Sexual incompatibility

I was recently included in this article about sexual incompatibility by Alix Fox. It’s something that Justin Hancock and I talk about regularly on our podcast as we think that the myth of easy and ongoing sexual compatibility is one of the reasons people are often so unhappy and anxious about their sex lives. Here’s my answers to the questions Alix asked me.

What are the most common kinds of sexual incompatibility?

Probably the most common ones are people having different levels of desire or wanting different amounts of sex, and people enjoying sex for quite different reasons (e.g. for one it is to feel connected with a partner, for another it is more about the release of orgasm, or being in certain roles). People just being into quite different things is also common: like one being more kinky or open than another. 

Do you think absolute incompatibility is a myth and that most people can learn to satisfy one another? Or are there problems where it’s more sensible to break up, or accept it the way things are?

I would challenge the stay together / break up binary here! In any relationship there are bound to be areas of compatibility and incompatibility (around all kinds of things, not just sex). It’s useful to view it as a Venn diagram. What is in your separate circles and what’s in your overlap? The main problem is that people are taught that they shouldn’t have any incompatibilities and that The One true partner should meet all their sexual needs and desires.

If we see incompatibility as inevitable we can remove some of the shame and start to think creatively about which desires we might explore together, which we might explore separately and how (given the agreements that we have around non/monogamy). Justin and I have produced zines on making your own sex and relationship user guides to help you to have these conversations. 

What are the ways people can approach incompatibility issues in terms of practical actions and strategies?

First it’s worth thinking about your non/monogamy agreement. In your areas of incompatibility where is it possible for each of you to get those desires met? If the relationship is sexually monogamous then ensuring time for separate solo sex, reading/writing erotica, watching porn, fantasy, etc. is important. If non-monogamous then might these desires be met with another partner, in hook-ups, with a sex worker, at parties, or in other ways? 

If one person wants sex a lot more/less than another, or this changes over time, try to expand your understanding of what ‘counts’ as sex. Make a long list – separately and then together – of all the erotic and sensual things you might enjoy together and then find out which ones you both enjoy. Create times together to enjoy those things so that there isn’t pressure in those times to have the kind of sex that the one person doesn’t want. Consent-wise you should only be doing what you are both a wholehearted ‘yes’ for. Ensuring that the times you do connect together are consensual and enjoyable for everyone involved will help a lot. 

When one person has a fetish the other does not share, dig into what sex – of various kinds – means to each of you. What is it you’re looking for from sex? What kind of feeling do you want from it? What is enjoyable about it for you? This kind of conversation can be very illuminating and help you find the common ground as well as the areas where you differ. 

If a partner doesn’t seem to know how to touch you, or how they want to be touched, it could well be worth going to some events together where you can learn more about sex, and/or doing some reading. Barbara Carrellas’s Urban Tantra and Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent both offer brilliant advice about how to learn to be with your body and another person’s body, learning what you enjoy giving and receiving, and how to be present to each other during sex. 

If you are both dominant/submissive – if you’re non-monogamous and you want to be erotically connected, what about finding a third person or people who you can co-top – if dominant – or submit to together? Or you could each get those desires met elsewhere and connect over comparing notes. Sometimes we can find hidden submissive sides (if dominant) and vice versa, so it might be worth playing with that very gently and cautiously to see whether you can switch, but if that doesn’t work for you that’s just okay. 

If one person wants sex to be tender and emotional, whereas the other has a more casual or raunchy attitude to sex, again digging into the meanings of sex and the reasons for having sex for each of you would be useful. Perhaps there is some common ground. If not then it’s fine that you have different desires. Can you reconfigure the relationship so that it is grounded on other things than sex and go elsewhere for the sex? 

If your partner doesn’t instinctively seem to be able to ‘read’ you, this is another good one for reading or going to events and learning each other. It’s also just okay if you find that sex isn’t one of your areas of compatibility and you need to go elsewhere for that and base your relationship on other things. 

Are there any additional approaches or ideas you can detail that can help people bridge sexual gaps and find greater satisfaction with one another? e.g. sex menus, being ‘GGG’, scheduling sex, getting therapy, etc.)

Sex menus are great. Check out Enjoy Sex and megjohnandjustin.com for more about how to talk about sex, be present to sex, and figure out what you want.

GGG and scheduling sex risk being a fast-track to non-consensual treatment of yourself and the other person. Never have sex you don’t want! It is fine to get your sexual desires met somewhere else. It is fine to have a close relationship which is based on other things than sex. Most partners have incompatibilities. Many long term relationships become non-sexual and that is fine. If you have unwanted sex you are hurting yourself and you are likely to want even less sex as a consequence. Please don’t do this to yourself! 

How important is it to solve sexual incompatibility? Is it possible to have a happy, healthy relationship without mutually satisfying sex?

It’s totally possible and very normal. The Enduring Love study found that many – if not most – long term couples had happy relationships without much sex together. The myth of one relationship meeting your sexual desires for a lifetime is really dangerous.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Paul Thurtle

    6 September

    Thank you very much for this! I found it very helpful.
    I have always believed that it is healthy within a long term relationship to have separate interests and to be able to enjoy things that the other person doesn’t – in our case, it is Role-Playing (tabletop) Games and Bell Ringing! We each respect the other’s interest but have no desire to share it.
    The Venn diagram was particularly helpful; I could see that being of real use to a couple who have both retired. I feel it is unrealistic for two people to believe that they will have all their needs met in one other person and not have any interests outside of that one relationship. It is so sad seeing older couples at each others throats as neither are having their needs met within that relationship. Your Venn diagram put into action could save a relationship!

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