Study shows responsive partner can bridge sexual disconnect in romantic relationships

Research & Innovation

Jayme Blaschke | February 11, 2021

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Romantic relationships can be complicated, and for most couples, sexual satisfaction is crucial for the maintenance of those relationships. When partners don't meet each other's sexual ideals, this can create serious long-term challenges.

New research conducted in part at Texas State University, however, has shown that sexual communal strength—that is, being attuned to and motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs—could buffer against the lower sexual and relationship quality predicted to be associated with unmet sexual ideals.

The research team included Texas State's Rhonda Balzarini, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, along with Amy Muise and Stephanie Raposo of York University, Toronto, Canada; and Kiersten Dobson, Taylor Kohut and Lorne Campbell of the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.

Their research, "The Detriments of Unmet Sexual Ideals and Buffering Effects of Sexual Communal Strength," is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Rhonda Balzarini, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology

Sexual ideals represent the ideal preferences and desires people hold for sexual relationships and experiences. Unmet sexual ideals are when a person’s partner falls short in meeting the traits and attributes a person desires in a sexual partner and the characteristics of the sexual experiences they hold to be ideal.

"Past work has shown there are many times when couples are just not on the same page sexually. We know that sexual incompatibility is really common in long-term relationships and one of the key reasons couples seek therapy. It's one of the frequently cited reasons for relationships to actually break up," Balzarini said. "We know that this is detrimental to relationships, but we know very little about how to alleviate the detrimental sexual incompatibility on people's actual relationships and among couples.

"We found that sexual communal strength can buffer these effects. Specifically, one factor that can help couples navigate sexual disagreement is the degree to which the partner is motivated or attuned to the partner's sexual needs or sexual preferences," she said. "Having a partner who is motivated to meet your sexual needs is generally a good thing. It's associated with greater sexual desire, greater sexual relationship satisfaction, and past work has shown that this is true even for couples who struggle with things like sexual desire discrepancies and for couples with clinical sexual issue."

That sexual communal strength—or the partner's responsiveness—refers to the degree which an individual is attuned to and motivated to meet their partner's needs. That's distinct from sexual ideals, which are personal preferences one holds for sexual experiences.

"I might have a sexual ideal for my partner to be affectionate during sex," Balzarini explained. "And my partner might or might not be responsive to that need. To some degree, being responsive might help them be cued in to what my needs are, but it also might help them be cued in to desiring to do something to meet my needs.

"The needs are basically your fundamental expectations and desires, and the responsiveness is your willingness to meet those needs," she said.

Given that unmet sexual ideals are common, it might not be a reasonable goal for partners to always meet ideals, but the research showed that the responsiveness of partners can buffer issues of unmet ideals. That is, people with partners who were not motivated to meet their sexual needs reported poorer sexual satisfaction and relationship quality, but these feelings were diminished among people with partners who were highly motivated to meet their sexual needs. So although having a partner who is highly motivated to meet your sexual needs does not mean you won’t have unmet sexual ideals, it means that these unmet ideals do not translate into lower sexual and relationship satisfaction. 

"Across the studies, when an individual perceived their partner to fall short in their sexual ideals, they reported poor sexual relationship quality, but these associations were attenuated or completely disappeared when their partners were high in communal strength," Balzarini said. "What this suggests is that when you have a partner who is really responsive to your sexual needs, you can maintain satisfaction even in the face of unmet sexual ideals."

The research provides initial evidence that having a sexually communal partner might help protect against the detriments of unmet sexual ideals. Because sexual differences between partners are common and among the most difficult types of conflicts to successfully resolve, the findings could have implications for couples who are coping with differing sexual interests and for clinicians working with these couples.

For more information, contact University Communications:

Jayme Blaschke, 512-245-2555

Sandy Pantlik, 512-245-2922