Yes, there is a research-based magic key to better sex and relationships. But it flies in the face of almost everything we've been taught about sex.
A great sex life is like a shared secret between lovers. It cements their bond, and in some essential way, enhances their sense of well-being. A growing body of research, as reflected in a review of longitudinal studies on marriage by Karney and Bradbury, shows how important sexual satisfaction is for relationship satisfaction and stability. Unfortunately, for most couples, that satisfaction diminishes over time.
In the honeymoon phase of a relationship, sex is usually more frequent—and more desired. This sense of sexual success can lead to a wonderful “meant-to-be” feeling for a couple. According to Jessica Maxwell, a social psychology researcher at the University of Toronto, this honeymoon period usually lasts between two and three years. That’s when sexual incompatibilities and difficulties begin to tear at the sexual bond between partners. As a result, the critical bond of shared sexual satisfaction begins a downward spiral that, in many cases, is never reversed.
This is where the aforementioned “magic key” comes into play. Not surprisingly, it's the same key that leads to growth, mastery, and the possibility of greatness in just about every arena of our lives.
In a fascinating study, "How Implicit Theories of Sexuality Shape Sexual and Relationship Well-Being," Maxwell et al. show that people who believe in the power of consciously working on their sex lives are the ones who tend to be rewarded with a happier sexual future—and a stronger, more resilient bond.
Her research distinguishes between “sexual growth beliefs” and “sexual destiny beliefs.” As she reports, “Across these studies our pattern of results suggests that those who are higher in sexual growth beliefs—who think sex takes work—are more satisfied in their sex lives and overall relationships.”
On the other hand, those who were stronger in sexual destiny beliefs, those who saw sexual problems as a sign that they and their partner weren’t truly soul mates, were more likely to lose faith in a relationship when sexual difficulties arose.
According to Maxwell, “We know that disagreements in the sexual domain are somewhat inevitable over time….Your sex life is like a garden, and it needs to be watered and nurtured to maintain it.”
Maxwell also referred to preliminary evidence that same-sex couples may be more apt to be high in sexual growth beliefs.
In a separate study by Bohns et al, participants who believed that sexual attraction could be cultivated and strengthened were more likely to handle sexual problems constructively. Conversely, those who felt that sexual attraction was largely immutable would handle sexual problems in more destructive ways, “such as relationship exit and neglect in response to a sexual challenge.”
The media is of little help in strengthening our confidence in sexual growth beliefs, glutted as it is with images of dizzyingly perfect bodies, air-brushed romance, and fabulous, white-hot sex. Faced with these larger-than-life depictions of “soul mate love” and sexual attraction, it becomes all too easy to make the crushing mistake of “comparing our insides to another person’s outsides.”
Without knowing what sexual growth means—or how to achieve it—it’s infinitely harder to be strong in sexual growth beliefs. And that’s when sexual incompatibilities can seem like a hopeless referendum on the entire relationship. It's also when we forget that sexual passion can be reclaimed with time—and with work.
So what is the work of creating great sex? In my experience as a psychotherapist specializing in intimacy issues, I’ve found that three questions guide the way to truly great sex. Ask yourself these questions, and think about how your partner might answer them as well. Then have a conversation—or better yet, an ongoing series of conversations with each other. Don't begin this process during sex or in the midst of any kind of argument or conflict. Discuss them as a shared project of nurturing and deepening your bond with each other. Here are the essential, eye-opening questions:
What makes you feel emotionally safe in sex?
What touches you, moves you, and brings you closer in sex?
And in your sex together, what really, truly turns you on?
Get really specific. The more you and your partner can create a shared language around each other's answers, and the more you are willing to give your partner what he or she reveals (assuming it’s not harmful or goes against your values), the better your sex life will become. Most of us are afraid to reveal our sexual wild side, and even more afraid to reveal our feelings of deepest tenderness and vulnerability in sex. Doing so opens the door to deeper intimacy and greater passion, and the opportunity to recover—and even surpass—the sexual magic we may have experienced earlier in our relationships.
Research such as this represents a wonderful democratization of sexuality. A fulfilling sex life isn’t just for the young and the gorgeous, or for the “sexually gifted.” And it definitely isn’t just for new couples. It’s for anyone who’s willing to do the work. It's not about magic. Or perhaps it is: The magic of effort, and the decision to treat something as precious as our sex life with the respect and care that it deserves.