Love and sex are not the same things, though both contribute to our sexual identity. Only we can determine our own sexuality, but many terms fly around that may be confusing. "Sexual compatibility" is one such phrase used in many different contexts, but what does it mean for you?
What Is Sexual Compatibility?
Sexual compatibility refers to two partners having shared or similar sexual needs, including sexual preferences, turn-ons, and desired frequency.
Getting physical in the early stages of love can come with trials and tribulations, many of which are totally normal. But how do you know if you're sexually compatible? And what do you do if the warning bells are going off, and you think you might not be? If you find yourself nervous about the situation, regardless of which way the balance scale dips, there are ways to maintain your relationship and grow from the experience. "I encourage couples to bring the focus back to their erotic wellness," says relationship and sexuality expert Sari Cooper.
Meet the Expert
Sari Cooper, LCSW, CST, is a certified sex therapist and coach. She is the director of the Center for Love and Sex and founder of Sex Esteem, an empowerment coaching program to enhance adults’ sexual confidence.
Read on for expert steps to address your sexual compatibility with your partner.
Signs You Are Sexually Compatible
If you and your partner are sexually compatible you will share the same or similar erotic turn-ons and -offs and like to engage in the same sexual activities, explains Cooper. This can also encompass sharing a similar temperament, tolerance, or desire to engage in new sexual experiences or, in contrast, having a common outlook on sticking to a "more familiar range of behaviors." In short, if you find that you and your partner are usually on the same page sexually—having common fantasies, enjoying similar sexual acts, have aligned expectations of frequency and duration, hold similar inclinations to try (or not try) new things—you can probably rest assured you're sexually compatible.
What to Do If You're Not Sexually Compatible
Sexual incompatibility does not have to be a deal-breaker. Here are a few things to consider if you and your partner aren't on the same page.
Unpack Sexual Compatibility for Yourself
Start with yourself and try to get specific about the aspects of sexual compatibility you think are missing. "Most people who are easily embodied (their mind and body are well-integrated) are pretty aware and can describe what turns them on. There are some folks who, for many reasons (childhood shame, history of sexual assault, gender dysphoria), are not as able or comfortable in accessing what exactly their erotic triggers are," explains Cooper, who employs mindfulness-based techniques to explore activated arousals in the body. "For folks who are more embodied, I invite them to list all of the erotic triggers they are currently aware of and those that they would be open to potentially exploring either on their own or with a partner." Taking a step back to think about your own sexual history might be helpful in this process.
Approach Without Blame
Because of the high emotions and guilt involved when it comes to conversations about problems in the bedroom, it's easy to point fingers. You need to find a way to talk with your partner about this without blaming one another.
"A critical skill that many partners aren’t practiced in doing is talking about sex they truly desire. The way to begin is by letting your partner know the aspects of the relationship you truly enjoy including nonsexual qualities," explains Cooper. "Then using 'I' statements, expressing some of the things one is curious to incorporate into one’s sexual life, like 'I love kissing for a long time as a way of getting into an erotic space with you, could we try doing a makeout session in which we explore soft kissing without using our tongues at all?'"
Being open-minded and patient really are essential here. It can be tempting to go into these conversations feeling defensive or offensive, as the topic can be painful. If you’re going to get into it productively, you need to establish some ground rules and work hard on the sexual communication.
Talk and Get Support
Sustained communication is key to sexual wellness and satisfaction, according to Cooper. Cooper suggests carving out time, either weekly or biweekly, to discuss feelings around the sexual relationship or relationship as a whole. Checking in keeps the communication channels open so that both partners can share their expectations and work toward balance.
Going together to talk with a counselor or sex therapist may be helpful. "When discussions around sexuality and eroticism lead to escalating arguments, I’d recommend seeing a sex therapist who is trained to guide partners to talk about intimacy issues," says Cooper. "If one partner initiates the conversation in a calm manner and the [other] continues to shut the topic down, either through changing the subject or dismissive statements, this would also be a sign that professional help is needed." Particularly with issues that are so complicated and can be so emotional, having a third person in the room may really help make communication more productive.
Shift Your Perspective
Shifting the way you think and talk about sex with your partner could set you on the right path. A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who believe in the idea of sexual growth—that sexual satisfaction is attained from hard work and effort—experience higher relationship and sexual satisfaction than those who believe in sexual destiny, the idea that sexual satisfaction is attained simply through finding the right partner.
"If partners are willing to discuss and experiment with all kinds of erotic and physical sexuality with one another, there is more hope that they will discover more overlapping experiences of sexual compatibility," says Cooper. "Employing a sustained sense of willingness to explore is a key ingredient."
Do It for Your Partner
Getting out of old sexual patterns can be tough, but it may be well worth the effort. If you’ve developed a story about the two of you being incompatible, it will take time to write a new story. "Set a time to share ideas on activities you’d like to try with one another with an agreement that neither partner will put down or make fun of their partner," advises Cooper.
We all do things for partners because we want to please them. And as long as you aren’t doing something against your will or that feels bad for yourself, being sexual together even when you feel ambivalent might be one way of moving toward a different sexual relationship.
Not unlike the first point, making compromises is part of any relationship, and compromising on sex shouldn’t be off the table simply because it's sex.
"Create a weekly intimacy date that could alternate with experimenting with each partner’s interests with an agreement that, if either partner started to feel uncomfortable or turned off, a safe word would be used to stop without blaming or shaming," suggests Cooper. "Share resources that would better illustrate the kind of scenarios you’d like with a scene from a film, a porn scene, or an erotic podcast or book."
You always need to feel fine about the compromises you’re making. But if it's the idea of compromise that is stopping you, know that it’s fine to take another look.
Find the Third Option
The best option is one that neither of you initially thought of. Often when we have conflict, we take a position and dig our heels in. Between two people there is always a third option, and finding it means unclenching your fists and opening your mind to creative possibilities.
"There are times that some couples have come into sex therapy to help negotiate specific consensual nonmonogamy agreements that would give them more freedom to satisfy their needs while maintaining a commitment to the relationship and the sexual health of both partners," says Cooper. "At other times, partners engage in self-pleasure that incorporates their specific interests in which their partner doesn’t want to engage."
Know What You Can and Can't Live With
It may be that you can't find a happy middle ground. Despite your best efforts, one or both of you might lose faith in your ability to work it out and can't live with a sex life that takes a backseat. If this is the case, be honest with each other and yourselves, knowing you gave it your best effort.
There are no quick fixes to the issues you're dealing with. Unfortunately, most of us are not raised with a lot of creative options around alternative relationships. We're told to be monogamous and be happy. If that doesn't happen, we can feel alone. The irony is that it's something many people struggle with. Know that you're not the first couple to deal with issues of sexual compatibility, and you won't be the last.
Maxwell JA, Muise A, MacDonald G, Day LC, Rosen NO, Impett EA. How implicit theories of sexuality shape sexual and relationship well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2017;112(2):238-279. doi:10.1037/pspi0000078