Unmet Sexual Needs Can Leave People Less Satisfied With Their Relationship — But Having A Responsive Partner Mitigates This Effect

By Emma Young

“For better or worse, romantic partners usually have to rely heavily on each other to fulfil their sexual needs.” So begins a new paper that attempts to plug a gap in understanding sexual ideals — and what might buffer against dissatisfaction if reality doesn’t quite match.

Sexual incompatibilities are not only common, but are difficult to resolve even with couples therapy, note Rhonda N. Balzarini at York University and colleagues in their paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. Despite this, there’s been only limited work to understand precisely what constitutes an individual’s ideal sex life. Earlier work has generally focused on narrow aspects, such as how often a person would ideally like to have sex, or on levels of sexual desire. For this new research, the team developed a broader, 30-item Sexual Ideals Scale, which asks about specific behaviours (“My partner engages in oral sex with me as much as I want my ideal partner to”, for example) but also about the importance of feeling safe and in love, or of dirty talk, for instance. 

The first study involved 207 members of mixed-sex couples from Canada and the US who had been in a relationship for at least four months. Both members of each couple took part. As well as the new Sexual Ideals Scale, they independently completed measures of sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, commitment to their partner and also their “sexual communal strength”. Someone high in sexual communal strength is more motivated to meet their partner’s needs “even when those needs are different from their own”. Such a person is likely to be perceived as being more responsive, even if their partner’s sexual ideals aren’t being met.

This first study showed, unsurprisingly, that when people report unmet sexual ideals in their relationship, both they and their partner reported lower sexual and relationship satisfaction. However, among those with unmet sexual ideals, people with a sexually communal partner reported higher levels of both types of satisfaction. The results for men and women were very similar.

The team also ran daily diary-based studies, which revealed that on days when people reported having more unmet sexual ideals than typical, both they and their partner reported lower levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction and commitment. There were long-term effects, too: more unmet sexual ideals over a three-week period were associated with reductions in both types of satisfaction for both partners three months later. The results couldn’t be explained by the participants’ reports of sexual frequency or levels of sexual desire.

This study suggests that people hold ideals about their sexual relationship — and when these ideals are not met, there are negative consequences. However, again, the data suggested that having a sexually communal partner mitigated this. In a final experimental study, the team found that participants who’d been led to believe that their sexual ideals were not being met reported lower levels of both types of satisfaction only if they rated their partner as low for sexual communal strength, but not if this score was high. 

People with sexually communal partners may not feel that their sexual ideals are being entirely met, but their partner’s behaviour may make this feel less of a problem, the researchers suggest. Perhaps their partner is supportive when declining their sexual advances, or more willing to compromise, or offer other forms of affection when they’re not interested in sex.

Interventions aimed at addressing sexual compatibilities are scarce, the team notes. Since the new research suggests that if both members of a couple make more of an effort to be responsive, this could reduce or even overcome relationship difficulties caused by mismatched sexual ideals, this does at least suggest an approach to try. 

The detriments of unmet sexual ideals and buffering effect of sexual communal strength.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest