Keeping the spark alive: The role of sexual communal motivation

In new relationships, feelings of sexual desire for a partner come relatively easily. But, over time, partners’ sexual interests often change and it can be difficult for couples to keep the spark alive. In the beginning stages of relationships when partners are getting to know each other sexual desire tends to peak (Baumeister & Bratlavsky, 1999), and then often declines over time as partners become comfortable and committed in their relationship (see review by Impett, Muise, & Peragine, 2013). 

Given this, most romantic couples will encounter times when their sexual interests differ (Impett & Peplau, 2002, 2003; O’Sullivan & Allgeier, 1998). Couples might disagree about whether or not to have sex on a particular occasion or the specific sexual activities in which to engage (Byers & Lewis, 1988; O'Sullivan & Byers, 1996). One partner might enjoy having sex at night, but the other partner prefers morning sex. Maybe one spouse desires sex about once a week, but the other spouses’ ideal sexual frequency is closer to once a day. Or a person who fantasizes about being tied to the bedpost may have a partner who is not really into bondage. Given that romantic partners will not always be perfectly aligned in their sexual interests, how can couples navigate their sexual relationship in a way that enhances desire and satisfaction over time? Our recent research suggests that people who are motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs (i.e., high in sexual communal strength) can reap important sexual and relationship benefits.

What is Sexual Communal Motivation?

Sex columnist Dan Savage coined the term GGG to represent the qualities that he thinks are part of a satisfying sexual relationship. GGG stands for good, giving, and game. Think good in bed, giving of mutual pleasure, and game for anything—within reason. Dan Savage’s ideas about being giving and game in a sexual relationship are aligned with close relationship researchers’ ideas about being a communal partner. People who are high in communal strength (Mills, Clark, Ford, & Johnson, 2004) give to their partners to enhance their well-being without the expectation of direct reciprocation, as opposed to giving quid pro quo where a favor is contingent upon receiving something in return. As such, communally motivated people are more willing to sacrifice their own self-interests for the sake of their partner or the relationships (Mills et al., 2004). At times these are small sacrifices such as giving our partner a back rub when we would rather go to sleep, or going to a partner’s work event when we would rather spend time with friends. Other times, we may make bigger sacrifices such as moving to a new city so our partner can take his or her dream job or giving up a beloved pet because our partner is allergic. People who are higher in communal strength tend to feel better about giving to their partners and have happier relationships as a result (Kogan et al., 2010; Le, Impett, Kogan, Webster, & Cheng, 2013).

Recent research in our lab has applied these ideas to sexuality in relationships. Sexual communal strength is the extent to which people are motivated to be non-contingently responsive to their partner’s sexual needs (Muise, Impett, Kogan & Desmarais, 2013). To assess people’s communal motivation in the domain of sexuality we developed a scale, adapted from the general measure of communal strength (Mills et al., 2004). Items include “How far would you be willing to go to meet your partner's sexual needs?” and “How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?” In line with Dan Savage’s ideas about being GGG, people high in sexual communal strength are game to meet their partners’ needs even at times when these needs are different from their own preferences. In one study (Muise & Impett, 2012), we asked people in relationships about the specific things they do to meet their partner’s sexual needs. People provided several examples including: having sex with their partner when they were not entirely in the mood, being open-minded about their partner’s preferences, communicating with their partner about their sexual likes and dislikes (both learning about their partner’s preferences and sharing their own), and ensuring that the sexual relationship is mutually satisfying.

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