What happens if you meet someone kind, smart and funny, but erotically you just don’t click? Alix Fox explores the frustration of sexual incompatibility
On paper, Rohanna and Dan*, 26, were such a match they’d set the page alight. “I was totally disarmed by the chemistry,” she recalls. “He had a fascinating brain, a sweet soul, a fabulous job and he was as doe-eyed over me as I was over him.”
But when it came to having sex, the man who seemed destined to be Rohanna’s everything did nothing for her. “We both had so much enthusiasm, but it was like our bodies didn’t mesh. I kept waiting for something to kick in. It was a kick in the guts when it didn’t. We stayed together for six months then split up.”
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When sex seems hexed in this way, it can be as mysterious as it is heart-wrenching. “Evidence is scant, but it’s been suggested there may be subconscious mechanisms at play in some cases of erotic incompatibility,” says Cynthia Graham, professor of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Southampton. “Evolutionary psychologists have posited that we might experience sexual clashes with people whose genetic complexes are discordant to our own, because it affects the ability of us and our potential offspring to fight disease.”
But often, incompatibility comes down to a contrast in sexual tastes and appetites – most notably, a mismatch in libidos. Data from Natsal, the British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (one of the broadest and most detailed scientific studies of its kind worldwide) indicates one in four UK couples are imbalanced in their desire for sex.
“It’s common, but it can be devastatingly destructive,” observes psychosexual therapist Aoife Drury. “If the higher-libido individual pushes for sex, the partner with the lower drive can feel anxious or angry, thus losing desire further. The higher-libido individual may then stop initiating sex for fear of rejection or being seen to nag. Intimacy grinds to a halt, creating feelings of resentment or disconnect.”
A survey by dating site eHarmony found that 20% of Brits feel they’re somehow sexually incompatible with their partners. Problems cited include one person being more focused on the physical rather than emotional side of sex and differences in degrees of erotic adventurousness or allure towards a fetish. Yet there are two commonalities running through virtually all incidences.
“Firstly, people expect sex to be unrealistically harmonised in a way nothing else in relationships, or life, is,” says Kate Moyle, resident therapist on BBC Three’s new counselling series Sex On The Couch. “And secondly, perhaps because Brits find sex excruciating to talk about, they may write issues off as inherent, unfixable incompatibility and move on, rather than attempt to address them in any real, practical manner.”
Graham believes this second factor is key. “Natsal’s report showed the strongest predictor of sexual problems, short and long-term, to be a lack of effective communication,” she adds. Learning to communicate and collaborate is the best thing anyone can do for their love life.
But what does that actually look like? If you and your lover decide that trying to increase your sexual rapport is worth a shot, the following advice – while not comprehensive – is better than taking a clueless shot in the dark. Consider it a jumping-off point. It might give you hope that you don’t need to jump ship. Start by viewing sex as something most people work on, rather than something that should just work. “If we see incompatibility as inevitable, we can remove some of the shame and start to think creatively and constructively about it,” suggests Meg-John Barker, co-author of Enjoy Sex: How, When And If You Want To.
See an opportunity, not a task
A lot of what makes sex fun is exploring and playing. “The idea of consistently wanting exactly the same type of sex as your partner might ostensibly seem perfect, but as well as being improbable, in the long term it could even get boring. Examining sexual divisions offers unique opportunities for personal development and revelatory discoveries,” says Moyle.
This might seem trite, especially if you’re in a relationship where sexual issues have run on so long and the damage has ploughed so deep that your soul feels sandpapered raw, but it is at least worth heading into the process with a positive head on.
Comedian Fran Bushe’s show Ad Libido centres on her struggle with vaginismus: a condition whereby the vaginal muscles involuntarily clamp shut. “I have to do extensive admin with partners to actively build up our sexual compatibility because of how my body functions,” Bushe says, “but it means we create something special together; they’re not just whipping out the same toolkit of moves that worked on their ex.”
Acknowledge the awkward
Therapeutic exercises can feel excruciatingly contrived when you first attempt them. Many have a tree-huggy vibe that makes you cringe. “Recognising how silly and vulnerable you feel out loud helps break the tension, and laughing about it together is bonding,” says psychosexual therapist Sarah Berry. Studiously pretending that embarrassment doesn’t exist is a form of performance, when your real goal should be to share authentic, honest experiences.
Darrell, 31, was suffering from erectile dysfunction (along with 11.7 million other men in the UK, according to online medical service Zava), in his case caused by anxiety, so he and his partner Sheena, also 31, tried rebooting their strained sex life using the ‘sensate focus’ method.
“You start by touching each other while still fully clothed, avoiding erogenous zones, then gradually build up intensity over a series of weeks, to help you tune into sensations and emotions,” he explains. “We both felt like dicks, but by week four, my dick worked. Removing expectations I had to get it up helped, but so too did giggling at the ridiculousness. For months our bedroom had been the site of tearful rows.”
Think about why you have sex
“A 2007 paper published by The University of Texas at Austin identified 237 different motivations subjects gave for having sex, from ‘to show thanks for something my partner has done’ to ‘it gets rid of a headache’ to ‘it makes me feel closer to God’,” says Jennifer Gunsaullus, the host of Dr Jenn’s Den, a sex education show on YouTube. “Examining the true reasons we’re seeking sex in each instance – like relief from boredom or stress, or for a self-esteem boost – can highlight where alternative actions may still satisfy our needs.”
Setting out a schedule for sex has a bad rep; it seems clinical and unromantic for lovemaking not to spontaneously spring from burning desire. Yet setting aside predetermined windows for eroticism shows that it’s a priority, and is a damn sight better than leaving things to wither indefinitely on the backburner while life gets in the way.
Plus, knowing when to expect intimacy saves higher-libido partners from the fear their ad hoc come-ons might be crushingly rejected or interpreted as hectoring. It also allows lower libido partners to build the anticipation and get their head in the right place for jumping into bed
Expand your idea of what counts as sex
“Make sex menus: brainstormed lists of all the sensual and thrilling things you know you like or would be up for trying, and see where you and your partner overlap,” suggests Barker. Download DIY guides from megjohnandjustin.com.
Introduce the purple pass
Named after Prince, who in his hit Alphabet Street sings, “Tonight I’m just not in the mood, so if you don’t mind, I would like to watch,” the ‘purple pass’ involves giving your partner permission to masturbate while you witness them approvingly. You might encourage them by enthusing about how hot they look, so they get off and you take part without doing anything physical that you don’t feel up to.
Don’t let labels restrict you
“There’s so much power in proudly naming your fetishes and fascinations, but labels like ‘dominant’ can become restrictive cages if they’re interpreted too rigidly – and not the saucy kind of cage,” says Gunsaullus. Before writing someone off because they don’t share your particular kink, examine what you get from it emotionally. You might enjoy being submissive in S&M scenarios because you find relief in relinquishing responsibility, maybe you like to please by fulfilling orders or perhaps a powerful lover fixating upon you makes you feel craved.
There are softer ways to serve these longings if your partner doesn’t always want to take the reins or is still learning the ropes. Think of your kinks as you liking a type of energy rather than having a set identity. But what if you reach an impasse because you and your partner’s kinks are too much in sync and you both want to play the same role? “My girlfriend and I are both submissive,” says Janine*, 24. “When it’s my turn to play domme, I command her to spank me or use a dildo on me while I lay pliant, so I’m in charge but still get a similar physical experience to being the underling.”
Make use of resources
“I wish people viewed therapists for sex like they do dentists for their teeth, and visited them as a preventative measure to set their private lives on a healthy course rather than waiting until everything is rotten and they are falling out,” says Moyle.
However, if you’re not at the stage of seeking private counselling but want professional assistance in navigating incompatibilities, resources are out there. Sex coaching site Betty Martin features free videos and printable worksheets for couples. Mindfulness app Headspace offers guided meditations centred on relationships. Where Should We Begin?, a podcast that listeners have dubbed ‘the Rosetta Stone of feelings’, lets you listen in on real-life couples’ sessions with psychotherapist Esther Perel.
Educational site The School Of Life’s Pillow Talk cards help pilot constructive conversations about topics like sexual shame and power dynamics, while the London-based Havelock Clinic provides 45-minute online workshops on sexual desire and you can talk to their medical experts via instant message throughout the session.
Make peace with the situation
Certain couples do find that they never erotically align, so some decide to draw a line under their relationship. “I grafted at sex for eight years with a man I loved but whose natural drive was far lower and plainer than mine,” says Kathryn, 32. “We both tried so hard, but I hit a stage where whatever I was learning by trying to meet him in the middle was outweighed by what I lost by leaving my satisfaction on the sidelines.”
Yet even if sexual incompatibility remains, ‘sadly stay’ or ‘go, gutted’ are not the only options. “I challenge that binary,” says Barker. “You might consider opening things up. Consensual non-monogamy works for many people by allowing them to maintain wonderful, close relationships while having their sexual needs met elsewhere.
But there are also many folks who simply decide sex isn’t important to them after all, especially over time. I undertook a study into ‘enduring love’ with Jacqui Gabb, professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University, which found that many, if not most, long-term couples had sincerely happy relationships that didn’t feature much sex together.”
For some ‘incompatible’ pairings, concluding that sex isn’t the be-all and end-all is the key to a happy ending. But for others, taking sex seriously enough to wholeheartedly commit to discovering and nurturing the parts where their individual Venn diagrams of sexuality overlap – that’s what prevents it being over.
“You can have great sex because somebody has a wonderful penis and knows how to use it, even though you’re not that into them. Or you can meet someone you connect with, but their penis is just not doing it. I’m pretty good at faking it, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. But this is a serious issue. There are girls who think there’s something wrong with them because they haven’t had an orgasm yet.”
Photography: Dan Saelinger