Illustration by Dave van Patten

People Who Believe in Sexual Soulmates Are Doomed

A few nights of bad sex don’t need to torpedo a relationship

There are two types of people when it comes to attitudes about relationship compatibility: Destiny people and growth people. Destiny people think the relationship will go swimmingly if you’ve found your true soulmate. Growth people think the relationship will work out perfectly if you just put in the old elbow grease. New research finds that the same is true of satisfaction with the sex in a relationship. Growth people — people who believe great sex takes maintenance and work — are happier overall with their relationships and the sex. But when destiny people think the sex isn’t working, they are more likely to start thinking their partner might not be such a great match.

Researcher Jessica A. Maxwell of the University of Toronto published the study in February in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. She and her team conducted six studies to measure sexual expectations — “sexpectations,” she calls them — to determine how satisfied destiny and growth people are in their (committed) relationships and sex lives. The research builds on a large body of previous work in the field that has found that, typically, such beliefs do affect your view of a relationship. However, the sex part of a relationship is different — you can be happy with the relationship but not the sex, the sex but not the relationship.

What’s more, research has documented how hard it is to keep the sex up to speed in a long-term relationship, and sex differences in partner preferences and desires can be among the most difficult to resolve. Maxwell wanted to know how both types fare in long-term relationships where sex hits the usual bumps in the road, assuming the sexual growth types would be happier overall because they were ready to weather the storm.

Her hypotheses were correct: Relationships are hard and go through peaks and valleys. A growth person knows this, and can ride these waves easier because they expect problems to arise and be resolved and rewarded with effort, and as a result, they report greater relationship (and sex) satisfaction. But when destiny types have bad sex, they are more likely to attribute that bad sex to bad compatibility, and not something they can tweak with time, energy and some candles.

Interestingly, participants in the study could be a growth relationship person and a soulmate sex person, or vice versa. Those attitudes fall on a spectrum and can change day to day. In one study, participants kept diaries for three weeks about their sexual experiences and beliefs about them. On days where the person felt couples were destined for great or terrible sex, and then had sex that wasn’t so great that same day, they felt more bored and disappointed in the sex and the relationship. People who felt more strongly that the work pays off and had good sex were more likely to feel closer and more desired during sex, because they felt they’d put the time in to make it good.

Researchers also were able to manipulate these beliefs temporarily by having participants read magazine articles pimping either idea — sex should be great immediately, or else you’re doomed; or great sex takes work. The same pattern of reported satisfaction or dissatisfaction appeared again.

This is intuitive: If you think relationships need work to be great, problems seem surmountable instead of a sign from the fates that you’ve picked the wrong person. It also means you’re more likely to do whatever it takes to meet someone’s sexual needs rather than shrugging on days your signature sex moves don’t create the usual bedroom heat.

All this makes destiny people sound like fairweather lovers — jerks who won’t make that much effort and are more inclined to bail if the booty is bad. MEL asked Maxwell if there was anything positive we could say about them. She told me by email that it’s true that “sexual soulmate believers are likely to experience lower relationship quality over time unless they are able to keep up confidence they are with the right partner.”

However, she noted, soulmate believers are associated with more frequent sex. And when soulmate types actually think they’ve found the one, they have so many positive beliefs about their partners that they “have some of the highest relationship outcomes.”

What’s more, she stressed that you could be a relationship destiny person, but a sexual growth person, meaning you’d do the work not for the relationship so much, but a lot for the sex. That feels like a lot to put on the luck of the draw when you can just as easily put energy into making the relationship and/or sex better.

But the real question, then, is how can we tell which type we’re getting?

“I would say if your partner really tries to make sexual compromises for you (e.g., has sex at the time of day you like), and seems willing to meet your sexual needs, those are signs of sexual growth beliefs,” Maxwell wrote. “However, if they seem to react negatively to any sort of hiccup in the bedroom (e.g. a dry spell) that signals they are more likely a sexual destiny believer.”

And it could be even simpler than that. “I would suggest just having an open conversation about whether they think sexual satisfaction requires effort or not,” Maxwell notes. Of course, talking about an aspect of your relationship means you’re actually working on it — so if the person doesn’t even want to do that, you’ve got your answer.