Media Releases

University of Toronto study reveals secret to a happy sex life

November 7, 2016

Toron­to, ON – The secret to a hap­py sex life in long-term rela­tion­ships is the belief that it takes hard work and effort, instead of expect­ing sex­u­al sat­is­fac­tion to sim­ply hap­pen if you are true soul­mates, says a study led by a Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to (U of T) social psy­chol­o­gy researcher.

These “sex­pec­ta­tions” – the need to work on sex­u­al growth or rely on sex­u­al des­tiny – are so pow­er­ful they can either sus­tain oth­er­wise healthy rela­tion­ships or under­mine them, says Jes­si­ca Maxwell, a PhD can­di­date in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy in the Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence at U of T.

“Peo­ple who believe in sex­u­al des­tiny are using their sex life as a barom­e­ter for how well their rela­tion­ship is doing, and they believe prob­lems in the bed­room equal prob­lems in the rela­tion­ship as a whole,” says Maxwell.

“Where­as peo­ple who believe in sex­u­al growth not only believe they can work on their sex­u­al prob­lems, but they are not let­ting it affect their rela­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion.”

The find­ings are based on research involv­ing approx­i­mate­ly 1,900 par­tic­i­pants, and the results pub­lished online today in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy includ­ed peo­ple from both het­ero­sex­u­al and same-sex rela­tion­ships.

While the effect of people’s so-called “implic­it beliefs” have been stud­ied in oth­er aspects of human rela­tion­ships, this is the first time they have been applied to the sex­u­al domain.

Maxwell says there is a hon­ey­moon phase last­ing about two to three years where sex­u­al sat­is­fac­tion is high among both sex­u­al growth and sex­u­al des­tiny believ­ers.

But the ben­e­fit of believ­ing in sex­u­al growth becomes appar­ent after this ini­tial phase, as sex­u­al desire begins to ebb and flow.

“We know that dis­agree­ments in the sex­u­al domain are some­what inevitable over time,” says Maxwell. “Your sex life is like a gar­den, and it needs to be watered and nur­tured to main­tain it.”

While her research did not focus on the influ­ence of media on sex beliefs, it is clear pop cul­ture has con­di­tioned us to accept and under­stand that oth­er aspects of rela­tion­ships, such as the divi­sion of house­hold chores, takes work and effort, Maxwell notes.

Hollywood’s glam­orous por­tray­al of sex and romance in shows like The Bach­e­lor are less ground­ed in real­i­ty, how­ev­er, which may fuel a “soul­mate” phi­los­o­phy that is not as adapt­able to con­flicts and prob­lems that arise over time.

Maxwell says her research pro­vid­ed at least one exam­ple of the media’s impact on the sex­u­al domain. She was able to influ­ence people’s beliefs by “prim­ing” them with phoney mag­a­zine arti­cles that either empha­sized sex­u­al des­tiny philoso­phies, or advo­cat­ed the idea that sex takes work.

Like every­thing else con­cern­ing human rela­tion­ships, how­ev­er, the study sug­gests the dis­tinc­tions between the two schools of belief are more shades of grey than black and white.

For exam­ple, the research demon­strat­ed there are often aspects of both sex­u­al growth and sex­u­al des­tiny beliefs in the same indi­vid­ual.

And while many women are avid con­sumers of soul­mate and roman­tic des­tiny sto­ries, the study showed they are more like­ly than men to believe that sex takes work in a long-term rela­tion­ship.

“I think that this could be because there is some evi­dence that sex­u­al sat­is­fac­tion takes more work for women, so they rate high­er on the sex­u­al growth scale,” Maxwell says

The study showed that, while sex­u­al-growth beliefs can buffer the impact of prob­lems in the bed­room, they don’t help as much if the prob­lems become too sub­stan­tial.

There is also some evi­dence that sex­u­al-des­tiny believ­ers may be open to mak­ing changes in their sex life for the sake of their part­ners, but only if they are con­vinced they are their true soul­mate.

The find­ings under­score the impor­tance for coun­sel­lors and clin­i­cians try­ing to help cou­ples strug­gling with sex­u­al sat­is­fac­tion to pro­mote the idea that prob­lems in the bed­room are nor­mal, and don’t mean the rela­tion­ship is auto­mat­i­cal­ly in trou­ble.

“Sex­u­al-des­tiny beliefs have a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties with oth­er dys­func­tion­al beliefs about sex, and I think it’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize and address that.”

The find­ings are report­ed in the study titled “How Implic­it The­o­ries of Sex­u­al­i­ty Shape Sex­u­al and Rela­tion­ship Well-Being” pub­lished online ahead of print in the Novem­ber issue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy.

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Jes­si­ca Maxwell
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Nick Seli­wo­niuk
Media Rela­tions Offi­cer
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to