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Relationships

The Role of Gratitude in Sexual Communal Strength

To get our own needs met, we must also meet the needs of our partner.

Key points

  • Sexual communal strength is the desire to meet your partner’s sexual needs.
  • Experiencing and receiving gratitude may increase sexual communal strength.
  • Gratitude boosts our desire to meet our partner’s needs, both in and out of the bedroom.

We enter into romantic relationships to get important psychological needs met, chief among these being companionship, emotional support, and sex. While our romantic partner is but one of several people—including friends and family members—that we rely on to meet our companionship and emotional support needs, most of us expect our romantic relationship to be sexually exclusive. Since we rely solely on our partner to meet our sexual needs, differences in sexual desire can cause serious difficulties in a marriage.

Of course, to get our own needs met, we also have to meet the needs of our partner. Some couples adopt an exchange approach, in which they keep track of favors given and received. For instance, a wife may agree to have sex even though she’s not in the mood, simply because she wants something in return from her husband. Relationship satisfaction tends to be fairly low in such arrangements.

Happy couples, in contrast, strive to meet their partner’s needs, not because they’re thinking about what they’re going to get in return, but simply for the satisfaction of pleasing their spouse. Of course, they also trust their partner to likewise strive to meet their needs, but there’s no running tally of who got what. Psychologists refer to this desire to meet your partner’s sexual needs as sexual communal strength.

Sexual Communal Strength: Meeting Your Partner’s Needs

Past research has shown that people who are high in sexual communal strength generally experience greater sexual desire for their partner, and overall they’re more satisfied with their relationship and sex life. This makes sense, after all, since striving to meet your partner’s needs tends to make them more willing to meet yours.

But why do some people have higher levels of sexual communal strength than others? University of North Carolina at Greensboro psychologist Ashlyn Brady and her colleagues believe that it may have something to do with gratitude. We experience gratitude toward another person when they have done something for our benefit at an expense to themselves. As an emotional experience, gratitude motivates us to maintain and build our relationship with the one who benefitted us.

Brady and colleagues speculated that people who feel gratitude toward their partner will likely also display greater sexual communal strength. In other words, knowing that your spouse has benefitted you in various ways should increase your desire to meet their sexual needs. The researchers tested this hypothesis in a series of three studies.

However, gratitude is a complex social emotion that affects both parties. When you benefit from another’s kindness, you experience gratitude, and this binds you emotionally to the person who did you a favor. In return, when you tell them how much you appreciate what they did for you, they receive your gratitude, and this is a pleasant experience for them.

For this reason, Brady and colleagues speculated that receiving gratitude would also be linked with greater sexual communal strength. Thus, in the following studies, the researchers looked for associations between sexual communal strength and experiencing as well as receiving gratitude.

Does Gratitude Increase Sexual Communal Strength?

Since no prior research had looked at the association between gratitude and sexual communal strength, Brady and colleagues first conducted a pilot study. You can think of a pilot study as a proof of concept. They’re “quick and dirty,” but if they yield positive results, this suggests that it’s worthwhile pursuing more expensive but better-controlled studies.

The researchers recruited 185 individuals in committed relationships to respond to a series of surveys on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a website commonly used to collect data from the general population.

Sexual communal strength was measured with questions such as: “How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?” Experiencing gratitude was assessed by having participants indicate how much they agreed with statements like: “I appreciate my partner.” Likewise, receiving gratitude was appraised with statements such as: “My partner often tells me the things that she or he really likes about me.”

The results of the pilot study supported the hypothesis, showing that both experiencing and receiving gratitude were associated with greater sexual communal strength. Encouraged by this result, the researchers next recruited 118 heterosexual couples to take part in a three-month study. At the beginning, midway through, and at the end of the three-month period, both partners individually responded to surveys similar to those used in the pilot study.

The key finding was that a high level of gratitude at one time—whether experiencing or receiving—was associated with increased sexual communal strength at the next time. This result suggests that experiencing or receiving gratitude boosts people’s desire to meet the sexual needs of their partner. However, to establish a causal relationship between gratitude and sexual communal strength, they conducted the following experiment.

Once again using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Brady and colleagues recruited 203 individuals who were in committed relationships. Each participant was assigned to write a short essay on one of four topics:

  • A time when they experienced gratitude toward their partner.
  • A time when their partner expressed gratitude toward them.
  • A time when they had an enjoyable experience with their partner.
  • Something that recently happened to their partner that did not involve them.

As expected, those who wrote essays about experiencing or receiving gratitude reported greater communal strength than those who wrote on neutral subjects.

Why Gratitude Boosts Sexual Communal Strength

The results of this series of studies show that experiencing gratitude motivates us to meet our partner’s sexual needs. After all, we like to return favors to those who are kind to us—not simply to keep the tally balanced but rather because exchanging favors is the cement that bonds a relationship.

Likewise, these results suggest that we can boost our partner’s sexual communal strength by expressing our gratitude for the things they do for us. When we habitually and genuinely express our appreciation for our partner, we let them know that we value our relationship with them. If nothing else, the warm feelings from expressing and receiving gratitude can go a long way toward dispelling the inevitable tensions and frustrations of any relationship.

In the end, sexual desire is a kind of barometer indicating how much we value our romantic partner. Happy couples have sex often, because their appreciation of how important their partner is in their life boosts their desire to meet each other’s needs, both in and out of the bedroom. Thus, if you want to get your partner to meet your sexual needs, you need to first show them just how grateful you are for them being the most important person in your life.

References

Brady, A., Baker, L. R., Muise, A., & Impett, E. A. (2021). Gratitude increases the motivation to fulfill a partner’s sexual needs. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12, 273-281.

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