“…find out if the sex is good right off the bat…”“Sex is the barometer for what’s going on in the relationship…” — Samantha Jones, Sex and The City
“Practice makes perfect….we can work on it.” — Charlotte York, Sex and The City
Can we tell right away whether we will have great sex with a partner, or is great sex something we may need to work on? As the above quotes illustrate, people differ in their expectations about whether satisfying sex is something we can achieve by finding a compatible partner (Samantha), or whether it is something that might require effort (Charlotte). How might these different beliefs about sex shape how happy we are with our sex lives and our relationships?
To answer these questions, my colleagues and I first developed a measure of sexual expectations, or “sexpectations” if you will.1 We adapted to the sexual domain the broader relationship concepts of destiny beliefs—the belief in soulmates and natural compatibility, and the concept of growth—the belief that relationships take work.2,3,4,5 People high in sexual destiny beliefs more strongly agree with statements like “Struggles in a sexual relationship are a sure sign that the relationship will fail,” and “A couple is either destined to have a satisfying sex life or they are not.” People higher in sexual growth beliefs tend to agree with statements like “In order to maintain a good sexual relationship, a couple needs to exert time and energy.”
In a series of six studies, we used this scale to look at how individuals’ sexpectations affect how satisfied they are in their sex life and how strong their relationships were overall. We used different methods and samples (e.g., large online studies, in-lab study of young university couples, daily experience study, etc.) and statistically combined the effects via a meta-analysis to get a more complete picture of the effects of these beliefs.
Across these studies our pattern of results suggests that those who are higher in sexual growth beliefs — who think sex takes work — are more satisfied in their sex lives and overall relationships. On the other hand, those who are higher in the sexual destiny beliefs — who think sex comes from finding a compatible partner — experience poorer relationship quality if they face any signs that their partner might not be a good fit for them. That is, if you believe in sexual destiny and experience some form of disagreement in your sex life– such as disagreement over whether or not to have sex, which we know is common in relationships6— your relationship quality takes a hit.
Day to Day Sexpectations
We even found that your sexpectations on a given day can shape the quality of sex you have on that day. By having participants respond to our survey each night for three weeks (Study 3), we found that on days when individuals more strongly agreed with the sexual destiny idea — “a couple is either destined to have a satisfying sex life or they are not” — they reported feeling more bored and disappointed during sex, but only if they also experienced a sexual disagreement with their partner that day. This pattern of results speaks to a key piece of our findings: believing in natural sexual chemistry is not bad across the board; these beliefs only start to detract from relationship quality when sexual problems arise. On the other hand, we found that on days when individuals more strongly agreed with the sexual growth idea “in a relationship, maintaining a satisfying sex life requires effort“, they felt more connected and desired during sex, and felt more satisfied in their relationship. We also noticed that people who were higher in sexual growth beliefs at the start of our study showed the greatest increases in relationship satisfaction by the end of the study. This provides some initial support that your sexual beliefs might lead to greater relationship satisfaction (versus happier relationships leading you to be higher in sexual growth).
Sexpectations Among New Parents
To test the potential limits of the benefits of sexual growth beliefs, we examined whether sexpectations could help even when couples just gave birth to their first child, a time period that can result in dips in relationship and sexual satisfaction.7 (Ask any new parent—sex is often the last thing on their mind!) In a large online sample of couples (Study 5), we found that having higher sexual growth beliefs is associated not only with greater relationship and sexual well-being for oneself, but also for one’s romantic partner.
How can sexual growth beliefs be so beneficial that they help both members of the couple stay satisfied, even during a major relationship transition? We are still working to comprehensively answer this question, but have some initial evidence that those who think sex takes work are actually more motivated and more willing to put in work try to meet their partner’s sexual needs. That is, they report being more willing to make sexual changes for their partner, and that their partner’s sexual needs are a priority. We know from Dr. Amy Muise’s work (see here and here) that this willingness to meet a partner’s sexual needs is a critical piece of sexual and relationship satisfaction. Another clue as to why sexual growth beliefs are advantageous in relationships is that unlike people high in sexual destiny beliefs, people high in sexual growth beliefs don’t let sexual disagreements detract from their relationship quality, they see sexual disagreements as surmountable.
Changing Your Sexpectations
In our last study (Study 6), we induced people to temporarily hold sexual destiny or sexual growth beliefs, by having them read fabricated magazine articles leading them to believe either that 1) it is important your sex life is great right off the bat, or 2) most couples need to work to achieve satisfaction. We found the same general pattern of results again in this study. This is good news because it suggests that our sexual beliefs are not set in stone, and that we can change them. Even by reading this post you might increase your sexual growth beliefs by being more aware that satisfying sex can require effort and work!
So in sum, Charlotte seems to be on to something: believing you need to work to have satisfying sex in your relationship is associated with sexual and relational benefits to you and your partner.
1Maxwell, J. A., Muise, A., MacDonald, G., Day, L. C., Rosen, N. O. & Impett, E. A (in press). How implicit theories of sexuality shape sexual and relationship well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
4Knee, C. R. (1998). Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping, and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 360-370.
5Knee, C. R., Nanayakkara, A., Vietor, N. A., Neighbors, C., & Patrick, H. (2001). Implicit theories of relationships: Who cares if romantic partners are less than ideal? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 808-819.
7Haugen, E. N., Schmutzer, P. A., & Wenzel, A. (2004). Sexuality and the partner relationship during pregnancy and the postpartum period. In Harvey, J. H., Wenzel, A., & Sprecher, S. (Eds.), The handbook of sexuality in close relationships (pp. 411-435). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
Jessica Maxwell, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Jess’ work focuses on the role of expectations and accuracy in romantic relationships. Specifically, she researches how implicit beliefs about sex can affect sexual and relationship functioning. She also studies the influence of attachment on empathic accuracy and relationship expectancies.