Sexual Incompatibility? Think themes not acts!

When partners present with different sexual wants in their relationship it can get them stuck. It can mean they question the viability of their relationship even if they still love each other, or perhaps be a reason for infidelity. One partner really wants to do this sexually, the other is repulsed by it. A shaming power struggle can ensue as one takes the moral high-ground to make their partner feel bad about their erotic world.

I do not underestimate the distress that feelings of sexual incompatibility can cause partners. Ending the relationship or opening it up sexually are options which may be consideredbut for many partners this is not what they want to do. So, what next?

I find that focussing on sexual themes rather than behaviours, supporting partners to sexually differentiate and helping them to erotically empathise with one another are ways that may help them to move forward.

A couple Mark and Lynn (not their real names) came to me two years into their relationship. Mark wanted to try what might be described as kinky sex involving restraining, verbal abuse and spanking with him taking the submissive role. Lynn’s reaction was one of disgust… and probably fear! This is not what she signed up for. It’s like Mark had betrayed her by breaking some assumed contract around sexual behaviour that was never discussed… but maybe that’s for another blog! Lynn felt she has married sexual deviant and proceeded to pathologize and shame Mark’s wants sexuality and without examining her own reactivity… not in my consulting room!

Whilst I am curious to explore one’s partner’s erotic template, I do not get hung up on analysing where certain sexual wants come from; what people like is what they like, who am I to judge. What I do want is for partners to be able to bring their sexual worlds to one another without fear whilst being mindful of the impact this may have. I want the other partner to steady themselves and self-soothe enough for them to stay engaged and curious with what their partner brings and what these disclosures mean for them and to be able to do this for each other. This is what I call good sexual differentiation and a relationship therapist can be key in supporting partners in this process.

Part of work may involve cultivating erotic empathy. Amanda Luterman describes this as “practicing the skill of empathic perspective taking while in a state of erotic connection”. This means you empathise and accept your partner’s erotic enjoyment of you even if you just don’t get it. For me it fits with Hedy Schleifer’s encounter-centred couples therapy where one partner makes a commitment to cross the bridge to their partners world to truly explore and understand it. This time they are visiting their partners sexual neighbourhood in all its wonder bringing them into erotic connection through the Couple Dialogue of mirroring, validating and empathising with their partner erotic world. 

Another way forward is to look at sexual themes rather than sexual acts or behaviours. Rather than Mark and Lynn focussing on the being tied up and spanked they may want to look at what Elyssa Helfer describes as the source of arousal or the underlying theme that makes us want to do specific sexual acts. For Mark and Lynn this involved looking at the issue of power in sex – having power over or giving power away – and it’s erotic meaning; it’s a different way of talking about sex. The playing with power opens the possibility of many sexual acts that Lynn might find more palatable. For example,Lynn agreed she could take different positions in penetrative sex such as her on top, they agreed some acceptable dirty talk and role play scenarios involving an inequality of power. One can explore and play with themes of domination or submission without getting hung up on specific acts. It’s expansive and creative rather than reductive and something partners can engage with and create together rather than get into a fight over what one does or doesn’t want to do in bed.

This work is not easy, and it involves developmental growth for both partners which can build resilience into the relationship and gives them relational skills for life. A relationship therapist can support and challenge them in this work and help them cut through sexual shame that blights so many partners. Remember think themes not acts.

David Piner
Associate Director, Reflective Group leader LDPRT

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