The Power of Pleasure

How the science of satisfaction can improve your sex life and your relationship

Sexual Compatibility: The Importance to Your Satisfaction

Perceived sexual compatibility or compatibility of turn ons and turn offs?

Folk wisdom gives us mixed-messages when it comes to compatibility. We hear phrases like "birds of a feather flock together" telling us we need to be compatible with a partner in order to be successful. Then we hear contradictory phrases like "opposites attract" telling us we need not be similar to our partner, but rather different for relational success.  

Although compatibility isn't necessarily a synonym to similarity, they are certainly in the same family.

Perceived sexual compatibility is defined as the extent to which a couple perceives they share sexual beliefs, preferences, desires, and needs with their partner. Another form of sexual compatibility is the extent to which similarities exist between actual turn ons and turn offs for each partner emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally.

Perceiving sexual compatibility with a partner has been shown to be related to sexual satisfaction, such that the more sexually compatible you are, the more sexually satisfied you are. And researchers have consistently found that sexual satisfaction is also significantly positively related to relationship satisfaction; when one increases (or decreases), the other tends to follow.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Considering the extent to which sexual compatibility contributes to satisfaction in our relationships, it is somewhat surprising there isn't more research on the topic.

The majority of the research in this area has examined perceived sexual compatibility and it has been found to be related to sexual satisfaction as I mentioned above, but also communication, sexual desire, and sexual functioning, among others.

Despite this focus on perceived sexual compatibility in current research, researchers as early as Ellis in 1953 suggested that one of the main sources of sexual incompatibility were inconsistent preferences for specific sex acts between partners.

So what about compatibility of turn ons and turn offs? It may matter when it comes to being sexually compatible with your partner, as Ellis suggested. If one of you always wants sex with the lights on but one of you always wants sex with the lights off, it may impact your compatibility and perhaps also your satisfaction.

However, research that I've conducted with colleagues at University of Guelph found that perceived compatibility was a more important predictor of both sexual and relationship satisfaction than compatibility of turn ons and turn offs. Regardless of whether you like to engage in the same sexual behaviors as your partner, as long as you perceive that you are compatible, you'll be sexually and relationally satisfied.

This focus on perception isn't new. Some argue that the perception of a situation is the reality of the situation, regardless of how it may seem to others.

Also, perception isn't just important in terms of sexual compatibility and its predictive ability of sexual satisfaction. Gottman has suggested that perception of personality differences, not actual personality differences, is a key component for its predictive ability of relationship satisfaction. Gottman has also found that it is only when a relationship isn't going very well that partners perceive their partner's personality is to blame.

Perhaps it is only when the sexual side of a relationship isn't going very well that partners perceive they aren't sexually compatible with their partner in terms of their behavioral preferences.

So if you meet someone new, and after discussing what you do and don't like in the bedroom you find some inconsistencies, don't cut and run too fast! Providing you can perceive yourselves to be sexually compatible, the compatibility of your turn ons and turn offs don't matter much to satisfaction.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH, is a sex and relationships researcher and assistant professor at University of Kentucky and a managing editor at Good in Bed.

more...

Subscribe to The Power of Pleasure

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.