When Your Erotic Desires Don’t Match Up With a Partner

Why sexual transparency and negotiation are crucial in relationships.

Posted Jun 04, 2020

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Source: Istock by Getty Credit: nd3000

In my therapy room, so many of the problems I see in relationships stem from the underlying — and overwhelming — taboo in our culture around talking about sex.

I’m not talking about men’s locker room banter or women’s sharing naughty stories over cocktails, but the real and much-needed transparency about the erotic desires and preferences that couples should be discussing and negotiating even before they enter into a committed relationship, and all of their unstated expectations. 

Sex is absolutely central to nearly all relationships, and yet, like not acknowledging the elephant in the room, too many of us are unwilling or afraid to approach it directly with our partners. When we grow up in a culture that lacks sex education where adults are unwilling and uncomfortable to openly discuss our emerging sexuality, we become adults who are skittish about having frank conversations about sex, even with our partners. Then, when sexual problems or dissonance begins to appear in the relationship, we go to see therapists ashamed, hurt, and sometimes bitter that our unstated expectations have not been met. 

This is less of a problem in the gay male community, for several reasons. First, those who are LGBT have been forced to come to terms with their sexuality by the outright rejection in the broader culture. They’ve had to admit their proclivities to themselves and others, examine their erotic desires, and become more open to finding others with whom they can sexually relate. Let me give you an example from a profile on a gay dating app: 

“What interests me: I love to kiss, touch, grope, suck, rim, j/o and f*ck. I’m more of a passionate top/vers guy, but if a hot guy — I mean the right guy came along, I’m willing to flip to the other side ;-). I love the outdoors, camping, hiking, canoeing, movies, art, wine, reading, cuddling, etc. … You? I try to keep in shape as well. But I’d love to find someone to go running/jogging with.”

I’d venture to say you’ve probably never seen anything like this on a straight dating site or, if you’re straight, had a conversation like this on a first date or maybe ever, even with your partner. 

The issue for heterosexual men and women is that if they were to put anything close to an ad such as this in a dating app, women would be labeled as sluts, and men would be labeled as sexual predators. This is not the case in the gay male community.

Wouldn’t it be more sensible to reveal our true erotic selves to someone who may become a life partner, rather than discover later that we are mismatched? This is so foreign to straight culture that if a woman were to state such things upfront, she would likely be thought of as a slut. If a man were to say them, he would be thought of as pushy and predatory.

Why explicit negotiation is important

Too often, because couples don’t talk about their erotic interests, they discover much later after marriage, kids, and having built a life together that they are erotically mismatched. One or both partners have an erotic interest that the other doesn’t. Now the issue is what to do about that. 

Our culture tells us to sacrifice our erotic selves and if we’ve committed, sexual interests should be the last thing that is considered important. If we’ve already committed to someone and discover a new erotic interest or find that something is more important to us than we first realized, then others say, “You would sacrifice an already good relationship and kids for that?” I say, “Yes maybe.”

First, of course, I’d coach my clients to get comfortable with the sexual interest, then talk about it with their partner and try to negotiate it into the relationship. Maybe this includes at times simply talking about the sexual fantasy while having sex, or watching porn and erotic imagery that contains the fantasy and, of course, actually doing it with a partner who is willing.

Sometimes this includes opening a relationship to allow for the erotic interest to be fulfilled. Others will judge this and minimize the sexual desire by valuing monogamy over a sexual want and need. This interferes with couples being able to negotiate their own sexual monogamy, whatever that might be. I would rather the couple decide to stay together if most of their relationship is good and satisfying than support breaking it off or giving one’s self an eroticectomy. 

Then I often find that because our erotic desires can evolve, one partner feels that the other wouldn’t be open to experimenting with acts that he or she has begun fantasizing about. Again, unstated expectations come into play here. The person whose desires are evolving fears that the partner would shame them or reject them outright if they revealed something that wasn’t part of the unstated sexual contract between them.

They may be right, but not always. For instance, I’ve had people in my office who have discovered that their partner is watching some kind of porn they find offensive, and immediately jump to “You’re disgusting” or “I should be enough for you!” rather than exploring what their partner is attracted to or what they might do to negotiate some mutual ground. On the other hand, I’ve had clients who overcame their fears, openly discussed these things, and discovered a whole new appreciation of their partner. 

I can tell you from experience that none of these things are beyond fixing. If we made more room for negotiation about our erotic desires, either upfront before we commit to a relationship or after we’ve been engaged in sex for a while, there would be a lot more happy couples. It’s becoming more common among younger heterosexual couples in their 20s to talk more openly and honestly about their sexual and erotic interests. 

It’s important to be able to be honest even if this means being honest about wanting to have sex with others and negotiate what is acceptable and what is not. For instance, it may be okay to have sex outside of the relationship as long as it doesn’t include falling in love elsewhere. 

It is possible to find common ground. 

From disgust to discussed

Because we grow up in a culture that has an underlying shame and naiveté about sex, we are too often lacking the skill and the courage to talk openly about it. But open and honest discussion can transform disgust into compassion and understanding, and lead to renewal of a relationship or a decision to end it. Either is preferable to silence and suffering.

A good place to start is with a sexually informed therapist. Too often, if the therapist is not knowledgeable about the range of human sexuality, they will align with the partner who fits their own idea of what is right or “normal.” Then, the partner with erotic interests that do not align with their partner in the relationship will be pushed to give up something that is intrinsic to their erotic code and becomes stuck in a situation that doesn’t serve them, and a solution that will only work for a short time.