Folk wisdom gives us mixed-messages when it comes to compatibility. We hear phrases like “birds of a feather flock together” telling us we need to be compatible with a partner in order to be successful. Then we hear contradictory phrases like “opposites attract” telling us we need not be similar to our partner, but rather different for relational success.
Although compatibility isn’t necessarily a synonym to similarity, they are certainly in the same family.
Perceived sexual compatibility is defined as the extent to which a couple perceives they share sexual beliefs, preferences, desires, and needs with their partner. Another form of sexual compatibility is the extent to which similarities exist between actual turn ons and turn offs for each partner emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally.
Perceiving sexual compatibility with a partner has been shown to be related to sexual satisfaction, such that the more sexually compatible you are, the more sexually satisfied you are.1 And researchers have consistently found that sexual satisfaction is also significantly positively related to relationship satisfaction; when one increases (or decreases), the other tends to follow.2,3
Considering the extent to which sexual compatibility contributes to satisfaction in our relationships, it is somewhat surprising there isn’t more research on the topic.
The majority of the research in this area has examined perceived sexual compatibility and it has been found to be related to sexual satisfaction as I mentioned above, but also communication, sexual desire, and sexual functioning, among others.
Despite this focus on perceived sexual compatibility in current research, researchers as early as Ellis in 1953 suggested that one of the main sources of sexual incompatibility were inconsistent preferences for specific sex acts between partners.4
So what about compatibility of turn ons and turn offs? It may matter when it comes to being sexually compatible with your partner, as Ellis suggested. If one of you always wants sex with the lights on but one of you always wants sex with the lights off, it may impact your compatibility and perhaps also your satisfaction.
However, research that I’ve recently published with colleagues found that perceived compatibility was a more important predictor of both sexual and relationship satisfaction than compatibility of turn ons and turn offs.5 Regardless of whether you like to engage in the same sexual behaviors as your partner, as long as you perceive that you are compatible, your sexual and relationship satisfaction remains intact.
This focus on perception isn’t new. Some argue that the perception of a situation is the reality of the situation, regardless of how it may seem to others.
Also, perception isn’t just important in terms of sexual compatibility and its predictive ability of sexual satisfaction. Gottman has suggested that perception of personality differences, not actual personality differences, is a key component for its predictive ability of relationship satisfaction. Gottman has also found that it is only when a relationship isn’t going very well that partners perceive their partner’s personality is to blame.6
Perhaps it is only when the sexual side of a relationship isn’t going very well that partners perceive they aren’t sexually compatible with their partner in terms of their behavioral preferences.
So if you meet someone new, and after discussing what you do and don’t like in the bedroom you find some inconsistencies, don’t cut and run too fast! Providing you can perceive yourselves to be sexually compatible, the compatibility of your turn ons and turn offs don’t matter much to satisfaction.
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A version of this article was previously published on Dr. Mark’s blog at Psychology Today.
1Smith, E. R., Becker, M. A., Byren, D., & Przbylia, D. P. (1993). Sexual attitudes of males and females as predictors of interpersonal attraction and marital compatibility. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 1011-1034.
2Byers, S. E. (2005). Relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction: A longitudinal study of individuals in long-term relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 42, 113-118.
3Yeh, H. C., Lorenz, F. O., Wickrama, K. A. S., Conger, R. D., & Elder, G. H. (2006). Relationships among sexual satisfaction, marital quality, and marital instability at midlife. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 339-343.
4Ellis, A. (1953). Marriage counseling with couples indicating sexual incompatibility. Marriage and Family Living, 15, 53-59.
5Mark, K. P., Milhausen, R. R., & Maitland, S. B. (2013). The impact of sexual compatibility on sexual and relationship satisfaction in a sample of young adult heterosexual couples. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, DOI:10.1080/14681994.2013.807336
6Gottmann, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: Norton.
Dr. Kristen Mark – Website/CV
Dr. Mark’s research focuses on sexuality and sexual health primarily in the context of long-term romantic relationships. In particular, she studies sexual desire, sexual desire discrepancies, infidelity, and the maintenance of sexual and relationship satisfaction in long-term relationships. Dr. Mark is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at University of Kentucky.