Helping Struggling Couples Find Their Sexual Style

A Guide to the Four Types: Traditional, Soulmate, Emotionally Expressive, Complementary

Barry McCarthy

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. But 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.

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.

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.

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.

After reviewing Rob and Jen's 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 a 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.

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.


This blog is excerpted from "Heart of the Matter" by Barry McCarthy. The full version is available in the November/December 2009 issue, The Porn Explosion: How Are Therapists Reacting?

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Topic: Couples | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: 2009 | Barry McCarthy | Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples therapist | couples therapists | Couples Therapy | love | love and relationships | sex | Sex & Sexuality | sex life | sex therapist | sexual fantasies | sexuality

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