One of the most frustrating comments I ever get goes something like this: “I wish I’d slept with my spouse before marriage, so I would have known whether we were sexually compatible.” I see at least three major errors in that statement:
- Regretting that you did the right thing (see What Does the Bible Say About Premarital Sex?)
- Believing that sex before marriage, a particular point in time, would provide sufficient information about physical intimacy going forward
- Embracing “sexual compatibility,” the idea that your libidos, bodies, and preferences either match or don’t
I don’t even know where we got this notion of sexual compatibility, because it’s certainly not in Scripture. Rather, the overwhelming message in the Bible is that loving well and prioritizing physical intimacy are the prerequisites to mutually satisfying sex in marriage. God’s plan for great sex in marriage lands in that category of Simple to Understand, Difficult to Consistently Do.
Thinking there’s some magic formula or that couples either fit or don’t simply creates obstacles to progress in your marriage’s sex life! Let’s talk about a better perspective.
Are we fixed or malleable?
Kudos to Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, who coined the term “growth mindset.” Way back in the late 1980s, she began to look at two perspectives students used to measure themselves in regard to performance: the view that personal attributes were largely fixed or that they were malleable. For example, two students who each failed a test might draw different conclusions:
- “I failed because I’m stupid” (fixed)
- “I failed because I didn’t study effectively, but I can learn” (malleable)
That can also be true of successes—where the fixed view of that someone succeeds because they’re inherently smart or capable (fixed) or because they worked hard and overcame challenges (malleable). Dweck called that malleable view a “growth mindset” and proposed that it causes less overall anxiety and leads to a more successful life.
Sounds like common sense, right? If you think your efforts aren’t that related to how things go for you, you won’t want to put in as much effort and you’ll experience greater stress, at least in those areas where success doesn’t come easily. But we often believe that fixed version of ourselves and others.
How does this relate to sex?
Later researchers looked at the issue of fixed vs malleable perspectives when it comes to sexual desire and satisfaction. At least 5 studies drew conclusions worth considering:
- The title of a 2017 study by four Hungarian psychologists summarizes their findings perfectly: “The pervasive role of sex mindset: Beliefs about the malleability of sexual life is linked to higher levels of relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction and lower levels of problematic pornography use.”
- Another 2017 study from seven psychologists noted that “Individuals high in sexual growth beliefs think that sexual satisfaction is attained from hard work and effort, whereas individuals high in sexual destiny beliefs think that sexual satisfaction is attained through finding a compatible sexual partner,” then went on to show that “those higher in sexual growth beliefs experience higher relationship and sexual satisfaction, and have partners who are more satisfied.” (How implicit theories of sexuality shape sexual and relationship well-being)
- A 2018 study from two psychologists in Canada focused on how women cope with sexual problems by explicitly priming their subjects with either fixed or malleable viewpoints and then asking how they would respond to sexual challenges. “Results from both studies showed that women primed with entity [fixed] theories who expected to experience a sexual desire issue reported significantly more negative coping than women primed with incremental [growth] theories.” (Viewing Sexual Desire as Stable Versus Fluid: The Impact of Implicit Beliefs on Women’s Coping With Sexual Desire Problems)
- A 2021 study by 5 (female) psychologists wanted to know the impact of sharing about sexual growth with couples experiencing clinically low sexual desire and arousal for the woman. Their research concluded that “endorsing greater sexual growth beliefs was associated with higher sexual desire for both partners, whereas, with some exceptions, endorsing greater sexual destiny beliefs was linked to lower sexual desire and relationship satisfaction, more conflict, and more depressive and anxious symptoms.” (By the way, the effects did not persist a year later, suggesting that a sexual growth mindset must be regularly nurtured.) (Navigating Women’s Low Desire: Sexual Growth and Destiny Beliefs and Couples’ Well-Being)
- A 2021 study by three psychologists from Rutgers and Duke considered how a growth mindset affected sexual rejection sensitivity; that is, “the inclination to anxiously anticipate and react to perceived interpersonal rejection.” The results indicated that “Participants who perceived that their partner had a fixed mindset tended to have greater sensitivity to sexual rejection, and those with higher sexual rejection sensitivity tended to have lower sexual satisfaction.” (Sexual growth mindsets and rejection sensitivity in sexual satisfaction)
In case you wonder how you might have answered some of these surveys, here’s a sampling of statements participants were asked to agree or disagree (on a scale) with:
(PDF) Sexual Growth Mindsets and Rejection Sensitivity in Sexual Satisfaction
- Everyone is a certain kind of sexual partner, and there is not much that they can do to really change that.
- The kind of sexual partner someone is, is something basic about them, and it can’t be changed very much.
- People can do things differently, but the important part of who they are as a sexual partner can’t really be changed.
- An unsatisfying sex life suggests that the relationship was never meant to be.
You’re not the only one with a viewpoint.
Perhaps you’ve gotten this far and want to yell at this post or me or the universe, “I have a positive growth mindset! It’s my spouse who believes things can’t get better!” You make a good point, friend. Indeed, the fifth study listed above looked at not only one’s own mindset, but their partner’s mindset—both real and perceived.
If you think your spouse isn’t going to respond well to a suggestion to try something different, you may well be more sensitive to rejection and less satisfied with your sex life. Even more so if your spouse really isn’t going to respond well.
And from what I’ve seen, a number of less-than-cooperative spouses seem to have a fixed view of their own sexuality yet expect their spouse to change. Or at least drop the subject.
So yeah, hands-up in surrender, I hear you. I know that’s true for some of you. And it’s disappointing, frustrating, and even heartbreaking for you.
But looking into all this research, a few things stood out to me:
We’re often not as good at reading our spouse as we think we are. For instance, men tend to underestimate their partner’s interest in sex, while women tend to underestimate their partner’s interest in foreplay. We also may read into our spouse’s reactions more resistance or rejection than is there.
For many, a healthy sexual growth mindset must be, well, grown. You can’t expect someone who believes that sexual interest or satisfaction is largely fixed to simply wake up one day and see it all differently. Sharing a growth mindset can have a positive impact, but it won’t last if it’s not regularly nurtured until it reaches maturity.
If we really believe in that growth mindset, we should look into what we ourselves need to change. For instance, I’ve heard from far too many men who use porn and yet wonder why their wife isn’t willing to work on the sex in their marriage. Well, in the first study above, having a sexual growth mindset led to lower levels of problematic porn use. That’s great, but just having a growth mindset should lead there too. And to any other changes we really should make to be a better friend, supporter, and lover to our spouse.
Like it or not, we’re the only ones we can really change (with God’s help). We can certainly influence our spouse, and one of the best ways to do that is to change our approach in a way that invites change on his/her end. (See Who Are You Praying to Change in Your Marriage?)
God calls us to grow.
If you want, you can forget all those studies previously mentioned and just focus on God’s Word. Because the research supports what God has said all along—we’ll be more content and successful when we make space and effort to grow.
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.Colossians 1:9a–12
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.1 Peter 2:2–3
Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
And every time the word repent is used, it basically means “CHANGE!” Okay, literally, it means turn around, but the idea is to set out for a new direction, and the underlying assumption is that transformation is possible.
Repenting, growing, and becoming a better person in the arena of sexual intimacy is my story. It’s the story of many others, as well. God redeemed us, but we had to agree with Him that He could.
Maybe you’ve embrace His redemption in other areas, but do you have a growth mindset when it comes to sex? Are you looking to grow in other areas that could impact the sex in your marriage? What part of your life is calling for personal growth and God’s intervention?