Sexual compatibility is not a guarantee in intimate relationships. We fall in love and commit to relationships for many different reasons, and being a good sexual match is often not a high priority. I see a great many people who enter into relationships and make strong, deep commitments to people they don’t find sexually attractive or a good erotic match. All too often, these characteristics change over time, as our bodies and lives change, as a person we once found erotically exciting changes, and we lose some of that physical interest. Sometimes, I see individuals and couples in treatment who initially entered into a relationship with the idea that a sexual match simply wasn’t all that important. They told themselves (and were told by society, family, culture, religion, and the media) that what was most important was a spiritual and emotional bond and life partnership. Sexual satisfaction and connectedness are often treated as secondary at best, if not irrelevant. “Why would you want a divorce just because you’re sexually unhappy? You’ve got everything else that you could possibly want in your marriage!” But different sexual interests, sexual desire discrepancy, and unmatched sexual needs are among the most common reasons that couples come to therapy. It turns out that despite what people tell themselves, sexual compatibility is important. And how we deal with sexual mismatches may be even more important than a sexual match.
For many people, sexual satisfaction is an important component of their lives, though sexual satisfaction is a complex and nuanced factor. For instance, when couples are sexually unsatisfied, it contributes disproportionately (around 60% or so) to feelings of general relationship dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, when a couple is sexually satisfied, it contributes only around 15-20% to their general relationship satisfaction. So being sexually unsatisfied weighs heavily on people's feelings about their relationship, but sexual satisfaction won't save an otherwise troubled relationship.
Often, sexual satisfaction is measured and assessed by simple sexual frequency: Are you having sex as much as you would like to? Unfortunately, sexual satisfaction involves more than that: If you’re having lots of sex, but it’s not the kind of sex you really want, or with a partner who you find sexually attractive, is that truly satisfying? For people who are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t meet their sexual ideals, or matches what we really want in a sexual partner, people try a variety of strategies to overcome this sexual mismatch. They may try to reframe their expectations and ideals to meet their partner (talk themselves into being happy with what they’ve got); they may perceive their partner as being closer to their ideal than the partner really is (try to see the glass as half-full), or they may actually try to change their partner to meet their ideals. These strategies may or may not succeed, but it's clear that trying to change your partner rarely works, and often actually increases both relational conflict and personal dissatisfaction.
In recent research, Canadian researchers led by Rhonda Balzarini explored how couples overcome sexual mismatch, what works and doesn’t, by looking at “unmet sexual ideals.” In their study, they developed a method to assess whether one viewed their partner as meeting their sexual ideals, through questions such as: “My partner engages in oral sex with me as much I want my ideal sexual partner to.” The researchers implemented an extremely thorough and robust research design, involving four separate but related studies with a total N of 1,532 to evaluate these issues. Such a design overcomes limitations and weaknesses and allows us to see if effects replicate across different studies and samples. The researchers included a wide and thorough sampling of different ethnic and racial groups, and their study included gay, lesbian, and bisexual participants, in addition to heterosexuals. Balzarini, et al, used a design that incorporated cross-sectional and longitudinal, as well as an experimental design, in a strategy that allows us to best point to causality, and what’s really having an effect.
Sexual communion was the ultimate answer that emerged from this research. Sexual communion describes the degree to which a person is motivated to meet their partners’ sexual needs. In other words, it reflects how much I view it as important to me that my spouse or partner feels sexually satisfied. If I gain satisfaction and value from my partner feeling sexually valued and fulfilled, it not only increases my partner’s happiness, but it actually buffers the degree to which they may be unsatisfied from sexual needs I can’t meet. This last is a critical and important point in this research: Even when one partner (Partner A) was in a relationship that didn’t meet their sexual ideals, if their partner (Partner B) was high in sexual communion, then Partner A was far less likely to be unsatisfied in the relationship.
People who are higher in sexual communion tend to be more responsive to a partner’s needs and interests in general, in a way that generally increases relationship quality and feelings of sexual satisfaction. An interesting result of this study, however, is that this effect only goes one way: If you are high in sexual communion, it likely has a positive effect on your partner, but not you. If they are high in sexual communion, it improves your satisfaction, but not theirs. I’m reminded of the tale by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. In the story, a husband sells his treasured pocket watch to buy a comb for his wife’s beautiful hair, while she sells her hair to buy a fob for his watch. Balzarini, et al described the implication of this finding thus: “When coping with unmet sexual ideals, couples may need to negotiate and at times sacrifice their sexual preferences to satisfy both partners.”
In this study, the researchers also found that they were able to increase a participants’ perception of their partner as expressing sexual communion, by asking them to reflect on times when their partner tried to value and meet their sexual needs. Following this intervention, people’s positive feelings about their relationship were enhanced.
Viewing your partner’s sexual ideals and needs as important and valuable protects and enhances your relationship. Even if you can’t meet your partners’ sexual ideals, sexual communion mitigates the degree to which that mismatch negatively impacts your relationship. I’ve written previously about the devastating psychological effects of being in a relationship in which your sexuality is not accepted, an experience that increases depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
How can you use this effect in your relationship? Here are three places to start:
- Nonjudgmental Listening. The best, first, and most important way that partners can express sexual communion with each other is by communicating about their sexual likes and dislikes, in a manner that involves respect and acceptance. Acknowledging and valuing your partners’ sexual preferences is a critical and meaningful way to let them feel valued and accepted as a person, within your relationship. Have a conversation (actually, it’s best to have lots of little conversations as opposed to just one big one) with your partner about their sexual needs and experiences. Try to make them feel like you are interested and curious about their sexuality. Believe it or not, this is as valuable in long-term relationships with decades of history as it is in fresher relationships. Most people never tell anyone, even their life partners, about their sexual fantasies and interests, for fear of rejection and judgment.
- Unconditional Acceptance. Try your best to suspend your own judgment and reactions about your partner’s sexual ideals. Tell them that you're not going to reject, judge, or shame them, for their sexual desires. I know this is difficult. It’s so easy to feel judged and rejected, when we hear that our partner has sexual needs and interests that don’t completely match us. It feels very personal. But it’s not. Not really. Our sexual interests, ideals, and fantasies are not truly things that we choose or select. Why does this one thing turn us on? No one really knows. It involves a complex interaction of our psychology, the biology of our brain, and genetics, as well as our social and personal history. Accepting your partners’ sexual needs doesn’t mean you have to fulfill them, doesn’t mean that they will have to try to meet them. It merely means that you accept and love your partner, including those sexual needs as a part of them as a person. That acceptance protects your relationship, even if the sexual need cannot be met. But leaving your partner feeling unaccepted as a person, with that unmet sexual need, guarantees they will feel dissatisfied both in sex and relationship.
- Negotiation. When we talk with our partner about their sexual interests, coming from a place of sexual communion (and they do likewise with us) we can find places of overlap, and places where we can accommodate and sacrifice to let our partner know that we value and prioritize their sexual needs. We can find places where we can push our own limits (but not be pushed by them) and explore ways we can compromise and even sacrifice, to meet our partners’ needs. This doesn’t mean engaging in behaviors which violate our core values, or leave us feeling traumatized. But can we explore the shades of grey, between the strong yes and no? For instance, even if we feel like we couldn’t engage in a certain sexual act in real life, can we engage in role-play or fantasy with our partner, about that act? Finding ways to explore those middle grounds lets our partner know and actually experience our acceptance and motivation to value them and their sexuality.
Sexual differences and mismatches are among the most common issues that couples struggle with, and unfortunately, that struggle is more difficult when we send the message that sexual satisfaction really isn’t and shouldn’t be all that important. No surprise; it turns out that this message itself is likely doing the harm, because it increases a person’s feelings that they are not accepted as a person, including their sexuality. The value, a core message of this research, is that the more we let our partner know that we value and accept their sexuality as an intrinsic and beautiful part of them, it improves both their life, and our life together as a couple.
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