Sex therapists see hundreds of couples* over the course of their professional careers, all wanting a similar outcome- to get the sex life they want rather than the sex life they’ve got. Many ask about sexual compatibility and how important it really is. But each of these couples begins the journey of therapy from a unique and variable starting point. They are distinctly different from the couple that went before them in terms of their own individual sexual histories and development, how they relate to this aspect of themselves and their relationship and the quality of their sexual lives together to begin with. Other aspects of the couple relationship such as the balance of power, respect for each other’s preferences and autonomy and styles of communication also play a huge part. So how much change is possible for a couple who wish to make it, and how does the possibility of change relate to the point at which they started from?
How we learn about sex
Throughout the course of our lives we are frequently exposed to dominant social discourses or ‘stories’ around all sorts of things, and without meaning to, we use them as guides to learn about and make sense of our world. Dominant cultural and social stories about what constitutes a good relationship, about the importance of sex and the role of gender are highly prevalent and noticeable in our conversations with each other (and in the therapy room). Sayings and popular phrases such as ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ or ‘once a cheat always a cheat’ and ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ are examples of how our cultural stories and sayings relate to how we conduct our sexual lives. What’s fascinating about these stories is that there are often conflicting versions of the same ideas, and the ones we subscribe to as ‘true’ provide a framework we then (unknowingly) use to evaluate and reflect on our own relationships and sex lives.
What’s the story about sexual compatibility?
One commonly held idea is that it is important to be compatible for a relationship to succeed. Dating sites promise to match on compatibility, people refer to a couple who are ‘just so compatible’, blind dates or family introductions are often based on this concept. The opposing but equally dominant story of opposites attract also exists. The main premise of this is that a yin and yang distribution of personalities or qualities will allow the relationship as a whole to function in an ecologically sound way. But which is true when it comes to sex?
How what we’ve learned affects our sex lives
The answer is of course is neither/both, but rather that when it comes to our sexual lives it can useful for us to consider how we relate to such stories and which of them we subscribe to, as it might be our beliefs about these stories not the stories themselves that make the ultimate difference to their impact on our sexual relationships. For example, how does feeling you and your current partner are compatible sexually benefit your sexual relationship for the good? How does it hinder it? Holding a belief that you are on the same page with regards to sex can be very protective to threats of future challenges ‘We’ll get through this, we are really good together sexually.’ Or perhaps the belief that you are opposites when it comes to your sexual lives mean that you both see the value of one of you holding sex as a much higher priority and keeping sex on the agenda which helps you maintain a regular sex life together.
But what exactly do we mean when we refer to compatibility in relation to sex?
And is it a thing? As a sex therapist I’m often interested in how similar or different people having sex together are in the following ways;
-Preferences in types of sex and intimate activities
-Styles of communication about sex (and comfort in talking)
-Motivations to connect sexually (and ability to understand each other’s needs)
-Core values and beliefs about sex (about pleasure, need, expression, connection, equity, reciprocity, generosity and care)
Some couples seem more matched in these ways, leaving them little need to compromise, and their sexual life happens easily, without much need for negotiation. David and Alex** were this kind of couple- they had been together for 25 years and still had an easy and active sex life. Sex came without much effort to them and they seemed to be perfectly synced with each other in terms of when and how they initiated sex. For these couples, a challenge can come when a sexual problem occurs out of the blue and they are having to negotiate differences for the first time (such as when David’s medication impacted on his ability to sustain an erection). For other couples, frequent differences in how they relate to and view sex leads to disagreements and becoming well practised at negotiating a middle ground or compromise, which can be a good skill to maintain a satisfying sexual life long-term.
So what change is possible?
In my experience every single couple can make meaningful and useful change by sharing a commitment to making things better (regardless of their starting point or how similar their views are). However, as a therapist I have noticed that for some couples having shared beliefs and values about sex seems to have the most beneficial impact in helping them overcome challenges when they occur. Sex therapy can help this process too, for those who wish to make these beliefs and values explicit and use them to beneficial effect. However, given that sexual preferences, identity, confidence, physical sensation and opinions are not fixed but constantly in flux over time, couples who are able to observe, listen and respond to each other’s changing needs (whether they see each other as opposites or highly compatible sexually) will ultimately have the best chances of negotiating a satisfying sexual life together in the long-term.
*use of word ‘couple ‘for easy reading but does not necessarily have to mean monogamous relationships or single unions!
**composite cases to protect confidentiality
Dr Karen Gurney, Clinical Psychologist and Psychosexologist- The Havelock Clinic