Psychologists have investigated two contrasting beliefs about the nature of sexual satisfaction, to find out which is more likely to help couples better navigate sexual compatibility.
Desire for sex with a new love interest typically starts strong and then wanes over time. Priorities rearrange, small incompatibilities become big ones, and the energy that comes with new relationships can be replaced by other virtues.
For some, a desire to maintain sexual intimacy requires a growth mindset that invests in an ongoing effort to overcome these challenges.
Others are more fatalistic, believing it primarily takes natural compatibility to keep the chemistry alive.
When it comes to overcoming sexual differences, the consequences of each belief have been investigated in the past, but their impact on our ability to negotiate relationships when the loss of sex gives way to depression and anxiety has not been fully appreciated.
So, a small group of psychologists from around the world carried out a longitudinal study on 97 couples where a female partner was diagnosed with significantly low levels of desire and arousal, to find how the partners' beliefs correlated with changes in their sexual wellbeing.
Couples completed a baseline survey at the start of the study, and a follow-up one year later. After a few break-ups and non-completion of surveys were taken into account, the team had full data from 66 couples on things like sexual desire, frequency, conflict, and satisfaction, as well as incomplete data from 6 couples where only one partner submitted the follow-up survey.
Comparing the statistics revealed a few things about how we deal with sexual struggles as a relationship progresses. The researchers labelled the two beliefs "sexual growth belief" (it takes work) and "sexual destiny belief" (it's natural compatibility).
For example, among the women with a diagnosis of low sexual desire – clinically referred to as Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD) – a view that sexual satisfaction is all about natural chemistry was initially correlated with lower relationship satisfaction and higher conflict.
It was no picnic for their partner either. If they held similar beliefs, they too reported lower satisfaction in their relationship.
Among those with FSIAD who held sexual growth beliefs, sexual desire was a touch higher. Yet for their partners, desire was low, at least compared with partners in the group who believed sexual desire was more destined than designed.
Interestingly, that year seemed to make some difference. Whatever those initial beliefs were, the couples who completed the study generally experienced improvements in their sexual desire.
Partners with FSIAD were noting a significant improvement in desire and lower levels of depression, even though barely one in ten were seeking treatment.
This is good news, implying couples who have reason to stick it out will more than likely go through periods of improved sexual desire.
Overall, the results hint that having a growth mindset when it comes to sex could help a couple work through dry spells. Having a view that chemistry is key, on the other hand, initially adds to the stress and might even compound it by building a sense of helplessness.
"The findings demonstrate that in most cases, sexual destiny beliefs are associated with lower sexual, relationship, and personal well-being when coping with the women's low desire, whereas sexual growth beliefs are linked to better well-being," the authors conclude.
As is so often the case with psychology research, there's a bunch of caveats and contexts to keep in mind.
Over 77 percent of the couples studied, for example, were in mixed-sex relationships and identified as straight (the sample did also include bisexual participants and people with other sexual orientations); most were married or living together, restricting the outcomes to couples who were relatively domestic. They also had to have been in a committed relationship with their partner for at least six months.
Most importantly, the research focused on female partners who were chronically distressed by a loss of sexual appetite.
That doesn't mean there's no sage advice for the rest of us. With this in mind, the research could help many couples to focus not just on the practicalities, but their beliefs about sex and compatibility, when it comes to finding ways to deal with changes in their sex lives.
"Sexual growth and destiny beliefs may be important to the sexual narratives that people hold about compatibility with their partner, and also their understanding of their agency in coping with a sexual difficulty to mitigate distress," the authors write.
This research was published in The Journal of Sex Research.