Like the proverbial moth to a flame, we are drawn to the intense experience of romantic passion. In popular culture, this passion indicates that partners are soulmates who are meant to be together forever. Romance novels and movies end at happily ever after, but in real life, many couples struggle to maintain romance and sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships, causing anxiety and fear as the bloom of romance fades.
Is it destiny or is it work?
Most couples I see in therapy have difficulty with what we call meta-emotions — that is, how comfortable they are in talking about their feelings, especially difficult or negative ones. So, couples often avoid talking about their disappointment around physical and emotional intimacy, or they argue about it, or simply let it languish because they feel like failures. In 25 years of doing couples therapy, I rarely see clients who come in without sexual complaints or incompatibility, even if those issues aren’t the primary reason they seek therapy.
A core component of couples counseling is exploring implicit beliefs — unconscious but influential mental constructs regarding issues such as self-regulation, aggression, academic achievement, or health. In terms of sexual relationships, psychologists focus on two main implicit beliefs that can shape relationship well-being and erotic satisfaction: sexual growth (working on your sex life is crucial to a good marriage) and sexual destiny (finding your soulmate is crucial to happy sex life.)
Those with sexual growth beliefs take the perspective that they can work to improve their relationships over time and that challenges can be overcome. Sexual satisfaction is gained from hard work and effort over the course of the relationship.
Those who hold sexual destiny beliefs (also known as soulmate theories) see the relationship as destined. Long-term sexual satisfaction comes from finding your soulmate, that compatible someone whom you’re meant to be with. With the right partner, passion and romance will persist “until death do us part.”
Obviously, compatibility is important. Yet research has found that people who score higher in sexual growth beliefs experience higher relationship and sexual satisfaction, and their partners are also more satisfied. They have a fundamental belief that they and their partner can change, which helps them maintain positive emotions following disagreements and allows them to remain committed to their relationship despite conflicts.
In contrast, people who believe in sexual destiny are less flexible when things aren’t going well in their romance/sex life. Rather than considering changes, they attribute problems to basic incompatibility, concluding that “I married the wrong person” — not a recipe for happiness.
Uncovering these implicit beliefs can help couples successfully navigate sexual incompatibility. For example, if a partner who believes in sexual destiny is distressed by the idea that achieving sexual satisfaction takes work, they can reframe the issue. Working together could be seen as a manifestation of being soulmates, something that deepens their love and helps them to grow both individually and as a couple. This insight can provide strength in handling disagreements or other life stresses. Meanwhile, someone who believes in sexual growth could be encouraged to greater romantic expression.
To see where you and your partner stand on implicit beliefs about sexuality and romance, you can use the checklist below. Read each statement and mark it with a G for growth or D for destiny. Use the list to dialogue with your partner about what basic relationship beliefs you may be holding.
- A satisfying sexual relationship is partly a matter of learning to resolve sexual differences with a partner.
- If a couple is truly in love, partners will naturally have high sexual chemistry
- If a couple has to work at their sex life, the relationship is probably not meant to be.
- If sexual partners are meant to be together, sex will be easy and wonderful.
- Sexual relationships often fail because people do not try hard enough.
- Sexual partners are either compatible or they are not.
- Making compromises for a partner is part of a good sexual relationship.
- Passionate sex life is a sign that two partners are meant to be.
- In a relationship, maintaining a satisfying sex life requires effort.
- It is clear right from the start how satisfying a couple’s sex life will be over the course of their relationship.
- With enough effort, almost any sexual relationship can be satisfying.
- Couples who experience sexual incompatibilities in their relationship will inevitably break up.
- A satisfying sexual relationship evolves through hard work and the resolution of incompatibilities.
- Challenges and obstacles in a couple’s sex life can ultimately improve their sexual relationship.
- Successful sexual relationships require regular maintenance.
- Sexual satisfaction often fluctuates over the course of a relationship.
- Disagreements often enable a sexual relationship to improve.
- It takes a lot of time and effort to cultivate a good sexual relationship.
- Acknowledging each other’s differing sexual interests is important for a couple to enhance their sex life.
- In order to maintain a good sexual relationship, a couple needs to exert time and energy.
- Experiencing sexual problems is a sure sign that a couple is not sexually compatible.
- Without acknowledging romantic partners’ different sexual interests, a sexual relationship cannot improve.
- Working through sexual problems is a sign that a couple has a strong bond.
- Even satisfied couples will experience sexual challenges at times.
- Declines in desire over the course of a relationship do not necessarily mean the relationship is in trouble.
- An unsatisfying sex life suggests that the relationship was never meant to be.
- Communicating about sexual issues can bring partners closer together.
- If sexual desire declines over the course of a relationship, it suggests that a couple does not have a good relationship.
- If a relationship is meant to be, sex is easy and wonderful.
- If sexual satisfaction declines over the course of a relationship, it suggests that a couple is not a good match.
- A couple is either destined to have a satisfying sex life or they are not.
- A successful sexual relationship is mostly a matter of finding a compatible partner.
- Sexual desire is likely to ebb and flow (i.e., change) over the course of a relationship.
- Struggles in a sexual relationship are a sure sign that the relationship will fail.
- Troubles in a sexual relationship signify a poor match between partners.
In the work I do with couples, those with a growth attitude to relationship problems can better focus on trying to stay satisfied, even when encountering sexual incompatibilities. This prevents the distress-maintaining thinking that attributes their problems to their partner rather than working together to address problems when they arise.
We are all most vulnerable when it comes to our sexuality. Being able to work together as partners and discussing openly our needs and desires without casting blame on the other or the relationship is a way of bringing soul to long-term committed partnerships. When we are open to each other, we bring to life a continuous revealing of ourselves, and our fantasies and expectations can be accepted and understood. It is worth the work.