Heart of the Matter

Helping Couples Find Their Sexual Chemistry

Heart of the Matter

This article first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue.

After knowing each other for four years and living together for 18 months, Jen and Rob had become more and more frustrated by an increasingly contentious problem: the state of their sex life. In their first two years together, sex was an exciting and fulfilling experience for both of them, but the past two years had been a different story. Jen complained that Rob didn’t value intimacy and that he sulked whenever touching didn’t lead quickly to intercourse. She said he ­wasn’t making her feel that he really desired her anymore: he just wanted sex. Along the way, in her disappointment and frustration, she’d lost her own feelings of being turned on by him.

Meanwhile, Rob said he’d tried everything he’d read on the Internet and in Cosmopolitan, buying Jen sexy outfits from Victoria’s Secret, watching porn videos, giving her more oral sex, buying sex toys—but nothing worked. His own sex life had taken a decidedly solitary turn; his masturbatory frequency had increased from two to three times a month to ten times that number. He felt cheated and scared that at 29, his sex life was over. He wondered if Jen had pulled a “bait and switch.” Sometimes he thought they were sexually incompatible.

At least 40 percent of couples go this route—having great sex during the romantic love/passion sex/idealization phase of their relationship, which typically lasts no more than a couple of years, and naively assuming that the sexual fire will always burn, no matter what. When sex inevitably changes in quality and quantity, they stumble blindly on, hoping that somehow they’ll get back that old zing. Studies show that, without some help, they rarely do.

Like most couples experiencing sexual dysfunction, Jen and Rob felt ill-equipped to explore what was going on in their sex life, much less how to discover better choices. Anxious, defensive, and angry, they didn’t know how to talk about sex at all, not just because they felt shy about it, but because they lacked a way of envisioning what more inviting and pleasurable alternatives might be. They didn’t grasp that what they were looking for wasn’t so much a change in specific behaviors and sexual practices as a way of developing a more rewarding couple sexual style.

The Concept of Couple Sexual Styles

In more than 35 years of doing sex therapy, I’ve found that one of the most powerful interventions for couples like Jen and Rob is to help them develop a broader view of the kinds of intimate and erotic connections that couples can develop. Most couples in our society come to marriage with a media-determined, myth-laden idea of what their sex lives should be. R-rated movies present a romantic, seductive, unfailingly hot picture of what it takes: both partners are young, attractive, and totally turned-on before touching even begins. Kissing turns to passionate caressing and unbearable lust, which leads easily and without fumbling to thrilling intercourse and soul-stirring (and multiple for her) orgasms. This image sells a lot of movie tickets, but it’s a profoundly misleading portrait of what happens with real-life, long-term couples. In fact, you almost never see married couples in movies, or hear about them in love songs or novels: when incredible sex is portrayed, it’s always a new couple or an extramarital affair. The media message is that “hot sex” is new sex, with forbidden people and often in adventurous settings. Serious or married couples are just too boring.

So, what is a sexual style? It has to do with recognizing how different elements of a couple’s sexual experience form a pattern—their way of initiating sex, how they pleasure each other and engage in erotic scenarios, the role of intercourse in their lovemaking, the afterplay scenarios they prefer, and the meaning sex has for them and its place in their relationship. The exploration of sexual styles focuses on two core dimensions. The first is how partners integrate intimacy and eroticism into their relationship. Intimacy is about safety, predictability, closeness, and warmth, while eroticism is about taking emotional and sexual risks, bringing mystery and creativity into sex, enjoying unpredictability, and being able to let go and savor sexuality for itself. Intimacy lets you feel secure in your sexual relationship. It usually involves touch that’s affectionate (handholding, kissing, hugging) and sensual (cuddling, stroking, back rubs, nongenital pleasuring). Empathy for your partner’s feelings and sharing experiences, sexual and nonsexual, are its core qualities. Most people consider intimacy essential to a mature sexual connection.

Our culture takes a paradoxical approach to eroticism, however, which is just as essential to an ongoing sexual connection. On the one hand, it bombards us with magazines promising keys to erotic ecstasy and porn videos focused on sex that’s “crazy, dirty, and exciting”; on the other hand, it makes us fear that eroticism will get out of control and lead to sex addictions, affairs, or fetishes. Nevertheless, eroticism is an integral part of us as individuals and as a couple: it can’t be split off from relationships. Intimacy and pleasuring have great value, but they don’t wholly substitute for erotic flow and orgasm.

The second core dimension of sexual style refers to balancing personal autonomy with emotional closeness. The challenge is how each partner can maintain a sense of individuality and at the same time experience a sense of being part of an intimate, erotic team—how each partner’s “sexual voice” integrates with the other partner’s feelings and preferences, so that both partners can experience sex in a comfortable, pleasurable, and emotionally and sexually satisfying manner.

Confronting differences in attitudes about sexuality forces couples to find their balance between their personal autonomy and respect for each partner’s intrinsic separateness and their togetherness, or the ability to identify as “we.” A crucial element of working with couples regarding their sexuality is helping them explore how close they want to feel and how much they value autonomy in their relationship. Their sexual style will be a window into how these aspects of their emotional lives are woven into their ongoing relationship.

Either extreme can interfere with sexual desire and satisfaction. When each partner is so intent on “doing sex” his or her way, both partners end up in a power struggle in which neither feels validated or satisfied. The other extreme is when both partners are so concerned with making sexual feelings mutual that sex itself becomes tentative, lacking in spontaneity and passion.

In working with couples who’ve arrived at a sexual impasse, I’ve found it helpful to consider the spectrum of sexual styles from which couples cobble together their particular approach to intimate and erotic connection—almost always without much discussion or conscious deliberation. To be sure, there isn’t one right couple sexual style; each style has its strengths and pitfalls. Further, these styles aren’t “pure,” and they don’t represent an exhaustive list of ways a couple may find sexual satisfaction, but they do offer an overview that affords a perspective on the couple’s preferences and choices.

In my clinical work, the vast majority of couples tend to fall within one of four styles.

Traditional Couple Sexual Style

These couples value mutual commitment and security above everything else. There are strong norms about avoiding conflict and strong emotion, especially anger. Both partners prefer traditional gender roles, eschewing drama. In these relationships, the man is the sexual initiator; the woman is open to his initiatives and imbues the relationship with affection and emotional intimacy. This is the least erotic style, with sex taking a lower priority.

Because the sexual roles and rules are clear, sex rarely becomes a contentious issue in this style. The traditional couple can accept an affectionate, but nonsexual, marriage better than couples with other sexual styles (although this strength can be a pitfall). This style doesn’t work for many relationships, especially for partners who value gender equity. Many couples find this style lacking in mutuality and sexual playfulness. A particular concern for women is that their need for affection and intimate connection isn’t validated since the man’s need for intercourse and orgasm dominates the relationship. More than with any other couple style, traditional couples resist change.

Soulmate Couple Sexual Style

Soulmate couples enjoy sharing experiences and feelings, and give a high priority to meeting each other’s needs. They’re lovers and best friends, who value the highest possible level of intimacy with an emphasis on loving each other unconditionally and accepting each other just as they are.

When it works, this style comes as close as any human relationship can to meeting virtually all a person’s needs for closeness, security, and eroticism. The key phrase here is “when it works,” because it often doesn’t. Many people discover that too much closeness can subvert sexual desire. Since eroticism requires a certain “edge,” soulmate partners can de-eroticize each other by feeling so completely in emotional sync that it leaves no space for mystery or erotic playfulness. Each partner in these relationships is often reluctant to deal with difficult emotional and sexual issues for fear of hurting the other. Of all the couple styles, soulmates have the hardest time recovering from affairs and can easily stay mired in hurt, betrayal, and resentment.

Emotionally Expressive Couple Sexual Style

This is the “fun and erotic” sexual style filled with strong emotion and drama that’s often seen in movies. Partners are free to share their passion, positive and negative, in word and deed. The sense of vitality and adventure that imbues this style often leads to the use of external stimuli, such as porn videos and sex toys, and /or playing out sexual fantasies. Partners experience high levels of spontaneity, vitality, and unpredictability. Yes, they fight, often with no holds barred, but they use sex to make up after a conflict, and overall, their sexuality keeps them resilient.

This is the most volatile and unstable sexual style, meaning that emotional and sexual conflicts can explode into fury and a sudden, dramatic dissolution of the relationship. Intimacy and security can be overwhelmed by the frequency and intensity of negative emotions and conflicts. Couples with this style run a major risk of violating personal and sexual boundaries or of blurting out unforgivable, deeply wounding remarks relating to the other’s deepest vulnerabilities, which results in a high divorce rate among them. While they love the good times and great sex, they can be critical and hurtful, especially about desire and performance issues. They “wear each other out” by the frequency and intensity of emotional and sexual upheavals.

Complementary Couple Sexual Style

In the complementary style (the commonest sexual style), each partner feels free to initiate intimacy, to say no, and to request a different sensual or erotic scenario. In effect, both partners understand that the best aphrodisiac is for both to share responsibility for the quality of the relationship. Both realize that it’s not the other person’s role to give their partner desire or orgasm. Instead, they’re receptive and responsive to each other’s sexual feelings and preferences.

A major strength of the complementary style is that the combination of personal responsibility and an intimate alliance allows for variability and flexibility in sex roles. These couples are truly comfortable having “his,” “her,” and “our” bridges to sexual desire. But once a couple has established a satisfying sexual partnership, there’s always the danger of going on automatic pilot. A couple’s ongoing sexual connection is a dynamic experience: it requires fresh inputs and new energy. In addition, there’s the challenge of major life transitions, such as the birth of a child, which can lead to frustrations and resentments that’ll need to be addressed.

Working with Rob and Jen

When Jen and Rob appeared in my office, they were a confused, demoralized pair, caught in a spiraling guilt-blame cycle. I typically adopt a problem-solving approach with such couples, focusing on helping them learn a new, mutually comprehensible sexual language and discover how to move out of their power struggle into being intimate and erotic partners and friends.

To begin, I use a four-session assessment model, which includes an initial couple session, two individual psychological/relational/sexual history sessions, and then a couple-feedback session to explore individual and couple strengths and vulnerabilities and propose a treatment plan. This model allows me to examine carefully and methodically the range of psychological, biological, and relational or social factors that shape a couple’s sexuality.

My goal in the initial couple session is to send a powerful message that what the partners are facing, emotionally and sexually, is no one’s fault: it’s a product of their interaction. After taking the opportunity to see how Rob and Jen related, what they’d done previously to address their sexual problems, and how motivated each was, I gave them a chapter to read outlining the different sexual styles. This offers a framework for future discussion and introduces a vocabulary we can come back to when we next meet.

Before the couple-feedback session, Jen and Rob were asked individually to fill out a 36-item questionnaire examining their attitudes, experiences, and feelings about sexual initiation, intimacy factors, eroticism factors, sexual feelings and preferences, turn-ons and turnoffs, and values about couple sexuality. The questionnaire surveys each partner’s feelings regarding the balance of autonomy/togetherness and intimacy/eroticism desired in their relationship. Sample statements for the questionnaire include:

– I value clear gender roles, especially the man’s role to initiate intercourse.

– If I don’t feel emotionally bonded at the moment, having sex is meaningless.

– Sex is a great way to make up after an argument.

– I need both verbal and nonverbal communication to feel sexually receptive and responsive.

The questionnaire is self-scored and gives each partner a total score for each of the four sexual styles, as well as a combined score to reflect their joint preferences.

After reviewing Rob and Jen’s questionnaire scores and listening to their individual histories, I concluded that Jen had initially hoped for a soulmate couple sexual style, while Rob had favored a more traditional style. Over the past two years, each had fallen into the common trap of their hoped-for style: Jen felt frustrated and disappointed by Rob’s emphasis on the erotic aspect of their sexual connection, and Rob found himself pushing more and more to claim his “rights” to be sexually satisfied when he initiated sex. They were caught in the kind of self-defeating sexual power struggle I often see in couples who seek my help in therapy.

In the couple-feedback session, I tried to show Jen and Rob that they were speaking different sexual languages, based on the styles of sexuality they preferred. Although the discussion of differing sexual styles in a therapy session is important in developing a common language, I often say to couples, “Half the therapy happens in this office and the other half happens in your bedroom.”

I initially gave Rob and Jen two homework assignments: a nondemand pleasuring exercise to enhance sexual comfort (they’d later do an attraction exercise and a trust-position exercise to help rekindle desire) and an exercise to have a discussion based on items from the questionnaire about their major differences regarding sex. Discussion of such differences clarifies the key issues to be resolved, modified, or accepted.

For example, to the item, “I can offer a sexual option if I don’t want to have intercourse,” Jen answered “very much like me,” while Ron answered that this was very unlike him, suggesting it was sexual intercourse or nothing as far as he was concerned. In clarifying this in their home discussion and in the next therapy session, we addressed Rob’s fear that Jen was losing interest in intercourse altogether, to which Jen responded that her desire was enhanced by the freedom to make sexual choices, but squelched by sexual performance pressure.

At home later, Jen and Rob discussed their responses to the item most endorsed by traditional couple sexual style partners: “Foreplay is primarily for her; intercourse for him.” Rob identified with this, but Jen felt it was unlike her. Rob felt that this showed he was a generous lover, but Jen felt that the rigidity of sex roles interfered with their being truly intimate. Both partners found this exploration valuable.

The most important learning, however, comes with integrating such insights into the developing experience of sexuality together. Over time, Rob came to accept that the concept of “pleasuring” is a process of giving and receiving touch, rather than thinking of “foreplay” as a “mission” to turn Jen on so she would be ready for intercourse.

Jen and Rob eventually chose to adopt the complementary couple sexual style as being the best fit for them. It allowed Jen to retain her “sexual voice” and validated the importance of sensual touch, playful touch, and erotic touch, in addition to intercourse. Rob accepted that it was normal for each partner to initiate intercourse and for each to be able to say no or offer a sensual or erotic alternative as a way to connect or reconnect. With this style, they could celebrate variable, flexible sexuality, rather than being stuck in an intercourse-or-nothing power struggle.

I typically emphasize to couples like Rob and Jen that the worst time to talk about sex is in bed (especially after a negative sexual experience) and that the best place is either in a therapist’s office or the day before being sexual in some relaxed setting—over a glass of wine, or on a walk through the woods. Either a therapy session or a relaxed time and setting work best for sharing information about preferred ways to initiate lovemaking, favorite pleasuring and erotic scenarios, and most exciting intercourse positions. During the sexual encounter itself, most couples prefer to let their bodies do the talking, and giving verbal erotic directions is a turnoff.

In therapy and in private discussions with her husband, Jill made clear her preferred bridge to sexual desire (being sexual after a shower), her preferred pleasuring techniques (mutual, multiple stimulation), her favorite erotic scenario (receiving oral stimulation while stroking his chest and penis), her favorite intercourse position (woman on top) and type of thrusting (circular), and her favorite way of sharing afterplay (making a pot of tea and discussing hopes and dreams). Establishing these points proved empowering for her and increased Rob’s receptivity to her sexual initiation.

Rob described his preferences, too. His bridge to desire was to be awakened by Jen stroking his penis; he valued mutual, multiple stimulation; his favorite erotic scenario was standing while she stimulated him manually and orally and he stroked her breasts; and during intercourse, he preferred being on top and making long, slow thrusts, which grew faster as he moved toward orgasm. His favorite afterplay scenario was lying with Jen and holding her, while they shared memories of trips they’d taken together.

By the end of treatment, Rob and Jen had found a way to negotiate their sexual differences, confront their fears, and shift the style of their lovemaking. I’m optimistic that, like them, the great majority of couples can choose a sexual style that facilitates desire, pleasure, and satisfaction and energizes their bond. However, this work offers no guarantees. Ultimately, despite their best intentions, some couples discover that their desires and preferences are incompatible. An example is when one partner wants a traditional, conflict-minimizing sexual style and the other demands the emotionally expressive sexual style. This disparity usually results in a sexual power struggle that subverts intimacy and desire, and eventually destroys the relationship.

When partners differ in their preferred sexual styles, the most usual outcome, especially among couples willing to seek therapy together, is to adopt the complementary style. It’s congruent with both notions of personal autonomy (having your own sexual voice) and interpersonal cooperation (integrating intimacy and eroticism)—values that many couples favor in other areas of their shared lives. But whatever style they choose, helping them move beyond a fixation on the particulars of sexual behavior to the broader issue of sexual style is crucial to getting beyond a power struggle in the bedroom to the discovery of how to understand and develop the meaning that sexuality will have in their relationship.

Barry McCarthy

Barry W. McCarthy, PhD, ABPP, is a certified marital and sex therapist and a tenured professor of psychology at American University.  His clinical expertise focused on integrating sex therapy strategies and techniques into individual and couples therapy, assessment and treatment of the most common male and female sexual problems, and a special expertise in the treatment of sexual desire disorders. 

Dr. McCarthy earned his BA from Loyola University and his MA and PhD from Southern Illinois University.  His professional memberships include the American Psychological Association, American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, Society for Sex Therapy and Research, and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.  He is a Diplomate in sex therapy, earning this from the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. 

As a leading expert in this field, Dr. McCarthy has presented over 350 workshops around the world, and his extensive list of publications includes over 100 professional articles, 26 book chapters, and co-authorship of 14 books, including Sex Made Simple (PESI, 2015), Enduring Desire (Routledge, 2010), Discovering Your Couple Sexual Style (Routledge, 2009), Men’s Sexual Health (Routledge, 2007), Coping with Erectile Dysfunction (New Harbinger, 2004), Getting It Right the First Time (Routledge, 2004), and Coping with Premature Ejaculation (New Harbinger, 2004).