The advice columnist and podcaster Dan Savage says “the relationship graveyard is full of tombstones that say ‘everything was great… except the sex'”.
Finding a sexually compatible partner is in every way as important, if not more important, than the other aspects of relationship that we concentrate on. People will agonize over finding a partner that shares similar political, religious, and family viewpoints. If you absolutely want children and a potential partner absolutely does not, then that is usually a simple and guilt-free deal breaker for most people. So why is it that if you have a high sex drive and your potential partner has a very low one, so many people are reluctant to consider that a deal breaker as well?
Sexual compatibility is very important
Almost every couple that presents to me in my practice has some level of sexual dysfunction. I tell every couple that sex is the “canary in the coalmine” for relationships: when the sex goes bad, it is almost always a harbinger for something else going bad in the relationship.
In other words, bad sex is a symptom, not the disease. And almost inevitably, when the relationship is improved the sex “magically” improves as well. But what about when the sex doesn’t “go” bad, but it’s always been bad?
Married couples very often divorce over sexual incompatibility.
It is more polite to tell others (and survey takers) that it was over “money” or they “wanted different things” (which usually was more or better sex) or some other common trope. But in my experience, I’ve never come across a couple that was literally divorcing over money.
So why do we not prioritize sexual compatibility?
Much of it is cultural. America was founded by Puritans, and many religions still shame and stigmatize sex, both in and out of wedlock. Many parents shame children over sexual interests and masturbation. Pornography usage is often viewed as a character defect, even though the vast majority of adults use pornography from time to time, if not regularly. The current political arguments over something as straightforward as birth control shows that America struggles with being comfortable with our sexual sides. Simply saying “sex” is enough to make some grown adults blush or shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Therefore, it is not surprising that people often minimize their sexual interests and the level of their libido (i.e. how much sex you want). No one wants to appear to be a sex-crazed pervert during the early stages of dating. So sex is considered a secondary or even tertiary concern, despite the fact it is among the very top reasons for marital discord and divorce.
Finding a compatible partner is complicated by other factors
Stigma and shame mean people are not always comfortable disclosing their sexual interests or level of desire. People will often go years, even decades, without disclosing a particular sexual fetish or “kink” to their spouse, and resigning themselves to a state of perpetual dissatisfaction.
Differences in level of libido are by far the most common complaint. But this is not always as simple as it seems. It is a stereotype that men are likely to always want sex, and that women are likely to be disinterested (“frigid” as it used to be called). Again, in my practice that is not accurate at all. It is very much an even split between which sex has the higher sex drive, and often the older the couple, the more likely it is to be the woman who is dissatisfied with the amount of sex the couple is having.
So what can be done if you have gotten yourself into a relationship where there is little sexual compatibility, but you don’t want to end the relationship?
Communication is not only key, it is foundational
You have to be willing to share your wants and desires, your kinks and your fetishes, with your partner. Period. There is no way to have a fulfilling sex life if your partner is ignorant of what you really want and crave, and you refuse to let them know. Most people in loving relationships want their partners to be fulfilled, to be happy, and to be sexually satisfied. Most fears people have over disclosing sexual information turn out to be irrational. I’ve watched on my couch (more than once) a person struggle to tell their partner of a sexual interest, only to have the partner emphatically tell them they would be happy to indulge that desire, but that they simply had no idea it was something that was wanted.
Have some faith in your partner. Let them know if you are dissatisfied with the amount or type of sex you are having. Yes, occasionally someone will be unmoved, and will refuse outright to open their horizons or change their sexual repertoire. But that is the rare exception, and a character trait you should want to know about your partner as soon as possible anyway.
Speak up for yourself. Express your desires. Give your partner the opportunity to meet your needs. If that doesn’t work, then other alternatives can be explored.