Sexual Incompatibility: Keep Trying, or Break Up?
- How do you know if you are sexually incompatible?
- Examples of sexual incompatibility
- Issues that lead to sexual incompatibility
- Assessing your sexual incompatibility with your partner
- Understanding sexual incompatibility
- The case for staying together
- Tips for dealing with mismatched libidos
- The case for breaking up
- Final thoughts
When two people have differing sexual needs and desires – and one or both people suffer from dissatisfaction as a result – the couple is sexually incompatible. It’s a difficult situation to be in because the people may love each other, yet they may feel incomplete or as though they are sacrificing something important about themselves to be together.
Sexual incompatibility is not unusual among couples, especially those who have been together for a long time. It is not always evident at the start of a relationship. That’s because, at the start, partners are usually in a “honeymoon phase.” Their high degree of sexual attraction may mask the fact that, years later, their everyday desires are mismatched.
As a marriage progresses, more stressors may pile on a couple: children, careers, finances, and other individual circumstances. All of these stressors can weigh a couple down, causing them to put their romantic relationship on the back burner.
How do you know if you are sexually incompatible?
We know that incompatibility in the bedroom may stem from many different things: everyday life stressors, physical or mental illness, and hormones are common. It may stem from the fact that partners simply want different things, whether they started that way or evolved during the marriage to have different ideals.
Examples of sexual incompatibility
It can be helpful to look at other couples’ problems with sexual incompatibility to assess your situation. The following three scenarios illustrate sexual incompatibility. They are not the only three possibilities, of course, and the scenarios will not necessarily lead to divorce.
John and Jane
John and Jane have been married for two decades. As the years have gone by, Jane has become consumed and exhausted by raising the kids and advancing her career. At the end of the day, she has little interest in sexual intimacy with John. But John is still very interested in sexual intimacy with Jane. When they do come together for sex, Jane feels resentful, and John feels undesired. As a result, they are rarely intimate, and both feel they are drifting apart.
Glenn and Gina
Glenn and Gina fell deeply in love five years ago. They decided to wed, but to satisfy her sexual appetite, Gina insisted that they have an open marriage. Glenn went along with it because he thought he could handle it, but now that they’re expecting their first child, he feels jealous and unhappy every time Gina goes out on a date. He says he wants to end the “open” chapter of their marriage, but Gina gets upset whenever he broaches the topic. She knows she wouldn’t be happy if their relationship was a monogamous one.
Frank and Fiona
Frank and Fiona used to feel compatible in the bedroom. But as time went on, Frank developed a fascination with BDSM. Fiona is turned off by BDSM and refuses to give it a thought. As a result, Frank turns to pornography to fulfill his desires. He wishes Fiona would at least give BDSM a try, but she reacts to his requests with disgust and fear. Further, she dislikes the fact that he’s watching pornography and takes it as a personal insult. They still love each other, but they’re not sure they can overcome this rift.
Your situation may resonate with one of these three scenarios, or it may look very different. Whatever the reason, the question is, how do you assess your sexual compatibility, and how do you decide whether a sexually incompatible relationship is worth keeping?
Issues that lead to sexual incompatibility
Sexuality is an individual thing. No two people are the same. Here are some common truths that may lead to a sexually difficult relationship.
Not everyone is the same
What may seem like fantastic sex to one person may be dull to another. This is the case for Fiona and Frank. Whereas Fiona is perfectly satisfied with sex as it always has been, Frank finds it dull. He wants something new, and for him, that’s BDSM.
People have varying sex drives
In the beginning, we all want to cater to our significant other, and our hormones and emotions are at an all-time high for quite a while. But as reality sets in, differences in your sex drives may become more apparent and create tension. This may be the case for Gina and Glenn. Gina’s drive is higher than Glenn’s, and the solution of an open marriage is no longer working for them.
The attraction could be lacking
Perhaps your partner doesn’t put as much effort into their health or appearance as they once did. As difficult as it is to identify, a partner could lose some of their attraction. They might not desire sexual encounters quite as often.
Dig deeper into your relationship as a whole. Are there underlying issues that are being masked by sexual incompatibility?
Assessing your sexual compatibility with your partner
One way to assess sexual compatibility is to talk about it. The following list of questions is for both partners. Each person should answer honestly.
- Are you happy with the frequency of your sexual encounters? If not, explain.
- Who initiates sex? Are you satisfied with it this way? If not, explain.
- Is there something you want to try with your partner that they either don’t know about or refuse to try? Explain.
- Is your partner aware of your turn-ons? Explain.
- Is your partner aware of your turn-offs? Explain.
These five questions are just a starting point. If you and your partner are struggling, it’s worth it to find a counselor to help you address these issues. If you don’t have a professional to work with, consider looking for names in a directory such as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists Therapist Locator.
Understanding sexual incompatibility
What contributes to sexual incompatibility, and which factors are under your control? Let’s take a deeper look.
Everyday life stressors
Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed by your job, your parenting duties, or something else, everyday life stressors can impact your psychological and physiological functioning. In turn, this can affect your libido. Some people experience a lowering of sexual desire simply because life has worn them down.
So, what can you do? Personal stress management is key. So is self-care. It can be hard to find time for these things when everything else is pressing on you. Here are a few ideas to try:
- Relaxation (aromatherapy, guided imagery, meditation)
- Breathing exercises
- Greater focus on health basics (nutrition, sleep, exercise)
Unfortunately, stress can have a domino effect on the quality of your life. When humans feel stressed, they often turn to coping mechanisms that aren’t healthy such as overeating and drug and alcohol abuse. In turn, the negative effects of these poor coping mechanisms can impact your health and libido.
What can you do to combat poor lifestyle choices in the face of all your stress? Here are just a few ideas:
- Exercise together (taking walks, going to the gym, stretches on the living room floor)
- Shop for healthy food together
- Cook healthy meals together
- Take a vacation together (or at least a date night now and then)
As married couples age, they may face health challenges or even natural changes (like menopause) that could affect their sex life.
- Learn as much as you can about the health changes you are facing by reading and speaking with your physician
- Communicate honestly with your partner about how you feel, and ask them to do the same
- Seek counseling for more professional advice and input
Variations in sexual preference
Two different people with different biologies and different backgrounds come together in marriage. Will there be variations in their sexual preferences? Very likely. It’s not always a deal-breaker. Try:
- Communicating with each other about your feelings and desires
- Developing empathy for your partner and their situation
- Keeping an open mind
Evolution of sexual desire over time
As we saw in the example of Fiona and Frank, over the years, Frank developed an interest in BDSM that Fiona didn’t share. It doesn’t mean they must get divorced, though the dissatisfaction could lead to that. They could try:
- Talking openly about sexual feelings
- Agreeing to try new things and take it slow
- Setting boundaries
- Finding compromises
The case for staying together
Is the problem solvable?
Some experts question whether sexual incompatibility is a thing at all, especially if both parties are willing to put in the effort.
An argument exists that implying that people are “incompatible” is the same as saying that partners are incapable of existing together. This sheds negative light on the relationship as a whole. Thus, perhaps a better way to describe sexual issues within a relationship is to refer to them as differences.
In relationships where both parties still care for each other and are willing to adjust, compromise, and seek outside help, the odds of them being able to stay together increase. For couples who want to salvage their relationship, support is available. In addition to individual counseling, there is also couples counseling and even sex therapy, where you may get some feedback and assistance.
For individuals or couples who may be too embarrassed to seek help or who just want to expand their knowledge, check out the online course options highlighted by intimacy coach Stella Harris in her article, Sex After Divorce: Advice from a Certified Intimacy Educator and Coach.
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Tips for dealing with mismatched libidos
Sex is an important aspect of a romantic relationship. How does it look when couples experience misaligned libidos or sex drives? One person may have a high sex drive, and the other could ultimately be the opposite (or may have no drive). This could lead to feelings of frustration (and even resentment) for both parties.
The partner with little to no sex drive may feel they have to give their partner what they want to appease them. The partner with a higher sex drive may not feel completely satisfied. It is a source of tension, to say the least. So, what can couples do?
Here are some examples given by intimacy experts:
- Communicate and create new boundaries and rules.
- Aim not to make the partner with the lower sex drive feel pressured.
- Allow yourselves to be flexible and seek compromises.
- Determine if each person is willing to put in the extra effort.
- Schedule sex. This takes away the guesswork.
- Keep honest communication lines open.
- Seek help.
The case for breaking up
Is the problem insurmountable?
Every so often, there may be circumstances in relationships that are determined to be “deal breakers.” Since sex and intimacy play such a significant role in relationships, there could be situations where the relationship is not salvageable. Some examples may include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Lack of willingness to compromise: Compromise seems like an easy enough solution, but every person and situation is different. Perhaps there have been years of compromise that felt one-sided, and the desire to keep trying is gone.
- Abuse or trauma: Unfortunately, abuse is a prevalent issue in many relationships. Abuse types vary and may be present in the current relationship or stem from past trauma. If a person’s past trauma impacts an existing relationship, seeking help from a licensed professional may be warranted.
- Too much heartache or resentment: After years of compromise or hurt, there may come a time when both parties decide to go their separate ways. Incompatibilities and other issues may have presented much earlier in a relationship. Both parties may have spent years adjusting, compromising, and putting in the hard work, and now, burnout has set in.
- Lifestyle differences: This may not be a common occurrence, but occasionally, one partner may desire to have an open relationship or become unfaithful. In these situations, relationships will likely survive if both parties agree. If the other party is against these options, there will most likely be many issues within the relationship, and the relationship may not survive.
There are many reasons why sexual differences may be seen and felt in relationships. No two people or relationships are the same, so this is not a one-size-fits-all dilemma. However, two things are very important when managing sexual incompatibility: communication and consent.
- A couple struggling with sexual incompatibility can benefit from communication, whether face-to-face, or via questionnaires that you both answer and compare answers, therapy, or other means. Clear communication can help eliminate misunderstandings and hurt feelings as you try to resolve your issues.
- Consent must be part of the equation, especially if a couple agrees to experiment sexually. Whether the consent involves activities between the two of you or activities involving other people, it’s highly important. Without it, the relationship could break down quite dramatically and quickly.
ReferencesFeel Desirable Again After a Sexless or Unfulfilling Marriage
The Myth of "Sexual Incompatibility"
Sex after Divorce: Advice from a Certified Intimacy Educator and Coach
22 Experts Reveal: How to Deal with Sexual Incompatibility
Sexual Compatibility with Spouse Questionnaire: Development and Psychometric Property Evaluation. National Library of Medicine.
Hurlbert Index of Sexual Desire. Arabpsychology.com