Social science has unearthed some helpful, and possibly obvious, truths about sex: It’s better while high than drunk, it’s stoked by intimacy, and it’s predictive of relational satisfaction. What’s less obvious are the invisible — dare we say, existential — forces at work in a couple’s sexuality. Like, say, how the way you frame your assumptions about sexual chemistry shapes your sexual chemistry — the topic of a forthcoming study co-authored by University of Toronto researcher Jessica Maxwell.
As she relays in a recent blog post, Maxwell and her colleagues wanted to see how relational “destiny beliefs,” or how much you think there’s a soul mate out there for you and how much relationships require effort, manifest in the bedroom. There were two flavors: Being high in sexual destiny beliefs meant that you agree with the statement “struggles in a sexual relationship are a sure sign that the relationship will fail,” while sexual growth beliefs were indicated by agreeing with statements like “in order to maintain a good sexual relationship, a couple needs to exert time and energy.”
They measured the effects of the two different kinds of beliefs across six studies drawing on different populations, like online studies, bringing university couples into the lab, and the like. The results were clear: “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,” Maxwell writes.
Being a child of destiny didn’t immediately create problems for a relationship; rather, it just made things more fragile. If the destiny-believing couple was at odds about whether to have sex on a given day — which, in heterosexual relationships, happens more or less, depending on the personality of the woman — then their relationship quality would suffer. Conversely, the participants who scored the highest on sexual growth — those who thought effort was needed to make the sex better and better — had the biggest gains in romantic satisfaction by the end of the study.
While Maxwell says her team isn’t quite sure why the growth mentality is so fruitful, they have a couple of ideas: It could be that those who are growth-oriented are more down to figure out what their partners like, and attend to that. (This, a sex researcher once told Science of Us, is the one real way to get better at sex.) Relatedly, she reasons, people high on sexual growth don’t let a sex disagreement erode the quality of their relationship, making the whole interpersonal thing more resilient, whether there’s intercourse or not. In sex, as in life, the mind-set you bring to the most important things predicts your success.