Post Valentine Realism Part 1: Why It’s More Important Than You Think To Pick A Sexually Compatible Partner

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.
I’ve been following the E-Harmony debate with interest.  No, not the controversy about their  CEO’s  stupid anti-gay remarks.  I mean the scientific debate, about the truth of the site’s claims that it is able to match people for maximum relationship compatibility.    E-Harmony has a proprietary algorithm that apparently matches people on dimensions like agreeableness, degree of intimacy desired, and importance of religion, and the in-house researchers maintain that these pairings lead to the most satisfying relationships.  Critics maintain that  similarities between people have been shown to be unrelated to relationship satisfaction, and that some of the traits E-Harmony matches on are predictive in only one direction.  ‘Agreeableness’ is such a trait.  ‘Agreeable’ people report more relationship satisfaction in general; partners who ‘match’ on low levels of this characteristic are not going to be happy even though they are similar.
So the debate has me thinking about what IS important in predicting relationship happiness, what actually are the components of success.  Mostly I think – hell if I know.  There are too many quirky variables and indefiniable elements of attraction to be to come up with a list of ‘rules.’ Not to mention real-life factors that the couple can’t control.
But some things are deal-breakers, I have learned through the years.  Really wanting kids vs. really not wanting kids is one of them, almost certain to lead to misery and dissolution of the bonds of love.  And another, not the biggest but certainly of some importance, is – being sexually mis-matched.
If we realized how important sexual compatability was, we would surely ask about it, when dating, as frequently as we ask about family plans or future goals.  (The asking may be indirect, but we probe nevertheless).
But we don’t realize it because – we live in a culture that is still so Puritanical that it is not acceptable to include good sex as a critically important component of a relationship.  As a sex therapist practicing for 30 years, I’ve seen dozens of couples who were miserable because of what we in the field call ‘discrepant desire’ or ‘sexual script discrepancy.’  They are the couples where one partner wants sex every day and the other could be happy with a few times a year; the ones where one person craves adventure and risk in sex and the other wants the familiarity of same-thing-every-time sex.
Sex therapists often fail with these couples, especially when the two are not open to one or both partners getting some of their sexual needs met outside the relationship.  And affairs among this type of couple are common, not because the relationship is flawed but because the person with unmet sexual needs feels a need to keep their sexual self alive and vibrant. (Thanks to Esther Perel for pointing out that sometimes the reasons for an affair are obvious and not necessarily linked to bad character or relationship dysfunction).
So my advice to anyone who is considering a long term monogamous commitment to another:  check out your sexual compatability.  Monogamy is hard enough to sustain when you are well-matched; it’s a bear when you’re not.
This is harder than you might think.  In the first months after a relationship becomes sexual, the sex is usually great.  (If it’s not – leave now unless you both could care less about sex).  The state of ‘limerance’ as it is called lasts roughly a year or two, and it is only when you have ‘come down’ off the high of infatuation that you see what your partner’s sex drive is really all about.
Since many people will not want to wait that long to know if they have found a sexually compatable mate, you need to find out about your potential partner by observation and learning about their sexual past.
But  before you do that – investigate your own sexuality.  Ask yourself about your own preferences, desires, and behaviors.  Start by asking yourself, honestly, how important sex is to you.  Not how important you think it should be or how important others want it to be – but what you truly want, what would make you happiest.  If you don’t think about sex that much, don’t masturbate a lot, even when you are single, can go for a long time without missing it terribly – you have a low libido.  If you have ‘always’ been this way, things are unlikely to change.  So the best thing you can do for yourself is make sure you don’t commit to someone who values, needs, and likes sex a lot.  That’s a recipe for misery and disaster for both of you. Find someone else who likes to cuddle more than fuck. There’s ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with wanting a relationship where sex is lower down on the list, and screw the ‘sex experts’ who say all relationships need a ‘healthy’ sex life, defined by some arbitrary level of frequency.
If sex is moderately to very important to you – admit that as well.  It may be hard to acknowledge if you are highly sexual, maybe more difficult for women – society still slut-shames a lot. But if you started whacking off when you were still in single digits, prefer at least one orgasm a day, even if it’s just a ‘maintenance’ orgasm, and have elaborate sexual fantasies – you may very well be randy until the day you die.  If your partner isn’t – what will you do with all that sexual fire?
Level of libido, or sexual desire, seems to be pretty consistent over time.  It may decline with age, but the high desire person will probably be higher than their peers at any age.  And while some people have significant components of their sexuality repressed by trauma, and therefore possibly amenable to change, this is not all that common.  And so imo level of sexual desire, how important sex is  – ranks right below sexual orientation as the single most important thing you want to know about a yourself and any potential partner.  Here are some others – again, if you can’t answer these questions for yourself you won’t be able to determine the sexual potential of a given relationship either:

1) Are you a top or a bottom or a switch? Or is any hint of power dynamic a turn off?
2) Do you prefer sexual familiarity or comfort, or novelty, risk, and adventure?
3) How kinky vs. vanilla are your sexual tastes?
4) Are you by nature monogamous or poly sexual or amorous?
5) Are you sexually fluid or stable in your sexual orientation?
6) How rigid or flexible are your sexual preferences?  Do you merely like anal sex, or would you be completely miserable without it?
In Part 2, I’ll write more about how to figure out where you stand on these dimensions, and how to tell where your partner is at sexually.

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