Take a look at any sex advice column on the internet, and you’ll likely find a few questions that start like this: “I’m dating the perfect person. They’re sweet, hot, and funny. There’s just one thing…” And whether that one thing is a lower (or higher) sex drive, a kink one person doesn’t share, or just a lack of sexual chemistry, the writer wants to know how to make it work. After all, how important is sex in a relationship, really?
The answer really depends on the individual people and relationship, says Megan Fleming, PhD, a couples counselor and sex therapist who practices in New York. Some people place a lot of importance on sex, while for others, it’s not a priority. A couple could have sex rarely or never, but if both people are happy with that, then it’s not a problem. However, other people place a lot of importance on sex, and sexual incompatibility can put strain on the relationship.
“When sex is going well in a relationship, it’s usually a small part of a relationship. But when it’s not going well, unfortunately, it can cast a shadow on the relationship as a whole,” Dr. Fleming explains.
One common area of conflict is differences in libido, when one partner wants to have sex more often than the other. “Self-esteem issues can come up around that,” Dr. Fleming says. In this situation, she says that couples should work together to find a “sweet spot” where they’re having sex often enough that they feel connected to each other. One way to do this is to allow for “responsive desire” — meaning that although the partner with the lower sex drive might not feel up for sex in the moment, but if the partner with the higher sex drive begins by caressing and touching them, they might get turned on and feel ready for sex. “That’s a good way people can come to and approach sex,” Dr. Fleming says. “But if it’s more in the sense of ‘take one for the team,’ or pushing yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right for your body, that usually is going to be upsetting” for both people, she says.
Another common area of conflict is sexual dysfunction, she says. This includes erectile dysfunction, difficulty reaching orgasm, or conditions that cause pain during intercourse. Depending on the person and the type of sexual dysfunction, there may be masturbation exercises or treatments that can help — and the couple can also rethink how they approach sex to focus more on pleasure than penetration or orgasm.
Whether it’s a difference in libido, sexual dysfunction, or another area of conflict — one person has a kink the other doesn’t share; one person wants to try something that the other person doesn’t; one person wants an open relationship and the other doesn't — the best way to approach this conflict is to talk about it with your partner (especially with the help of a therapist). Sometimes you'll realize you should break up — but other times, you may be able to work together to find a place where you're both happy.
When talking about sex, Dr. Fleming says it’s important to use positive language. “So often, we speak from frustration or disappointment, with you never…” she explains. “When you bring it up, you don’t want to bring it up from frustration, but from experience and the longing. It’s not a you’re not doing it right situation, it’s positive reinforcement: I really like it when, it feels good to me, I really appreciate, I want to experience this with you.’”
Another way to approach conflict around sex, especially when it comes to trying something new, is to test the waters by discussing the topic in a way that’s not so personal — for example, bringing up an article or TV show. You could begin by saying something like, “I came across a beginner’s guide to spanking today,” or “Did you see that public sex on the Ferris wheel scene in Insecure?”
“A lot of times, the language I tell my clients to use is ‘I’m confused’ or ‘I’m curious,’ because usually that helps get a non-defensive response,” Dr. Fleming says. “It’s human nature to want to explain things to people, and curiosity usually brings out the same energy in your partner.”