Great sexpectations: How your mindset shapes your love life
In one memorable episode of Sex and the City, Carrie admits to being completely taken with her new beau, Jack Berger. “Everything is fresh, everything is a first, everything is foreplay,” she says, describing their time together. “Even a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond can be an ecstatic errand… And of course, those first kisses are the greatest in the world.”
The first two times they are intimate, however, Carrie finds the experience 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 – whose title was “Great Sexpectations” – caught the attention of psychologist Jessica Maxwell, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. “I was caught off guard that the characters would just assume sex should be relatively effortless and be so willing to throw in the towel on a relationship if the sex is bad,” she says. Yet her conversations with her friends suggested that many people in real life take Samantha’s attitude.
Those thoughts led Maxwell to investigate the ways our beliefs can influence our intimate relationships in the short and long term. On the one hand, there is the “sexual growth mindset” – the belief that satisfaction requires effort and work. On the other, there’s the “sexual destiny mindset” – the idea that natural compatibility between sexual partners is the key factor that allows couples to maintain sexual satisfaction, which means that any struggles in a sexual relationship can signal the relationship is destined to fail.
In a series of studies, Maxwell has found these mindsets can dictate the ways people deal with problems in the bedroom, with huge consequences for the quality of their relationships. Her research suggests that by forging more constructive ‘sexpectations’, we might all enjoy a healthier and happier love life.
Maxwell’s findings join a growing body of literature examining the effects of mindsets across many different areas of life.
The most famous studies come from Carol Dweck at Stanford University. In decades of research, she has examined whether people believe academic ability is fixed and cannot be changed, or whether they see their abilities as something that can grow with practice. In general, people with the growth mindsets seem keener to take on new challenges and are better able to handle setbacks. And attempts to promote the growth mindset, applied in a supportive educational environment, seem to increase students’ overall achievement, so that struggling children can better meet their potential.