Great hopes: How your mindset influences your love life

Your sexual mindset can influence how you deal with problems in the bedroom, with significant implications for relationship quality.

Carrie admits to being completely taken with her new beau, Jack Berger, in one memorable episode of Sex and the City. “Everything is new, everything is the first time, everything is foreplay,” she says of their time together. “Even a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond can be a joyous occasion… Those first kisses, of course, are the best in the world.”

Carrie, on the other hand, finds the first two times they are intimate distinctly disappointing. “Dump him,” Samantha advises Carrie – following up with an unprintable take on the phrase “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”. 

The episode, titled “Great Sexpectations,” piqued the interest of Jessica Maxwell, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “I was taken aback by the characters’ assumption that sex should be relatively easy and their willingness to abandon a relationship if the sex is bad,” she says. However, her conversations with her friends suggested that Samantha’s attitude is shared by many people in real life. 

Maxwell became interested in the ways our beliefs influence our intimate relationships in the short and long term as a result of these thoughts. On the one hand, there is the “sexual growth mindset,” which holds that fulfilment necessitates effort and work. On the other hand, there is the “sexual destiny mindset,” which holds that natural compatibility between sexual partners is the key factor that allows couples to maintain sexual satisfaction, implying that any difficulties in a sexual relationship are a sign that the relationship is doomed to fail.

Maxwell discovered in a series of studies that these mindsets can dictate how people deal with problems in the bedroom, with significant implications for the quality of their relationships. Her research suggests that by developing more positive ‘expectations,’ We could all benefit from a healthier and happier love life. 

Romantic destiny? 

Maxwell’s findings add to a growing body of literature investigating the effects of mindsets in a variety of areas of life.

Carol Dweck at Stanford University conducted the most well-known studies. She has spent decades studying whether people believe academic ability is fixed and cannot be changed, or whether they believe their abilities can be developed with practise. People with growth mindsets appear to be more eager to take on new challenges and better able to deal with setbacks. And efforts to promote the growth mindset, when implemented in a supportive educational environment, appear to increase students’ overall achievement, allowing struggling children to meet their full potential. Inspired by Dweck’s findings, psychologists around the world have begun to investigate the role of mindsets in a variety of other outcomes, such as people’s health and fitness behaviours, workplace passion, and the strength of their romantic relationships. 

If you have a “romantic destiny mindset”, you are more likely to agree with statements such as: “Potential relationship partners are either compatible or they are not” and “Relationships that do not start off well inevitably fail”. You will almost certainly believe in love at first sight. Meanwhile, if you have a “romantic growth mindset,” you may see love as something that blossoms as you get to know each other. You’re more likely to agree with statements such as “The ideal relationship develops gradually over time” and “Challenges and obstacles in a relationship can make love even stronger”. 

Because the two sets of beliefs are not necessarily mutually exclusive, you could score high (or low) on both. (You might expect compatibility to be important and hope for instant chemistry with your future partner, while also acknowledging the need to work hard at developing a deeper connection.) And the research shows that these beliefs can have a significant impact on how couples interact.

People who score higher on the destiny mindset scale, for example, may fare well in the early stages of romance, but they are more likely to lose interest in the relationship when things get tough. “The belief is that having conflict with my partner means we’re not compatible,” says Dylan Selterman, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US. “There is a shift away from repair and dedication.”

Selterman surveyed around 500 people in a recent paper about the times they had cheated in a relationship. He discovered that people with destiny mindsets were more likely to blame it on factors such as partner neglect. When they felt things were unravelling, They simply felt less dedicated to remaining faithful.

The conflict can be seen as an opportunity for us to learn more about each other and to grow together in a positive direction – Dylan Selterman

People who score high on the growth mindset scale, on the other hand, deal with conflict better because they believe they can work through it. “The conflict can be viewed as an opportunity to learn more about each other and grow together in a positive direction,” Selterman says. In his cheating study, these people were significantly less likely to blame their infidelity on issues such as a lack of commitment to their current relationship.

Sex takes work 

As interesting as these studies were, the focus had been on the romantic rather than the physical side of the relationship. Maxwell suspected that our attitudes to sex might be equally important, with unique consequences for our relationships.

To find out, she designed a parallel set of scales that measured the “sexual destiny mindset” and the “sexual growth mindset”.

Like its romantic equivalent, the sexual destiny mindset focused on the belief that sexual compatibility is instant and reflects the overall suitability of their partner, through agreement with statements such as “If sexual partners are meant to be together, sex will be easy and wonderful” and “It is clear right from the start how satisfying a couple’s sex life will be over the course of their relationship”. 

The sexual growth mindset, in contrast, is measured through agreement with statements such as “Making compromises for a partner is part of a good sexual relationship” and “A satisfying sexual relationship is partly a matter of learning to resolve sexual differences with a partner”. 

In a series of studies, Maxwell and her colleagues have confirmed that people’s sexual mindsets influenced their sexual satisfaction and their overall relationship quality above and beyond their romantic mindsets. The sexual destiny mindsets were especially important when couples faced disagreements about their sex life. “They’re letting what happens in the bedroom bleed over to affect their overall judgments about the relationship,” says Maxwell. A greater endorsement of sexual growth beliefs, in contrast, tended to produce happier relationships, in and out of the bedroom.