Want to improve your sex life? Communicate ― and don’t assume your partner is closed off to trying new things.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, people tend to have better sexual relationships when their partner believes that their sex life can change for the better over time.
In other words, don’t subscribe to the idea that the dynamics in your sex life are set in stone or that you can’t teach an old dog ― sorry, long-term partner ― new tricks.
For this particular study, researcher Rachel Cultice and her colleagues wanted to understand how growth mindsets (the belief that certain traits can shift over time rather than remain permanently fixed) might interact with sexual rejection sensitivity to predict a person’s satisfaction with their sex life.
Sexual rejection sensitivity is the “likelihood of fearing rejection when communicating sexual needs to a partner,” Cutice, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, explained in an email to HuffPost.
“In practice, sexual rejection sensitivity may discourage a person from asking a partner to try something new in bed,” she wrote.
Cultice and her colleagues asked 377 people in relationships to complete assessments that took into account their sexual growth mindset, sexual rejection sensitivity and their sexual satisfaction.
How do you measure something as vague as sexual growth mindset? By asking people how much they agreed with statements like, “Everyone is a certain kind of sexual partner and there is not much that they can do to really change that” and “The kind of sexual partner someone is, is something basic about them, and it can’t be changed very much.”
After answering those questions, each person was then asked how much they believed their significant others would agree with those same statements.
Cultice found that people who believed their partner had a fixed mindset tended to have greater sensitivity to sexual rejection, and that those with higher sexual rejection sensitivity tended to have lower sexual satisfaction.
“Even if this is not actually what your partner thinks, our research finds that perceiving your partner to hold these beliefs is related to increased rejection sensitivity,” the researcher said. “If you believe that your partner feels that your sex life is ‘set in stone,’ it follows that you might be less enthusiastic about making suggestions or sharing your concerns.”
In effect, sexual rejection sensitivity acts as a roadblock to engaging in vital conversations about what is and isn’t pleasurable for you, what you enjoy doing in bed, and what you’d like to change, Cultice said.
Recognizing that someone’s perceptions about their partner’s sexual belief may not always be accurate, Cultice and her team decided to do a follow-up study, this time asking 104 sexually active heterosexual couples to tackle the assessment.
Why only opposite-sex couples? The researchers only studied heterosexual pairs because they were interested in potential gender differences between men’s and women’s sexual experiences.
“As a researcher, I’ve always been passionate about improving women’s sexual experiences,” Cultice said, adding that future research should include participants in same-gender relationships.
When the female and male partners completed the assessment separately, the results pretty much mirrored the findings of the initial study: Being in a relationship with someone with a greater sexual growth mindset was associated with reduced sexual rejection sensitivity for oneself.
Both men’s and women’s sensitivity to facing sexual rejection was associated with lower sexual satisfaction, Cultice told HuffPost, but men were less affected by perceived partner sexual growth mindset.
“We know that gender sexual scripts, or the ways that men and women are expected to behave during sexual encounters, are less fair to women, so potentially women are more attuned to their partners’ attitudes toward them,” Cultice speculated.
What’s the key takeaway here for couples? Perception tends to trump reality, but you shouldn’t let it. Good communication is a vital component of maintaining a mutually fulfilling sex life, Cultice said.
Keeley Rankin, a sex coach in San Francisco, said the study’s findings ring 100% true to what she sees among couples in her practice.
“Good sex comes from being open, curious and able to be in the moment. If you are running a script, or a narrow pattern like a fixed mindset, it is very difficult to stay in the moment and be curious,” she said.
If you’re stuck in a fixed mindset, you’re clinging to a predetermined pattern ― not the here and now of each unique sexual experience, she said.
“Besides communication, the number one thing a couple can do to improve their sex life ― and now it is being scientifically proven ― is to get out of their heads, into their bodies and play with one another without agendas,” she said. “Let go of how you think ‘sex should be’ and instead, listen to your body and pleasure.”