, the results showed that people are more satisfied with their sex life and relationship, and they're more committed to that relationship, when their partner is high in sexual communal strength. In other words, even when your partner fails to match your sexual ideal, their efforts to meet your needs pay off. Although you may not be getting everything you want in your sex life, you’re getting enough of your needs met by a partner who clearly shows how much they care.

However, the second part of the hypothesis was not supported. Specifically, a person’s own sexual communal strength does not buffer against the long-term negative effects of not getting their sexual needs met. While people who are high in sexual communal strength are forgiving when their partners can’t meet their sexual needs in the moment, this is done in a spirit of trust that those needs will get met later.

When your sexual advances are repeatedly rejected, or when your partner is completely unwilling to make accommodations for your preferences, it’s inevitable that you’ll feel dissatisfaction and resentment in the long term. In fact, it’s unhealthy to keep making excuses for a chronically unresponsive partner, since all relationships are built on compromise. In hindsight, it makes sense then that one’s own sexual communal strength shouldn’t reduce the impact of continuously unmet sexual needs.

The Importance of Being Responsive to Your Partner’s Needs

There are two takeaway messages from this study. First, it shows the importance of being responsive to your partner’s needs. When you make sacrifices for the sake of your partner, both of you benefit. Their needs are met in the moment, and they’ll be more inclined to meet yours in the future. This kind of give-and-take is what relationships are all about.

Second, it calls on us to shift our focus from whether our partner is meeting our sexual ideal to whether they’re doing a good enough job of meeting our needs. Again, relationships are about compromise, and you may have to be willing to forego some things you desire in exchange for other benefits that accrue from the life you share with your partner.

When Is It Time to Rethink a Relationship?

If your sexual ideals remain consistently unmet, it’s time to rethink the relationship. You might need to improve your communication and negotiation skills, perhaps with the aid of a skilled counselor. The effort you put into improving your relationship may or may not pay off, but either way, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of yourself, which will benefit you in all your personal interactions.

Finally, you need to understand that you can never change another person. You can communicate your sexual ideals to your partner, and they may be willing to accommodate you. But if not, then you’ll just have to accept that—and plan out the rest of your life accordingly.

Facebook image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

References

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. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000323

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