Why the Secret to a Better Sex Life Is All in Your Head
The antidote? Endorsing a "sexual growth" perspective.
Posted Mar 25, 2017
by Katherine Schreiber
Unsatisfied with your current or most recent lover(s)? Can't seem to find that perfect fit who excites you both during the date and after? The problem may not be the people you're seeing. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that the satisfaction we derive from sex is largely influenced by the attitudes we hold about how it should play out with our partners.
Previous research has found that holding destiny beliefs about relationships — i.e., endorsing the concept that there is one soul mate or a select few matches with whom one can be compatible — bodes poorly for weathering conflicts with a partner, since interpersonal differences often strike destiny-belief-holders as evidence that the person they are with isn't the perfect fit for them and should, therefore, be rejected. By contrast, individuals who hold relationship growth beliefs tend to consider conflicts as challenges to be ironed out, rather than hallmarks of incompatibility. As a result, they are more likely to hang in there during the hard times, and more likely to express satisfaction in relationships — likely because they do not experience differences or imperfections in their partners as highly threatening and because respectfully working through conflicts promotes bonding.
A team of researchers from The University of Toronto & Dalhousie University, led by Jessica Maxwell, were interested to see if beliefs in sexual destiny or sexual growth had the same impact on sexual satisfaction that believing in relationship destiny or growth had upon relationship satisfaction. They were also interested in how sexual destiny and growth beliefs impacted relationship satisfaction.
Per the researchers' definitions: "Sexual growth beliefs indicate that sexual satisfaction requires effort and work to maintain over the course of time in relationships," whereas "sexual destiny beliefs indicate that natural compatibility between sexual partners is the key factor that allows couples to maintain sexual satisfaction, and that struggles in a sexual relationship suggest the relationship is destined to fail." The authors add that "individuals high in sexual growth beliefs believe that challenges in their sex life and sexual incompatibilities with their partner can be overcome with hard work," while "individuals high in sexual destiny beliefs think that the quality of their sex life will predict their relationship success, meaning they use their sexual relationship as a barometer for how their overall relationship is functioning."
Maxwell et al. developed and validated a measure of sexual destiny and sexual growth beliefs that contained questions like, "It takes a lot of time and effort to cultivate a good sexual relationship," "a satisfying sexual relationship is partly a matter of learning to resolve sexual differences with a partner," "If a couple has to work at their sex life, the relationship is probably not meant to be," and "If sexual satisfaction declines over the course of a relationship, it suggests that a couple is not a good match."
Over the course of several studies, the researchers administered this measure to several cohorts of people who had been in a monogamous relationship for at least 3 months. Some cohorts were married or cohabiting. Others had recently given birth to their first child. Some were in college. Others had long since graduated. All were asked to rate on a scale how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the above statements.
By and large, the researchers found that endorsing sexual growth beliefs boded far better for feelings of connection during sex; satisfaction with a partner; and overall relationship quality than did endorsing sexual destiny beliefs. Participants who were convinced that two people are either sexually compatible or not — end of story — were more likely to report lower relationship quality and less satisfaction in bed. Compatibility believers also tended to place more importance on sexual performance, likely setting the stage for pressure on both their partners and on themselves during romantic encounters.
Endorsing sexual growth beliefs appeared to have a protective effect on the quality of a couple's relationship, even when times were tough (i.e., right after a newborn came into their lives). This protective effect was (not surprisingly) bolstered when both partners shared a sexual growth perspective: “Being high on sexual growth beliefs and having a partner who is high in sexual growth beliefs were associated with higher sexual and relationship satisfaction, even during a time period when having a satisfying sex life may be a struggle,” the authors wrote.
In a final study testing how willing partners would be to accommodate their partner’s sexual needs based on whether they endorsed growth or destiny beliefs, Maxwell et al. manipulated participants’ perspectives by having them read fake magazine articles implying that one or the other stance was right. They then informed participants that they were either sexually compatible or not with their partners.
Participants primed to endorse sexual destiny beliefs (even transiently) “were only willing to make sexual accommodations for their partner when they were told they were sexually compatible as opposed to incompatible.” Thus, in addition to limiting their own satisfaction, endorsing a sexual destiny belief may also limit their partner’s satisfaction: Perceived incompatibility (in the form, say, of a partner’s request to be touched or spoken to in an unfamiliar way) may cause someone convinced of sexual compatibility to pull away, thereby preventing his or her partner from getting what he or she needs to feel their best.
That sexual growth believers “were willing to make sexual changes for their partner even when incompatible,” write Maxwell et al., “suggests that individuals primed with sexual growth are not threatened by incompatibility information and still think it is important to work on the sexual relationship in such cases. Those primed with sexual growth may be deeming sex to be more/less important to maintain their global relationship views, but their belief in effort and work allows them to remain committed on working to improve their sexual relationship.”
What does this mean for you and your current or future relationships? For one thing, it might be helpful to challenge your own beliefs about sexual compatibility and consider romance as more of a long-term learning experience. That's not to say that you should do things you truly don't feel comfortable with; nor should this research be used to argue that you'd enjoy sex with anyone if only you gave them a shot. Rather, it's a reminder that, having established a baseline of shared attraction, interest, and trust with someone, it's worth being patient and open-minded as you figure out what feels best for both of you.
And when considering prospective partners, try to find out sooner than later whether they believe that a happy relationship requires mutual learning and work, or whether people are simply meant to be. Expect more satisfaction, and a better chance of long-term connection, if it's the former. And if they give you the impression they’re more the soul mate type? Consider sharing this article with them to nudge them toward believing in sexual growth.
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. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000078
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