Are you satisfied with “vanilla” sex? Or do you seek the thrill of kink in the bedroom with your own list of “hard limits?”
In order to be sexually satisfied, you might think that you and your partner need to be on the same page of Fifty Shades of Grey. Aside from the intrinsic motivation to have a good sex life (i.e., good sex feels really, well, good), research has strongly established that sexual satisfaction is closely tied to relationship satisfaction.1 In longitudinal studies where couples are followed over time, sexual satisfaction also predicts, such that less sexual satisfaction is tied to an increased chance of divorce.2 So, when it comes to relationship health, sex matters.
In a recent publication,3 researchers explored just what makes some couples more sexually satisfied than others. An examination of similarity (objectively liking the same sexual activity), complementarity (enjoying receiving what your partner enjoys providing), and perceptions of similarity (thinking that your partner likes that which you like) provided insight into the recipe for sexual chemistry.
Both members of 304 heterosexual couples independently completed surveys online regarding their enjoyment of 29 sexual activities, including giving oral sex, being stimulated with sex toys, and “playing rough.” Participants also indicated the degree to which they thought that their partner enjoyed each of those same activities.
The researchers compared the couples’ data to that of “pseudo-couples” whose data were paired at random. Pseudo-couples were created by matching an individual’s responses with those from another opposite-sex participant. The real couples’ responses were more similar, complementary, and accurate in perceiving their partners’ likes than were those randomly assigned together. So birds of sexual feather do flock together. But, importantly, similarity did not predict sexual satisfaction for these couples. Instead, the only consistent predictor of sexual satisfaction was complementarity. That’s right: The most sexually satisfied people like to provide things for their partner that their partner enjoys receiving (e.g., stimulation with sex toys).
It may be intuitive that when two people enjoy the same thing (similarity), they can enjoy it together. However, similarity itself did not predict satisfaction. On the other hand, when one person likes receiving what the other likes giving (complementarity), then everyone is be more satisfied. What may be less obvious, however, is the impact that the overestimating these things can have on sexual satisfaction.
Overall, people overestimated how similar and complementary they were to their partner, and how accurate their partner was about their own likes and dislikes. Believing that one’s partner is more similar, complementary, and accurate were all also associated with higher levels of sexual satisfaction. It has been theorized that overestimating our partners’ positive qualities helps us maintain our relationships.4 For example, Christian Grey may not be objectively considerate, but if Ana sees him as such, she is able to view him/her through rose-colored glasses.
Based on the findings of this study, you and your partner do not have to be the same shade of grey, so to speak; however, the most sexually satisfied couples are those in which each partner likes giving the other partner what he or she wants and those who overestimate their partners’ similarity and accuracy. So rather than seeking out a partner who likes the same things you like, find a partner who can give you what you want (and give your partner what he/she wants in return).
In the words of Mr. Grey, “Laters, baby.”
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1Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 190-196.
2Oggins, J., Leber, D., & Veroff, J. (1993). Race and gender differences in Black and White newlyweds’ perceptions of sexual and marital relations. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 152-160.
3de Jong, D. C., & Reis, H. T. (2014). Sexual kindred spirits actual and overperceived similarity, complementarity, and partner accuracy in heterosexual couples. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167214542801.
4Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. (2001). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In J. H. Harvey & A. Wenzel (Eds.), Close romantic relationships: Maintenance and enhancement (pp. 87-113). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Jennifer’s interests include relationship initiation and maintenance behaviors. She is particularly interested in how strong relationships survive the threats of attractive others and inhibit sexual desire for extra-pair partners. Her research has also examined sexual behaviors and hookup culture.