"Intimacy,” they call it- whenever the word “sex” feels too strong, too scary, too… dirty? Intimacy can be found in a million places where sex isn’t, though, so distinguishing between “eroticism,” “love,” “connection,” and “intimacy” is important to a discussion on Sexual Incompatibility.
Sexual Incompatibility is the scientific term to describe what happens when one or both people in a relationship is dissatisfied with the erotic landscape of the union.
I first hear the term in college while studying marriage and divorce. I learned that it’s one of the top five reasons for divorce in most marriages (the others include money, in-laws, disagreements about child-rearing), which made sense. But I got really interested when I learned that it is the number ONE reason for divorce among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The research is hard to pin down on this, but it is safe to say that it is a large contributing factor to LDS divorces and possibly other religious marriages, more so than non religious couples.
For a people who steers away from the topic, due to its sacred and personal status within the home, I immediately wondered why we weren’t talking more about it. In my own experience, I was taught sex was something to be avoided until marriage, at which point you are free to go. What exactly “free to go” meant, I didn’t know. But I did have the understanding that my sex life was between my husband and me, and was something to be cherished and prioritized once marriage status was reached.
I didn’t believe sex was a bad thing, that it was inherently dirty. However, knowing what something ISN’T is very different from knowing what something IS.
In my very anecdotal experience of being a teenager, my view was that I was an outlier in my interest in sexual education. Few of my friends wanted to or felt comfortable discussing it, but among those who did, we had many top-secret conversations during late nights after our more conservative friends had fallen asleep. As I was already reading relationship and marriage books, the topics of intimacy and sex had come up plenty of times. I became aware of the significant impact good or bad erotic connection had, not just on sexual satisfaction, but on the functioning of the entire day-to-day life of a couple.
I watched therapy sessions between therapists and couples spanning the spectrum from sexless for decades to overly sexual to the detriment of emotional connection. I reflected on my own potential hangups and saw just how common it is for people, women especially, to lack understanding about their own bodies and needs. I found that many, if not all, of these problems were non-discriminating- they impacted religious couples, agnostic couples, gay and straight couples, young and old couples. It was clear that there was simply not enough good, useful education and conversation happening to prepare adults for a satisfying intimate, erotic, connected life with another human being.
When I heard the stat about LDS couples, it was immediately clear to me how this could be an issue. I had no idea how much more complex the story would become as I continued to investigate and contemplate the reasons behind the epidemic of sexual incompatibility among us.
Between the ages of 19-23, the majority of my core group of friends married, and most were virgins until their wedding night. Me being the “still single” friend, out in the dating world, perhaps I was seen as a safe repository for sexual lamentations because I didn’t have a husband with whom to compare the husbands my friends confided in me about. So over the years, I had countless conversations with women who were navigating sexual conversation, interest, and acts for the first time in their lives and they were struggling to understand why it was more difficult than it seemed from the outside.
As a nanny for many families, I saw the impact having children had on a couple. I was another adult in the home with whom to discuss the feelings of “just so tired” and how that impacts desire between partners. Although I wasn’t privy to the specifics of the sex lives in most cases, I saw the struggle to keep the fire alive while tiny humans and careers and extended family strain and financial concerns and a home to keep up all vied for the couple’s attention and limited energy.
When sex is painted as a thing that “just happens,” that’s “natural” and “romantic,” there is a lot of pressure put on ourselves to just feel like it. That if we don’t just feel like it, then the relationship is done for. Either that, or we are supposed to accept that it’s just not there anymore, then proceed to finding ways to make everything else in the relationship better in order to survive a life without being sexually fulfilled.
Perhaps the biggest conundrum I’ve come across is the problem of a person not knowing what they are missing. Most of the time I am not talking with women who have had incredible, fulfilling experiences with sex, who then get overwhelmed by life and lose desire. It’s relatively easy for a woman like that to remember that part of herself and desire to get it back.
Most often, I’m talking with women who don’t have a foundation to return to. There is not a sense of loss, there is a sense of “I could live without it, I’ve never been that into it.” Or, “It’s not what I imagined, so I feel ok to have it be something I give my husband but I’m not concerned about improving it for me.” In other words, she never caught the fire to begin with.
To this, I respectfully disagree. I understand how, if something has never been great for you, and at the same time you’ve never independently felt sexually aroused to the point that you’d be looking for relief, you could wonder why it even matters to put some focus on it. If things are working out, you’re fine to indulge your husband regularly, and you don’t mind it, why would you put your already limited energy toward it? I get that.
The part I disagree with is that you think you wouldn’t enjoy it, that you don’t have it within you to desire it, and that it’s not worth some effort. For you. Maybe for your spouse, but not for you. Medical research shows that there is only a tiny percentage of women who have physiological barriers to arousal. Meaning, your body can do it. It’s your mind that blocks the road to the pleasure parade.
There are dozens of physiological and mental benefits to orgasm, and plenty more benefits to your relationship. Long day with the kids? Anxiety over a heavy work day? Feeling alone? What might it feel like to have someone spend time on you, let yourself tune everything out, and then experience physical sensations you can’t find anywhere else? Sex is an excellent stress reliever, body, mind, and spirit.
But I suggest that the ability to allow that kind of experience to happen in the bedroom, comes from the ability to have that kind of experience in your life generally- and vice versa. Many, many women do not experience orgasm during sex. Many others want to, but end up feeling frustrated, impatient, or unable to allow themselves to relax long enough and trust their partners enough to help them create it.
Sex, although we often talk about it as a unifying act, a place where two become one and all that, is actually something that requires some selfishness. In a world where women are constantly accommodating, where we are naturally inclined to keep others’ needs at the forefront of our mind, it becomes very difficult to go inside of ourselves and find out- What do I want? What am I feeling? What would feel good to me? What do I need from him? What does “pleasure” look like for me?
All this, after a full day of never asking these questions--or worse--banishing these questions because it feels wrong to ask them. Or if we do, asking them after asking others their preferences first.
If you get one thing out of this post, please get this: Having sex “just for him,” will eventually, if it’s not already, be a thing that makes sex less fun for him.
I didn’t want to say this because it turns the focus away from putting in the effort for you, but there are women for whom that is still too far to stretch. They aren’t convinced it can ever be pleasurable for them like it is for him, so they want reasons why it matters for him.
Try this: ask your husband what his biggest turn on is. I am willing to bet that he will mention how much he loves making you happy and seeing you enjoy yourself. I bet if he could magically read your mind and know that you were usually acquiescing to his requests even though you weren’t interested, he would approach you less often or feel bad when he does.
I bet the reason he wishes you would initiate more, is so that he would more easily feel like you wanted him as much as he wants you. You finding out how to tap into your own sexual preferences, desires, hopes and dreams, is a practice that strengthens your self-awareness both inside and outside of the bedroom.
It connects you to yourself and roots you in a confidence that you carry everywhere you go. You naturally become more free with your body, and your kids pick up on your lack of fear about it. Rather than picking up on the shame that’s unintentionally spread by feeling uncomfortable about your body or your sexuality, kids pick up on the goodness of the body. The reason for it.
Through your example, they gain an awareness that the soul is in control of the body, and therefore there is nothing to fear. They are free to feel, to discuss, to wonder, to learn. Then, they get why it’s worth waiting, worth holding sacred. Expressing fear or repression only teaches them to feel ashamed when they have more feelings on the matter than you seem to have. Only something worth pursuing in marriage would be something worth saving for marriage.
And then, as a fantastic bonus to this awakening, it helps your husband feel less like a beggar and more like a happy accomplice.
Being incompatible sexually and being unwilling to put a little focus into it is introducing risk into your marriage- and let’s remember that even though 45% of marriages end in divorce, that doesn’t mean that the other 55% are living happily in the same bed. But being sexually available so that your husband doesn’t get into porn (this is a common refrain I hear from wives) sounds like a real downer and makes sex feel like medical maintenance rather than a mutually enjoyable, personally energizing endeavor.
There are so many how-to’s and why’s and deeply complicated things to learn about sex and about oneself’s relationship with it. There is sex therapy, books on eroticism and many experts to learn from. I have felt that my role in it is simply to make a case for why it matters to take a second look at it. To keep trying, to keep opening the questions, and to getting a little more brave each day with yourself and your conversations and experiences with your spouse. With the decision to care about it, you’ll find the tools to improve it.
No matter how long you have been together, I promise that you can ignite or reignite a whole new sex life- one that includes both partners, one that includes new heights, and maybe even a reversal of the labels “high desire partner” and “low desire partner.” It’s possible, and it matters.