Coping with low sexual desire: Do beliefs about maintaining sexual relationships affect sexual well-being?

By Valérie Lagacé

This blog is a summary of our published article:

Raposo, S., Rosen, N. O., Corsini-Munt, S., Maxwell, J. E., & Muise, A. (2021). Navigating women’s low desire: Sexual growth and destiny beliefs and couples’ well-being. The Journal of Sex Research, 58(9), 1118-1129.

For many couples, sexual desire can be an integral part of their relationship. While it is common for couples to experience changes in their sexual desire over time [1], some couples experience low sexual desire more consistently. Among women, 39% report low desire, and approximately 10% report having chronic distressingly low sexual desire and meet criteria for Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (or FSIAD) [2-3]. FSIAD is one of the most commonly reported sexual difficulties for women and one of the primary incentives for pursuing couples therapy [2]. Thus, couples couples coping with clinically low sexual desire (FSIAD) may face challenges in terms of their sexual satisfaction and well-being.

Implicit beliefs about how relationships are maintained have been shown to affect how people cope with hardships in their relationships [6]. Two types of implicit beliefs are sexual growth beliefs (e.g., “sexual satisfaction is something that has to be worked on and maintained”) and sexual destiny beliefs (e.g., “partners are destined to be compatible and have natural sexual chemistry”) [6]. People who have sexual growth beliefs are more likely to actively work on their sexual relationship to increase satisfaction (e.g., discussing their feelings, making a plan and prioritizing the issues). In contrast, those with sexual destiny beliefs are more likely to ignore or deny the issue [6]. 

What did we want to know?

We know that the implicit beliefs a couple has about their sexual relationship can impact how they manage their sexual differences and satisfaction, and that FSIAD is typically associated with poorer sexual well-being for both members of a couple [6]. However, no research has looked at couples coping with FSIAD and how their sexual growth or destiny beliefs are associated with their sexual, personal, and relational well-being.

So, we wanted to know do couple members’ implicit beliefs (sexual growth beliefs and sexual destiny beliefs) are associated with the sexual well-being of couples coping with FSIAD? Specifically, does holding sexual growth beliefs (that a sexual relationship takes work to maintain) encourage more proactive behaviours from both couple members, resulting in greater sexual well-being in the long term?

What did we do?

We asked 97 couples to complete two online surveys: an initial survey and a second survey 12 months later. Couple members independently reported on their implicit beliefs, sexual frequency, perceived sexual compatibility, sexual well-being (sexual desire and sexual distress), relationship well-being (relationship satisfaction and conflict), and personal well-being (anxiety and depression).

What did we find?

In the first survey, we found that when women with FSIAD reported higher levels of sexual destiny beliefs (in comparison to sexual growth beliefs), they also reported lower relational well-being and greater symptoms of anxiety and depression. When partners of women with FSIAD reported higher levels of sexual destiny beliefs, they reported lower sexual desire and relationship satisfaction, and their partners (women with FSIAD), reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In comparison, when women with FSIAD reported higher sexual growth beliefs, they  reported higher sexual desire and surprisingly, their partners reported lower sexual desire.

The effects found in the first survey did not persist 12 months later. However, women with FSIAD seemed to show an organic improvement in well-being over time in the sense that, without treatment, women with FSIAD showed less symptoms of depression, higher sexual desire, and less sexual distress at 12 months than in the first survey.

What does this mean?

When couples coping with FSIAD believed that their sexual compatibility was set in stone (i.e., sexual destiny beliefs), they often reported lower sexual and relationship well-being, and greater symptoms of anxiety and depression. It is possible that couples who hold higher sexual destiny beliefs may avoid engaging with the sexual issues they face, which, in turn, lowers their overall well-being [8]. Interestingly, women with FSIAD who held greater beliefs that sexual satisfaction requires work and effort to maintain (i.e., sexual growth beliefs) reported greater sexual desire, whereas their partners reported lower sexual desire. It may be that working on the sexual challenge and having more open sexual communication may promote women with FSIAD’s sexual desire, but may reduce the spontaneity of sexual activity and be a “turn off” for their partners [9].

This study opens the door to do more research on implicit beliefs. More specifically, to look at whether changing sexual destiny beliefs to promote sexual growth beliefs, could help couples increase their sexual and relationship well-being, and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, promoting psychoeducation on implicit beliefs may be helpful for couples, as it could aid individuals in feeling a sense of control over their sexual well-being and sexual satisfaction.


[1] McNulty, J. K., Maxwell, J. A., Meltzer, A. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). Sex-differentiated changes in sexual desire predict marital dissatisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(8), 2473–2489.

[2] Mitchell, K. R., Jones, K. G., Wellings, K., Johnson, A. M., Graham, C. A., Datta, J., Bancroft, J., Sonnenberg, P., Macdowall, W., Field, N., Mercer, C. H., & Copas, A. J. (2016). Estimating the prevalence of sexual function problems: The impact of morbidity criteria. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(8), 955–967.

[3] Goldstein, I., Kim, N. N., Clayton, A. H., DeRogatis, L. R., Giraldi, A., Parish, S. J., … & Worsley, R. (2017). Hypoactive sexual desire disorder: International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) expert consensus panel review. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 92(1), 114-128.

[4] Doss, B. D., Simpson, L. E., & Christensen, A. (2004). Why do couples seek marital therapy? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35(6), 608–614.

[5] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.

[6] Maxwell, J. A., Muise, A., MacDonald, G., Day, L. C., Rosen, N. O., & Impett, E. A. (2017). How implicit theories of sexuality shape sexual and relationship well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(2), 238–279.

[7] Rosen, N. O., Dubé, J. P., Corsini-Munt, S., & Muise, A. (2019). Partners experience consequences, too: A comparison of the sexual, relational, and psychological adjustment of women with sexual interest/arousal disorder and their partners to control couples. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16(1), 83–95.

[8]  Sutherland, S., & Rehman, U. S. (2018). Viewing sexual desire as stable versus fluid: The impact of implicit beliefs on women’s coping with sexual desire problems. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 44(4), 410– 420.

[9] Sims, K. E., & Meana, M. (2010). Why did passion wane? A qualitative study of married women’s attributions for declines in sexual desire. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy36(4), 360-380.