What's Your Sexual Style?

How a couple can share desire, pleasure, and satisfaction.

What Happens to Sexual Desire in an Egalitarian Marriage?

Does reducing traditional gender roles promote or subvert sexuality?

Emphasizing an egalitarian bond, reducing traditional gender roles, and focusing on emotional problem-solving to foster a shared intimate relationship is a healthy marital trend. For most couples, this results in greater marital satisfaction and security. The question is whether an intimate, egalitarian marriage promotes or subverts couple sexuality. The "politically correct" answer may be that it promotes marital sexuality, but that is not the reality for a large number of satisfied, securely bonded couples.

Does that mean the couple has only two sexual choices: revert to traditional double-standard marital roles or find erotic sex through affairs? No. Awareness that the egalitarian/best friend marital style may not be right for you can be a vital step forward to a functional relationship.

There are two major reasons that this couple style doesn’t work for many. The egalitarian marriage puts such an emphasis on intimacy and mutuality (we label this the "tyranny of mutuality") that the partners are very hesitant to take personal and sexual risks. So, one or both partners avoid sex (especially playful and erotic sexuality). The definition of a non-sexual marriage is being sexual less than ten times a year. Unfortunately, egalitarian/best friend marriages are frequently vulnerable to this problem, resulting in an intimate but non-sexual marriage.

For most heterosexual couples—although certainly not all—the “complementary” couple sexual style is healthy as well as emotionally and practically functional. The complementary couple sexual style allows each partner to value his/her "sexual voice" (autonomy) while acting as an intimate sexual team. The key concept is openness to "her", "his", and "our" bridges to sexual desire. Although the couple values mutual, synchronous sexual experiences, they are receptive and responsive to each partner's initiations and preferences. This includes asynchronous sexual scenarios; sensual, playful, erotic, as well as intercourse scenarios; and fun, playful, or lustful sexual encounters. Rather than sex always needing to be intimate, serious, and mutual, the complementary couple sexual style accepts the multiple roles and meanings of sexuality. It's normal and healthy that sometimes the experience is better for her than him, sometimes better for him than her, and normal for 5-15% of sexual encounters to be dissatisfying or dysfunctional. A crucial emotional agreement is that asynchronous sexual experiences are healthy as long as they are not at the expense of the partner or relationship.

The answer to the dilemma of the low- or no-sex intimate, egalitarian marriage is to accept that for most couples their relational style is different than their sexual style. For many—we believe most—married couples the egalitarian/ best friend marital style is superior. However, for many—we believe most—married couples the complementary sexual style is superior. Balancing these two styles in and out of the bedroom, the couple can establish and maintain a satisfying, secure, and sexual marriage.

Barry W. McCarthy, Ph.D., is a tenured professor of psychology at American University and a best-selling author.

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