Quick: When you think "sexual compatibility," what (and who) comes to mind? Maybe you picture that rom-com couple that had an incredible one-night stand, despite barely knowing each other. Or maybe, your favorite OTP that finally hooked up in their show's season finale, causing all the stars to align.
But in real life, sexual compatibility is a little more complex.
While you might expect all the chemistry and steaminess when you finally get with a new partner, it's not always possible the first time having sex. "A lot of us put way too much emphasis on the first time we're with somebody," says Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist, sex therapist, and co-author of Sex Talks.
Sometimes, sexual compatibility needs to be worked on or built up over time. Everyone approaches sex differently, so it may take a few times to get on the same page about how to meet each other's needs. "There is no such thing as being universally good in bed," says Marin. "Something that was a home run for your past partner could be a massive flop for your next."
Meet the Experts:
Vanessa Marin is a licensed psychotherapist, sex therapist, and co-author of Sex Talks.
Gigi Engle, ACS, CSC, is a certified sex educator, resident intimacy expert for 3Fun, and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life.
Tom Murray, PhD, LMFT, is a forensic sexologist, author, and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist. He is also the owner of A Path To Wellness Integrative Psychiatry.
But what exactly does it mean to be sexually compatible? Can it grow or change over time, and—perhaps most importantly—should the lack of sexual compatibility be a dealbreaker? Here's what the experts have to say:
What does sexual compatibility mean, exactly?
It might sound self-explanatory, but sexual compatibility doesn't just mean sharing mutually-satisfying sexual experiences. It also involves physical, emotional, and intellectual compatibility, along with understanding and respecting one another’s needs and desires, says Tom Murray, PhD, LMFT, a forensic sexologist and AASECT-certified sex therapist.
"It means feeling comfortable with each other’s bodies, communication styles, and levels of intimacy," he adds. "It also means being able to discuss and openly express feelings, wants, and needs to make sure both partners are satisfied."
Granted, there's a lot that goes into those aspects, and it's not uncommon for there to be a natural imbalance in one case or another. "You're not going to find somebody that is an exact fit for you," says Marin. "It's completely normal to have some areas where you're really compatible, and others where you feel a little bit incompatible."
That's not to say incompatibility should be accepted in all cases (more on that in a bit), but it does mean that hints of incompatibility won't spell the end of an otherwise flourishing relationship.
What are the signs of sexual compatibility?
Here are six signs from Marin that can serve as a foundational guide for determining where you and your partner or potential partner might align. Chances are, you might not be a perfect match, but this should give you a general idea of whether you have compatible sex drives, desires, and outlooks on sexual relationships.
- You're generally on the same page about how often to have sex. Specifically, how often would feel satisfying for both parties? If you're just not on the same page with this one, you can talk about implementing other forms of action on no-sex days or stretches, too, such as different types of sensual or sexual activities to increase intimacy, adds Murray. This can look like making out or even just cuddling—whatever works for both people.
- You're open to each other's ideas and interests. Do you like doing the same things in the bedroom? Which acts do you enjoy, and how long do they last? How do you define sex individually, and how do those definitions contrast? You likely won't be on the same page about everything, but these questions can help you determine where you're compatible, and where you're not.
- Your partner understands the way you like to feel during sex, and vice versa. What kind of mood do you like to experience during sex? Do you like to feel cared for and worshipped, bossed around a bit, or maybe degraded? Do you prefer a romantic experience, something a little more aggressive, or sex that falls somewhere in between? As opposed to your fantasies and sexual interests, this is all about "the energy you want to cultivate" during intimate moments, says Marin.
- You respect each other's 'hard no' areas and boundaries. Are your needs and boundaries able to be met? Can you respect each other's limits? This one is possibly the most important in a healthy relationship.
- You have similar beliefs on what the structure of your relationship should be. What is your preferred relationship structure? Are you monogamous, or non-monogamous? This might also influence how you use certain safe sex practices, like how often you get tested or whether you use protection.
- You're both willing to put effort into your sex life. You might differ on a few of the signs above, but this one is a biggie. Are you both willing to put effort into your sex lives? Are you both willing to work on sex?
How do you build sexual compatibility?
Setting your expectations for a perfect first (or second, or third) experience with a new partner will most likely be unattainable in one way or another.
"Your partner doesn't know your body, and you don't know theirs. You need time to learn what the other likes and help them figure out what you like," says Gigi Engle, certified sex educator, resident intimacy expert for 3Fun, and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. "If you break up with everyone who doesn't blow your mind in bed the first time, your likelihood of finding a stable and rewarding partnership will undoubtedly be negatively impacted."
Sexual compatibility is also something that established couples may have to address as well. Luckily, there are ways to build your compatibility with your sexual partner, regardless of what your situation looks like. The best approach? Open communication. You may feel nervous or intimidated to strike up a conversation with your partner, but doing so can change the trajectory of your sex life.
"Remember that in a healthy sexual relationship, the shared goal should be to ensure everyone is satisfied," says Engle. "If you feel nervous or intimidated, try to make it fun by being playful, cautious, and curious."
Any time is a good time for communication, but it's worth noting that the sooner you talk about it, the better. Ideally, you should aim to do so early on and before you have sex. Marin recommends starting off the conversation by addressing the positives: Tell them what they do really well, give them a compliment, or ask for more of what's working.
Then, you can guide with curiosity and ask some questions, says Engle. These can be as simple as: "What's a fantasy you have?," "What do you like during sex?," or "What's your favorite position?" Additionally, you can look up a list of kinky ideas and talk through it together to see if (and where) there's any overlap.
"If you're not talking openly about sex, there are so many opportunities to misunderstand each other and feel like there's no compatibility—when the reality is that you're just [experiencing a] miscommunication," says Marin. So, when in doubt, talk it out!
Is sexual compatibility necessary?
No matter how much you may like your partner, the lack of sexual compatibility can be a serious dealbreaker. "[It's] definitely a legitimate reason for ending a relationship, if that's what you want," says Engle. "Sexual connection is very important, and if you truly feel there is no way you'll be able to overcome it, that's okay. This person might not be for you."
Many people do end relationships due to incompatibility, be it sexual or otherwise: incompatibility makes up 43% of divorces, with infidelity or sexual issues as a close second (28%), according to a survey taken by Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) professionals.
But Marin also stresses that people often have difficulty finding a middle ground between worrying about having perfect sexual chemistry, and completely ignoring compatibility altogether. In reality, compatibility is important enough to end a relationship, but not so important that it needs to perfect all the time.
At the end of the day, your willingness to communicate with each other and work on your sex life could make all the difference. But what if you can't move past the incompatibilities? If your partner doesn't want to have a conversation, shuts down your efforts to talk about it, or refuses to make adjustments, it may be time to walk away so you can find a relationship that leaves you both feeling sexually fulfilled.