Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership
Sex is an important part of any relationship, so it’s worth talking about it because there are so many ways that sex can become a source of frustration, conflict, and discouragement. It doesn’t have to be that way, but there does need to be a clear understanding about what the sexual boundaries are and whether or not sex is a boost to your relationship, or a burden.
Ideally, you want to find a partner who shares the same sexual interests, drive, and desires as you do, but that’s easier said than done. There’s a few common problems related to sex that I see come up with many of my clients, so let’s talk about what some of the common issues are and how we resolve them in counseling.
- Sex Drive
I’ve seen this happen time and time again with couples in counseling. One person has a strong sex drive and the other person is just not that into it anymore. It’s not that one partner doesn’t want sex, but life just saps their energy and drive. This causes friction because sex starts to feel like an obligation to one partner, while the person with a stronger drive feels frustrated and rejected. This becomes a source of conflict and the person with a lower drive feels guilty for not “fulfilling their partner’s needs”.
When we examine this problem more closely, it’s a lot more complicated than just a sex drive problem. For both men and women, there are hormonal changes that happen throughout the life cycle that can impact sex drive. Women’s libido tends to drop as they start to age out of their childbearing years, while men may still feel a strong sex drive. Add to that work, kids, life, and chores, and it’s not surprising that turning into a sex bomb when the clock strikes midnight is not high on the priority list when your hormones are against you and you have to get up and do it all over again the next day.
Stress relief is an important factor to incorporate when this happens. The latest studies on sex, chores, and partnership show that heterosexual couples who share household chores have more sex than in relationships where the woman does the bulk of the housework. These findings have changed over the years, but so have relationships. These days, egalitarian partnerships where both partners feel that duties overall are shared pretty fairly had the highest frequency of sex each month.
- Sexual Experimentation
Let’s be really clear about sexual experimentations: the # 1 priority is CONSENT. No one is entitled to sex acts from their partner that the other person doesn’t want to participate in. This includes swinging, the use of any toys, voyeurism, or any other kinky fantasy you can come up with. Adults in consensual relationships have wide latitude to do whatever they want in the bedroom, but it must always come with clear and enthusiastic consent from both partners.
I have seen couples where one person was trying to please their partner and so they agreed to engage in sexual activities they were not truly comfortable with. This leads to distrust, shame, resentment, and loss of respect between partners.
It can be confusing to know what to do in a culture that makes sure sex is ever-present in the media. The explosion of availability of porn on the internet means that children are getting access to sexual content at ever-younger ages, and so both young adults and older couples have seen a shift in the expectations of what goes on in the bedroom.
This can affect relationships when there are differences in what each person is comfortable with or interested in. There’s no need to shame people for being interested in sexual experimentation, but there’s also no place for shaming your partner for NOT wanting to participate in certain acts. With time and trust, a couple may become more comfortable with certain sexual experimentation, but there shouldn’t be hard and fast expectations about what your partner “should do for you” just because you want it.
There’s physical intimacy, and then there’s emotional intimacy. Some people need emotional intimacy to get to physical intimacy. Some people need physical intimacy (sex) to feel emotionally close with their partners. I’ve seen this present in all different ways, too. I’ve seen men that have struggled with sex because they needed to feel emotionally secure with their partners. I’ve seem women who felt rejected and hurt when there wasn’t enough sex going on the in relationship. I’ve seen all genders display all ranges of needs in these areas of physical and emotional intimacy.
The important thing to know is how your emotional and physical intimacy are connected to each other and how important this is to you as a couple. Talking about your emotional and physical intimacy is key to building a better sex life if you’re struggling. You might be a little more open to sex if you know that it will help your partner feel emotionally connected and close to you. You might feel more compelled to put some effort into connecting emotionally with your partner and spending some time together if you know they will be more open to having sex when you make that effort.
Talk to each other about the role of emotional and physical intimacy and how that affects your sex life in terms of quality AND frequency.
This is a tough one for many couples because infidelity is a betrayal. Many people blame their infidelity on the fact that things were not going well in their relationship or marriage and so they sought out attention elsewhere. Sometimes the victim gets blamed for not providing enough sex or attention to the partner who cheated. The truth is always more complicated than that.
People’s sex life is often affected when infidelity happens because of the violation of trust. The person who has been betrayed may want to punish their partner by withholding sex, or they may feel disgusted by their partner’s behavior and not want to be physically intimate for a while. There are all kinds of emotional reactions to infidelity, and it is normal to need a period of healing if you decide to stay together.
This is a situation in which the person who cheated needs to be especially attentive to their partner’s emotional needs. But there are things can become unhelpful to the healing process, and sometimes it’s important to have ongoing conversations about what is or is not going to help heal the relationship. It’s important to understand what fair expectations are, and what is going to actually be helpful to the future of the relationship versus what will just continue to damage the relationship. For more on healing after infidelity, read this post: Rebuilding Trust After Infidelity
Most people will say that they were attracted to their partner when they first met them or at least by the time they first started dating. However, sometimes attraction fades and your partner doesn’t seem so shiny and new. Sometimes the sex in the relationship is affected because one person may not be attracted to their partner anymore, or sometimes because one person doesn’t feel that sexy anymore and so they don’t want to have sex.
This is why it is important for couples to be attracted to each other AND to themselves beyond just their physical attributes. There are lots of qualities that people have that can be very sexy: confidence, charisma, loyalty, dedication, personality, humor, kindness, and generosity. Attractive qualities can be found in abundance. If physical attractiveness is the main thing keeping two people together, there’s bound to be some problems later on.
If you plan on staying together, you can expect that your bodies and your looks will change over time. Sexual attraction doesn’t have to change, though, just because your appearance does. When you understand that being sexy has just has much to do with enthusiasm and personality as it does with lingerie and a hot body then you’ll maintain attraction to each other into your golden years.
- Pressure and Guilt
Putting pressure on your partner can backfire when it comes to sex. If you try to make your partner feel guilty or ashamed when they don’t want sex when you do or if they don’t want to participate in certain sexual acts, you’re going to damage the intimacy and trust in your relationship. No one is owed sex by anyone else, even if you’re in a committed partnership.
If you want more sex from your partner try instead to work on creating the conditions that will get your partner in the mood. Doing things that help your partner feel relaxed and sexy are more likely going to get your partner interested and engaged in sex than if you pressure them by saying hurtful things like they’re “not holding up their end of the deal” or that you “will go find it elsewhere” if you don’t get your way. Saying hurtful and shaming statements will make your partner less likely to want to get in the mood because they’re not going to feel sexy or confident.
The Bottom Line
Sex can and should be a fun and integral part of your relationship or marriage. It’s also one of the main reasons people break up and it’s a big source of conflict for some couples. Sexual compatibility is about so much more than just if you enjoy having sex with each other. Sex is a two-way street, so both people deserve to feel good about it and feel happy in their sex lives with their partner.
Yet sex is just like every other issue in a relationship in that it means having to compromise sometimes. When you are in a relationship with someone, both of you have to compromise on lots of different issues, but you do so because you care about each other and want to figure out a way to make each other happy. Just as with other areas of conflict, communication is the key.
If you’re not comfortable talking a with your partner about sex in an open and respectful way, then you might benefit from seeing a therapist, either individually or as a couple. It doesn’t have to be a specialized sex therapist. Most counselors are fine with talking about sex with couples, especially if they do a lot of marriage or relationship counseling.
For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship” and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.
For more posts in this series, please see:
Relationship Series: Shared Values
Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy
Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership
Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication
Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship
Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences