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Interview with Dr. Jessica Maxwell

Journalist: Timur Begaliyev

Timur Begaliyev: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Timur Begaliyev and I'm a journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU, 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Jessica Maxwell! Dr. Maxwell researches relationships and sex, and is an assistant professor at McMaster University in Ontario. Thank you so much for coming on here, Dr. Maxwell!

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Thanks so much for having me, it’s a pleasure.

Timur Begaliyev: How does psychological literature define what a soulmate is?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Yeah, it's a great question! I feel like there's no one right definition. And so really in psychology, I feel like we try to stay away from the concept of a soulmate. But we do know that people say things like ‘I want to find the one’. So, I'd say the closest thing that we talked about in the literature would be finding a compatible partner, or sometimes we talk about things like ideal fit or ideal partner preferences.

But I'd say, overall, the idea of a soul mate would be closest to the idea of a highly compatible partner.

But there are some kinds of theories that do still use the word soulmate.

Timur Begaliyev: I was reading the Merriam Webster and the Oxford Dictionary definitions, and I saw that they defined someone as someone who's ideally suited to their partner, and that was interesting to me because it lacked the predestination elements of two souls meeting one another.

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Yeah, that is interesting! And sorry, maybe say that definition again? Because I feel like there's some interesting pieces that we could unpack. I think you said it is finding someone who's ideally suited. Is that what you said?

Timur Begaliyev: Yeah, ideally suited to their partner.

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Interesting! I feel like that's kind of really a nebulous concept, right, because what does ideally suited mean? So that could mean that you're similar in a lot of respects. It could mean that maybe you're having some complementary features in other respects. And one of the things I'm sure will be a theme of this is that we don't always know who's ideally suited for us. And in fact, the more satisfied you get with the relationship, you end up shifting your ideals to match your partner. So right now, if someone single, they might say my, you know, soulmate who's ideally suited to me is really athletic. But if they actually meet someone and get in a relationship — and that person is not so athletic — usually what will happen is they might now say ‘Oh, the person that's ideally suited to me is humorous or kind, or other things that are actually true of their current partner. So yeah, I think that definition is kind of interesting to think about.

Timur Begaliyev: Are there people who report that they have met their soulmate, and if so, did they click immediately with their partner or is it possible that they grew into liking someone so much that they would consider them as a soulmate?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Yeah, that's a great question. I think there are definitely people who, you know, say they've met their soulmate or met the one, and in the romantic relationship literature we often call this soulmate beliefs or destiny beliefs. And so, I think people who typically strongly endorse the ideology would say that they actually met their soulmate and they knew that their soulmate was their soulmate right away and that they clicked immediately. Although it’s not always the case, but I'd say typically that's in contrast to the idea that you could kind of grow to appreciate someone as your soulmate. I specifically do a lot of research on destiny and growth beliefs, and so the destiny beliefs would really be that idea that we all have one soulmate and we can tell early on if relationships are destined to succeed or not, whereas people who endorse stronger growth beliefs are more of the idea that you could make a relationship like one of the items is essentially ‘I could make a relationship with almost anybody work’. So, for them, I think they really think that they could work to appreciate someone as a soulmate. Typically though, it really is the case that if you think you need to work on a relationship, you don't really endorse that typical soulmate-type ideology.

Timur Begaliyev: And what are the differences in relationships between people who believe that a soulmate is developed by growing together, or they believe that a soulmate must instantly click?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: That's a great question, because I would say you can simultaneously hold the belief in soulmates whilst holding the belief that you need to work on relationships. But typically, those things are negatively correlated. So, what I mean by that is usually if you think you need to really work to develop relationships and connections, you usually don't actually use the word ‘soulmate’ because you kind of think that you could just work with anybody. But there are people who do believe that you need to work on relationships and believe in soul mates. Really, what we find in the literature is that if you believe strongly in the idea of a soulmate, that's not a bad thing so long as your relationship is going well.

If you strongly think that you're with a good partner and they're your ideal fit, you might actually do things like protect your relationship more against threats and show some kind of positive cognitive biases. But the real risk is that if you strongly believe in soulmates — and start to encounter some problems in your relationship — that might make you doubt that you're with your soulmate.

So, I'd summarize what I see from the research on soulmate beliefs as: if you're confident that your partner is your soulmate then everything's fine, but as soon as things make you question whether your partner is truly compatible or the one for you, that's where we start to see those beliefs become more detrimental.

Timur Begaliyev: And what about sexual growth or destiny beliefs?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Right, so I developed kind of the concept of applying these concepts to the sexual domain. I'm sure a lot of your listeners will be familiar with the idea of a growth mindset, so this is great work that was done by Carol Dweck and her colleagues. But this idea of an incremental growth mindset was applied to relationships — like I was mentioning, the ideas of destiny versus growth or soul mate beliefs versus growth beliefs — and then I tried to make this more specific to the sexual domain because I really noticed that some people seem to have the belief that sexual compatibility should be really evident right away, that you need to have a real spark, whereas other folks tended to have more of like a practical belief that sexual satisfaction just kind of comes from a lot of effort and hard work. Now, there's a growing body of literature from some colleagues around the world, all doing similar work. We use slightly different scales, but essentially we're all applying that fundamental idea of do you think you can change something, versus do you think it's fixed, to the sexual domain. In my case, whether you can change sexual satisfaction, other researchers have looked at whether you believe you can change sexual desire or attraction, or I think there's even a few others that I'm forgetting. But really, there's this growing body of research looking at those beliefs in the sexual domain, and I can just kind of go over what I find in my work that is echoing what others find as well.

Really, it comes down to the fact that believing in sexual growth — believing that you can change your sex life — is associated with more positive outcomes.

In my studies, you know I've done lots of studies now, and in a meta-analysis across five of my studies, I show that there's this moderate association between believing in sexual growth beliefs and reporting higher sexual satisfaction and higher relationship satisfaction. And not only that, but if I believe in sexual growth beliefs that can benefit my partner above and beyond their own beliefs. And what I was really excited about is I've been able to show that growth beliefs can be helpful even in situations that are really challenging for people's relationships and sex lives. So, you know, when people have become new parents, females who are experiencing sexual interest and arousal disorder, breast cancer patients, and other things like that. To me, that’s showing the real-world power of having this mindset that you can work on things and that your sex life, like all areas of relationship, requires a little bit of tending to and effort.

Timur Begaliyev: Yeah, I read in — I think it was a while ago — in a Pew Research study from 2007 that people rated sex being more important to their relationship than their partner’s religious beliefs.

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Yes, yeah! I'm familiar with that study too, I often use it too to start of talks because I like to shock people a little bit by saying more people rate sex life as very important to marriage than things like having similar political beliefs, sharing interests, adequate income, and other things like that. So, people’s sex lives are just a really important part of their relationships and overall well-being. And we've seen a ton of research on this in the field over the past decade or two. I like to also pull out some studies showing that if you poll people multiple times a day asking what they're up to and how happy they are, sex is the activity that actually leads to the most happiness day-to-day. Even more so than things like having dinner, leisure time, or socializing with friends. That's kind of one of the fundamentals of my research, is this idea that sex does hold a special place in relationships and it is really critical to the quality of our overall relationship, and also just our life satisfaction, like lower depressive symptoms, happy mood, all of those really important things.

Timur Begaliyev: Wow, that's really interesting! So in the meantime, while you are looking for a soulmate and you're experiencing anxiety about finding a soulmate, is there a way to reduce your anxiety about ending up single or in a loveless marriage?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Yeah, I feel like that's a great question. I would encourage people to, just based on my research and other research, to do your best to question your idea of whether there is a soulmate, right? If you believe more in that idea of growth — that you can make relationships work with different types of people — that can make you more satisfied down the line. I like to remind people that what you think your ideal partner looks like might not actually translate to who you connect with. One of my favorite studies looked at people before they went on a speed dating study and then actually at the speed dating event. They found that what you said you valued in a partner before the event didn't actually translate to who you picked at the actual event, and I think this has been echoed now in several different types of studies using different methodologies. But, what we find in our field is that people aren't very good at knowing with whom they're going to connect with. So, I think if someone's single I would just try to encourage them to have a little bit more of an open mind! You might think it's really important to you for your partner to like the same music as you, but really, that might not be optimal for relationship success. And, maybe if you just gave someone a chance and let things grow, it could work out. And then I want to definitely tap into the idea of fearing being single. My colleagues like Stephanie Spielman, and I've contributed to some of this work as well, and what we found is that people who really have that anxiety over being single — and this is something you can even feel even if you're currently in a relationship — but the more concerned you are about being alone can lead to some negative consequences. So, for instance, it might lead you to show interest in mates who are suboptimal. We found in one study, for instance, that if you really are concerned about being alone, you're going to show a lot of romantic interest in a dating profile, even when this person is showing cues they would not really be responsive — essentially, they're a little bit of a jerk. We also see if you really fear being single, you're going to seem more committed to a crappier relationship. So, I just like to remind people that having those beliefs and feeling like you're going to be alone can really undermine your actual chances of relationship success. And there's so much growing work now showing that people can be happy single! I try to remind single folks that I meet to enjoy this time — it can be a time of growth. And being so nervous about being alone can actually sabotage your chances of having a good relationship. So do your best to remember that there's lots of fish in the sea, and enjoy the single moment for now!

Timur Begaliyev: I was always fascinated with how monks and ascetics deal without having romantic partners in their lives. Is there a way to psychologically reduce, let's say, your levels of desire for a partner or sexual desire even?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Oh, that's interesting. Yeah, I would say that. I mean, it's very natural to want human connection, so I wouldn't necessarily encourage people to decrease that need. But, what I would say, is we can get our social needs met in a variety of ways, right? Our belongingness needs, our social needs. It doesn't have to be just from a romantic partner and in fact — even if you're in a romantic relationship — I encourage you to not put all those needs in one basket. The broader your social network, the better. I would encourage people, if they're, say, currently single, and not with a romantic partner, one way they can maybe reduce some of that fear of being single or that like kind of drive for a romantic partner, is to remember that friends, siblings, acquaintances, family, like all of those things, can really help satiate some of the same needs that we have for human connection. And so, there's lots of different ways you can get your social needs met that don't necessarily involve a romantic partner. And I would say the same for sexual needs as well. So, I wouldn't necessarily say that we need to reduce someone’s sexual desire, but probably what I would say is that reminding single folks that there's lots of ways they can meet their sexual needs through, like solo sex, you know, sex with robots, even if we want to get crazy or more just generally, you know, casual sex. So, I feel like there's ways to get people’s social and emotional as well as sexual needs met in ways that aren't always with a romantic partner. And I think it's just important to remember that all of these are really natural desires, and so I wouldn't urge people to try to tamp them down.

Timur Begaliyev: You mentioned casual sex: what is the impact of casual sex? What is casual sex best used for?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: There was a lot of concern about casual sex about a decade ago. There's a lot of articles about how hook up culture on campus is ruining relationships and things like that. And for every study that found that casual sex had a negative effect, there was a study that found casual sex could have a positive effect on your relationships and your well-being.

And now, finally, we're starting to see a little bit more nuance in the literature — finding that it might depend on your motivations for casual sex and some of your individual personality traits.

So for instance, if you're someone who has the attitude that casual sex is OK and sex without love is OK, then actually engaging in casual sex doesn't necessarily have cost. It actually can be good for you! So, on weeks when people who have those beliefs have casual sex, they're actually happier. So, the effects of casual sex are very much not one-size-fits-all, and, to kind of synthesize across a lot of different studies, I'd say what it really comes down to is that having casual sex is something you're doing autonomously, and you're doing it because it's in line with your values. The only times we tend to see kind of more costs for casual sex or when people are doing it because of peer pressure, because they feel like they have to, or they are engaging in casual sex and that's very much not in line with their values. But in general, I'd say for the most part, having casual sex is usually rated as more of a positive experience than a negative experience by folks. I would also remind people that there is a wide spectrum of casual sex, right? So that. That term can often be used from everything from a one-night stand to like a long-term friends-with-benefits, and so there are some differences between the different types of casual sex relationships.

Timur Begaliyev: How does your attachment style impact your views or your experience of casual sex?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: I was able to contribute to some research on that! So more broadly, there's research showing that more avoidant focused people — so for your listeners these are people who really like independence in their relationships, they don't particularly value closeness, and they are worried about trusting other people — tend to have more positive views of casual sex in general. Whereas we don't see necessarily the same kind of pro-casual sex views amongst people who are more secure or more anxious (clingy) in their relationships. But then what I did with my student when I was at the University of Toronto, is we looked at how different forms of casual sex might interact with your attachment style to predict things like your pleasure after the event, and just kind of your regret and your emotions afterwards. We found that for those more avoidant-focused people, who have trouble with closeness and trust, they actually seemed to have the best outcomes when they were engaged in sex buddy relationships. So these are, you know, when they're having sex with kind of casual acquaintances repeatedly, but it's not getting too intimate. It seems like for them, friends with benefit relationship was actually possibly too intimate. So, what ourselves and others have found is that friends with benefit relationships are really quite similar to relationships in a lot of ways. When it comes to attachment styles, the avoidant people were really valuing those relationships that are a little bit more casual than a very intimate friends with benefit relationship, but not so casual like a one-night stand. And I think part of that is because there's other research showing that repeated sexual experiences with the same person end up being more satisfying and pleasurable because the person tends to know more about what you like. So yeah, attachment styles can really affect why we go into casual sex experiences and the ultimate outcomes as well.

Timur Begaliyev: Perfect, that's really interesting. Recently, I've been reading Anna Karenina and I found that a common trope in the romantic genre was that the protagonist or one of the people has someone who is nice and good and is a good partner, and it might even be physically attractive. But the character, or the protagonist, falls in love with someone else, and they can't explain why. This is also a source of strife in their life. So, I wanted to ask: is there a way to change whom you're romantically attracted to?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Ooh... I think the answer is probably not? But actually, yes and no. It's a great question, right, because we can, like I think we were talking about growth beliefs before. You can work on a relationship, but I don't think you can always necessarily work to improve your sexual attraction to someone if you're very much not attracted to them. But I think there's kind of a small spark, you can really work to like, grow that into a flame.

Timur Begaliyev: Can you give us one or two examples maybe of how someone might do this?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Yeah, well, I guess I'm just thinking that you might not always be super, let's say, physically attracted to someone or maybe you're not sure and you're just friends first. But if you try it out, your love and attraction could grow. So, I think part of this is just getting to know someone more, and you start to become more intimate and learn more about them. That can really foster greater feelings of connection, and that can end up leading to things like more physical attractions as you start to do things like going on exciting dates, learning deep things about them. And all those things predict greater desire and greater passion. But, it's not going to be able to happen if you're completely unattracted to someone or really don't see the value. I think this idea is really fascinating, right? We do see it in media a lot that we can't entirely explain who we're attracted to. And I think that really can frustrate people, but it also is something that is coming through in the literature — even though we can know a lot of traits about you and about your partner, we don't really know why two people click more than others. So even when I've done research with speed dating studies, we find that it's the unique compatibility that's really important for predicting who gets together after speed dating. But, it's very hard to predict why those two people click above and beyond like that person being attractive, and that person liking a lot of people. So, I feel like as a science, we're still working towards figuring out exactly why two people click and have that chemistry. And so, surprisingly, the idea of romantic and sexual chemistry is not as well studied as you might think. I mean, I haven't read Anna Karenina, but in similar cases too, sometimes I think it comes down to a person's own situation. So, maybe if someone is not ready for a romantic relationship, they're actually going to pick, you know, they're going to choose a really safe, good option because they're afraid of intimacy. Sometimes, I think these cases could be because the person themselves is avoidantly attached, and they're shying away from what would be a very secure type relationship and kind of repeating their patterns by getting into these exciting things. I also think oftentimes people mistake anxiety for passion, so I think we often think that the safe, secure relationship is a boring relationship because sometimes there's other people who you know are playing hot and cold and there's more intrigue and things like that. But really, I think that's setting us up for more of a short-term relationship and I think if you're thinking long term going for the good safe option is maybe more important. But, I think it depends on whether the person themselves is ready. And one of my favorite kind of concepts that came out of relationship science in recent years that I feel like doesn't get enough attention is just this idea of commitment readiness. So, just like how much the person's own readiness to commit to a long-term relationship might factor into their decision, so kind of the idea of timing if you will. So, I feel like the idea of timing could be something that's playing into all of these. I would say it's like it's going to take work and effort, right. And it's something that you have to be willing to do.

Timur Begaliyev: What is something that we should pay attention to when we are picking out a partner?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: The main thing that I would look for in a partner, that might predict relationship success, is responsiveness. So, it's like 3 parts: caring, validating, and understanding. And so, responsive partners are just going to make your relationship better. They're going to make you feel better about yourself. They're going to be caring. They're going to respond to conflict in a positive way, and responsiveness is highly correlated with things like attachment security. So, to give an example of what a responsive partner would look like: a responsive partner is someone who is comfortable with their emotions, someone who listens when you speak, someone who, even if they have a different opinion from you, is really still engaging with your thoughts and validating your thoughts and worldview. And just someone who in general is just kind of caring. And so, I think that, especially when people are younger, they might look for kind of like the bad boy or the bad girl — there's lots of tropes, right? But really, the nice and caring people tend to be more responsive and that's going to be just setting you up for relationship success. So I don't know if I was concrete enough there, but I feel like those are kind of like the three pillars of responsiveness: showing care, validation and understanding.

Timur Begaliyev: Perfect. Perfect. OK. And then my final question is: how can we maintain love and sexual satisfaction during a relationship?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: There's so many different ways, right? That's great. I often go on about this topic for hours, but I think what it can come down to is prioritizing intimacy, which can look like prioritizing deep conversations with your partner, prioritizing quality time. Or it could look like prioritizing physical intimacy and affection. I think one of the best ways to get at this is the idea of self-expansion. So, this comes down to the idea of making sure you still do things with your partner that are going to help you learn new things about them.

Because when we learn new things about our partner, that really increases our feelings of passion towards them.

So, this could be like anything from just switching up the restaurant you go to with your partner, you know, maybe find some of those kinds of dorky games online where you ask each other intimate questions or I mean it could be something more elaborate, like going on an adventurous date or going on vacation. But all of those things can help us see our partner in a new light and that is so important to make us feel that deeper connection and remind us of the falling in love stage and really just make us closer as partners and feel that passion again, because it can be really difficult to maintain things like sexual desire and passion in a long-term relationship if you're not putting in that effort to try to keep things fresh.

Timur Begaliyev: What happens if we think that we know everything about someone?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: I love this idea, and this is really related to what Esther Perel talks a lot about, and she's like a kind of famous relationship couple's counselor. So, familiarity in a lot of ways feels at odds from sexual desire and intimacy, and it can get to the place that if we feel too comfortable or familiar with our partner — feeling a little bit bored essentially, right? So, learning new things with your partner but having a little bit of mystery can help you feel more connected and more attracted because feeling over-familiar is something that a lot of people mention in qualitative studies about why they're feeling less passion for their partner. It's like, OK, well, there's no more, you know, romance. Really, in a way because you know everything about your partner, maybe you're living in the same space, you kind of see them all day long, so a little bit of distance or separation can be helpful as well here. But I like the idea that learning more new things about our partner, it makes them feel new to us in a way. And that's just something that humans just love, right? This craving for novelty and to always feel like we're growing. So when you can see your partner in a new light and learn something new, it just kind of reminds you that like, yeah, there's still more to learn here and that can make us really feel good and feel that passion.

Timur Begaliyev: Perfect. OK. Thank you so much Dr. Maxwell for coming on today! And is there any way that students can look to find out more about you?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Oh yes, yes, so they can follow me on Twitter @Jess_A_Maxwell or they can follow my professional Instagram that's @maxwell.psyc, and I do have a personal website I don't always update it as often as I should, but it's got the foundational stuff there.

Timur Begaliyev: And if you wanted someone to remember three key points from this podcast, what would they be?

Dr. Jessica Maxwell: Three key takeaways from the podcast I want people to remember is: one, It's important to remember that we need to work on our relationships and put time and effort to maintain them; two, don't be afraid about being single or get overly focused on finding the one, because actually there's lots of different people; and three, if you want to keep your relationship successful long term, try to bring in some novelty to keep that spark alive.

Timur Begaliyev: Perfect! Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me, Dr. Maxwell! And that's it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check our podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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