The Importance of Being Good, Giving, and Game in Bed
June 30, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
How do you keep passion alive in a long-term relationship and sustain sexual satisfaction over time?
This question is at the forefront of Dr. Amy Muise’s program of research. I recently interviewed Amy for the Sex and Psychology Podcast and asked her to share some science-backed insights on how we can get the spark back in our relationships—and keep it going.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation (you can listen to it in full in this podcast). Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: One of your lines of research suggests that a major key to maintaining passion is being motivated to meet your partner’s sexual needs, which is something you’ve termed sexual communal strength. It’s related to this concept that sex advice columnist Dan Savage has talked about for a long time, which he calls being “Good, Giving, and Game” (GGG). Can you tell us a little bit more about this idea and how it works?
Amy Muise: Absolutely. You’re right that sexual communal strength does have some overlap with Dan Savage’s idea of being GGG. When we think about sexual communal strength, we’re thinking mostly about that Giving and—to some extent—Game, aspect of GGG.
So if you’re high in sexual communal strength, you’re motivated to understand and be responsive to a partner’s sexual needs. You want to understand what your partner is interested in, and you’re motivated to meet their needs. Now, as Dan Savage would also say, there are also limits to this, right? Being high in sexual communal strength doesn’t mean that you’re going to do anything and everything that your partner wants. Certainly, it’s very reasonable to have boundries. If there are things that make you uncomfortable or feel like you’d be neglecting your own needs in the process, that’s not beneficial. The idea is really that you’re just interested in and motivated to see your partner’s sexual needs fulfilled.
And we find that it does have benefits to be with a partner who’s high in sexual communal strength. They feel more satisfied with and more committed to the relationship. But being a person who is high in sexual communal strength is also linked to maintaining higher desire and relationship satisfaction over time. So it can be good to be giving for the self as well.
My caveat to this is the same caveat that I think Dan Savage would offer. I think he specifically says to be game for anything within reason, and that’s sort of what we find. In this line of work on sexual communal strength, we also look at something that we call unmitigated sexual communion. And what that really means is that when you’re so giving or so motivated to meet your partner’s needs, you sort of neglect yourself and your own needs in the process. And when people are like that, we don’t see those same benefits that we see for being high in sexual communal strength.
And actually one of the interesting things about that is that you would think maybe if a person is really high in unmitigated sexual communion—so they’re over-motivated to meet their partner’s needs—maybe at least their partners would benefit, right? But we actually don’t find that; in some situations, their partners actually end up less satisfied. So it seems to be best for both people when there’s this high level of communal motivation and this motive to be responsive to each other’s needs and interests.
Justin Lehmiller: I give all of those same caveats whenever I talk about your work because we don’t want to leave people with the impression that being motivated to meet your partner’s needs means that you don’t care about your own needs and you’re always subverting them for your partner. This only works when it’s a two-way street and you’re both taking turns prioritizing each other, but also doing so within reason. There are some limits that are placed on this and that’s going to vary depending on the relationship itself and what your own personal rules and boundaries are.
But as you were talking about this, something that came to mind for me is, okay, so sexual communal strength sounds good. But is this just a trait that some people have—part of their sexual personality—or is this something that can be learned? So should I be going out and looking for a partner who’s high in sexual communal strength? Or should I be thinking about this as a skill that needs to be cultivated over time?
Amy Muise: I get that question a lot. I think it’s a little bit of both, to be honest. There’s definitely a trait component to this. We see that there are associations with a general communal motivation; people who are like that are also more likely to be sexually communal, as well. So I do think that in any relationship, people are bringing in those ideas. That’s the way that they see give-and-take in relationships, and they’re coming into the relationship with those ideas.
It’s really difficult for a partner to be motivated to meet your needs if they don’t know what those needs are.
But like a lot of other things, I do think that there are ways to learn. We’re trying to understand this now by following new-ish couples—within the first year of their relationship—over time. One of the things that we wanted to know is how these kinds of things unfold. So if I’m highly communal and I start a relationship with someone who’s less communal, what happens over time? Does that lower communal partner become more communal? Do I become less communal? Do I end the relationship because there’s not a good agreement on how you should engage in those things in your relationship? I don’t have a perfect answer to that yet, but we have a little bit of evidence that these things can move around. One example of this is that we’ve also looked at this in day-to-day life. We’ve measured people’s communal motivation during sex, on multiple days over several weeks, and we do find some variability.
So even if you’re pretty highly communal to begin with, there are going to be days when you’re more communally motivated and days when you’re a bit less. We know that there’s some fluctuation, which suggests to me that there are ways to move this around. I think one key way in a relationship would be for partners to communicate about these things. One of the things that I always say is that it’s really difficult for a partner to be motivated to meet your needs if they don’t know what those needs are. So if you want your partner to understand what you’re interested in, communicating that and the importance of it could be a way to foster a more communal perspective in relationships.
These things are even true when a person is not interested in engaging in sex. So this isn’t just like, “tell me your fantasies” or “tell me all of your likes.” If we’re interested in sex, we may not always try to get our partner’s perspective. We might just go ahead and initiate sex and see what happens instead of saying, “I was sort of thinking about initiating something, but I’m getting the sense that you’re not really in the mood. Is there anything that you would be in the mood for?” Or “are you more comfortable taking a rain check?” Or “Is there anything you want to chat about?” I think even when we’re talking about things that you’re not in the mood for, there are ways to be really responsive and communal in those situations.
And we find that even in things like sexual rejection, if you’re rejecting a partner’s advances, doing so in a way that still acknowledges their needs is actually really important and can help preserve relationship satisfaction, even in those situations that don’t always feel so great in relationships.
Listen to my full conversation with Dr. Muise here to learn more about how to keep passion alive!
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >