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https://www.bbc.com-By David Robson
Your sex mindset can dictate how you deal with problems in the bedroom, with huge consequences for relationship quality.
In one memorable episode of Sex and the City, Carrie admits to being completely taken with her new beau, Jack Berger. “Everything is fresh, everything is a first, everything is foreplay,” she says, describing their time together. “Even a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond can be an ecstatic errand… And of course, those first kisses are the greatest in the world.”
The first two times they are intimate, however, Carrie finds the experience distinctly disappointing. “Dump him,” Samantha advises Carrie – following up with an unprintable take on the phrase “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.
The episode – whose title was “Great Sexpectations” – caught the attention of psychologist Jessica Maxwell, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. “I was caught off guard that the characters would just assume sex should be relatively effortless and be so willing to throw in the towel on a relationship if the sex is bad,” she says. Yet her conversations with her friends suggested that many people in real life take Samantha’s attitude.
Those thoughts led Maxwell to investigate the ways our beliefs can influence our intimate relationships in the short and long term. On the one hand, there is the “sexual growth mindset” – the belief that satisfaction requires effort and work. On the other, there’s the “sexual destiny mindset” – the idea that natural compatibility between sexual partners is the key factor that allows couples to maintain sexual satisfaction, which means that any struggles in a sexual relationship can signal the relationship is destined to fail.
In a series of studies, Maxwell has found these mindsets can dictate the ways people deal with problems in the bedroom, with huge consequences for the quality of their relationships. Her research suggests that by forging more constructive ‘sexpectations’, we might all enjoy a healthier and happier love life.
Maxwell’s findings join a growing body of literature examining the effects of mindsets across many different areas of life.
The most famous studies come from Carol Dweck at Stanford University. In decades of research, she has examined whether people believe academic ability is fixed and cannot be changed, or whether they see their abilities as something that can grow with practice. In general, people with the growth mindsets seem keener to take on new challenges and are better able to handle setbacks. And attempts to promote the growth mindset, applied in a supportive educational environment, seem to increase students’ overall achievement, so that struggling children can better meet their potential.
Inspired by Dweck’s findings, psychologists across the world have now explored the role of mindsets in many other outcomes, including people’s health and fitness behaviour, passion in the workplace and the strength of their romantic relationships.
If you have a “romantic destiny mindset”, you are more likely to agree with statements such as: “Potential relationship partners are either compatible or they are not” and “Relationships that do not start off well inevitably fail”. You will probably believe in love at first sight. If you have a “romantic growth mindset”, meanwhile, you might see love as something that blossoms as you get to know each other. You’re more likely to agree with statements such as “The ideal relationship develops gradually over time” and “Challenges and obstacles in a relationship can make love even stronger”.
The two sets of beliefs are not necessarily mutually exclusive, meaning you could score high (or low) on both measures. (You might expect compatibility to be somewhat important and hope to have instant chemistry with your future partner, while also recognising the need to work hard at building a deeper connection.) And the research shows that these beliefs can both profoundly influence couples’ interactions.
For example, people who score higher on the destiny mindset scale may fare well in the first flush of romance, but they are more likely to lose interest in the relationship when times get tough. “The belief is that, if my partner and I are having conflict, it means we’re not compatible,” says Dylan Selterman, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, US. “There’s a shift away from repair and commitment.”
In one recent paper, Selterman surveyed around 500 people about the times they had cheated in a relationship. He found that the people with the destiny mindsets were more likely to blame it on factors such as neglect from their partner. When they felt things were falling apart, they simply felt less committed to staying faithful.
The conflict can be seen as an opportunity for us to learn more about each other and to grow together in a positive direction – Dylan Selterman
The people who score high on the growth mindset scale, meanwhile, tend to deal better with conflict, since they believe they can work through it. “The conflict can be seen as an opportunity for us to learn more about each other and to grow together in a positive direction,” says Selterman. In his study on cheating, these people were significantly less likely to blame their infidelity on problems such as low commitment to their existing relationship.
Sex takes work
As interesting as these studies were, the focus had been on the romantic rather than the physical side of the relationship. Maxwell suspected that our attitudes to sex might be equally important, with unique consequences for our relationships.
To find out, she designed a parallel set of scales that measured the “sexual destiny mindset” and the “sexual growth mindset”.
Like its romantic equivalent, the sexual destiny mindset focused on the belief that sexual compatibility is instant and reflects the overall suitability of their partner, through agreement with statements such as “If sexual partners are meant to be together, sex will be easy and wonderful” and “It is clear right from the start how satisfying a couple’s sex life will be over the course of their relationship”.
The sexual growth mindset, in contrast, is measured through agreement with statements such as “Making compromises for a partner is part of a good sexual relationship” and “A satisfying sexual relationship is partly a matter of learning to resolve sexual differences with a partner”.
In a series of studies, Maxwell and her colleagues have confirmed that people’s sexual mindsets influenced their sexual satisfaction and their overall relationship quality above and beyond their romantic mindsets. The sexual destiny mindsets were especially important when couples faced disagreements about their sex life. “They’re letting what happens in the bedroom bleed over to affect their overall judgments about the relationship,” says Maxwell. A greater endorsement of sexual growth beliefs, in contrast, tended to produce happier relationships, in and out of the bedroom.
Maxwell next wanted to know how variations in mindsets affected people’s day-to-day sex lives. (In general, people’s scores on mindset scales are thought to be relatively stable over time but they can move around an average “set point”.) She asked participants to complete a diary over three weeks, which allowed her to track changes to people’s mindsets and the overall quality of their sexual experiences. “We found that greater endorsement of the belief that ‘sex takes work’, on any given day, brings benefits,” she says.
As further evidence, Maxwell explored the ways that the sexual mindsets influenced couples’ transitions to parenthood – an event that is known to play havoc with sexual relationships. In line with the previous findings, the growth beliefs predicted greater satisfaction for both the individual and their partner during this difficult time. High destiny beliefs, in contrast, resulted in considerably less satisfaction.
Maxwell and her colleagues have now replicated these findings in other contexts – and she has been pleased to see that many other researchers are now investigating the importance of mindsets in our sexual relationships. They have shown, for example, that mindsets influence how well people cope with low sexual desire and the communication between partners about their sexual needs.
In the future, might this research provide new interventions for couples who are struggling to connect?
So far, there is some evidence that the mindsets are malleable, at least temporarily. In one recent study from the University of Minnesota Duluth, US, researchers asked some participants to read a (fake) news article, which emphasised the idea that couples’ love can blossom with hard work – text that was designed to prime a romantic growth mindset. They were then questioned about their attitudes to various kinds of perceived infidelity – from flirting with someone to cybersex and direct sexual contact. The people primed with the growth mindset tended to take more forgiving attitudes.
They’re letting what happens in the bedroom bleed over to affect their overall judgments about the relationship – Jessica Maxwell
Maxwell has performed a similar experiment using articles that attempted to manipulate people’s sex mindsets. Once participants had read the articles, she gave them bogus feedback on how compatible they were as a couple, based on a survey they’d taken 10 days beforehand. Hearing they had low sexual compatibility with their partner led many participants to reassess their relationship quality – but the effect was much less pronounced among those who had been primed with the growth beliefs, suggesting that they would be less pessimistic and defeatist when they had real-life disagreements about their sexual needs.
The article promoting the sexual growth mindset also increased participants’ willingness to accommodate their partner’s sexual needs, Maxwell found. (Needless to say, she debriefed the couples afterwards and explained that the feedback on their compatibility was fake – so no one left the lab under any false beliefs about their relationships.)
Maxwell emphasises that these are preliminary findings of a short-term manipulation, but she is optimistic that education about the growth mindset could help to inform couples’ therapy. “I think it would have to involve multiple exposures to the idea,” she says, and she thinks that the couples would need encouragement to apply what they had learnt.
Maxwell also points to a study that asked couples to watch movies depicting relationship problems, before reflecting on the content and describing how the same lessons might apply to their own lives – a surprisingly simple intervention that significantly reduced divorce rates over a three-year period. “It was essentially as effective as regular couples therapy,” she says. She’d be interested to see whether you could apply the same method, but with an extra focus on the mindsets the characters are revealing and the effects that has on the relationships.
You could ask couples to spot when the characters fail to communicate their needs because of their destiny mindset, for example, and to suggest ways that the fictional couples could use a growth mindset to navigate the problems more constructively.
If so, it may be time to start re-watching those Sex and the City episodes.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.