Love and Relationships

Sex, intimacy, and sexual compatibility: What every couple needs to know

Steph Arnaldo
Sex, intimacy, and sexual compatibility: What every couple needs to know
How important is sex in a marriage? What if we're not sexually compatible? A relationship therapist talks about what truly matters in a relationship (and it's not just sex).

MANILA, Philippines – “If you’re not sexually attracted to your partner, leave.” “It’s okay if you’re not sexually compatible – you’ll live.” “Passion is the most important thing in any relationship.” “Sex isn’t that important in a relationship anyway.” “You should be having sex all the time.”

With all these relationship “truths” and so-called “sex deal-breakers” constantly being thrown our way by media, peers, elders, and other married couples, we want to know the real deal: how true are these statements, anyway?

Even if there are misconceptions about sex and relationships that a lot of us may have formed growing up, perhaps due to religion, education, our upbringing, and Western mainstream media, it’s never too late to start debunking some of them! Relationship counselor and Stay Connected author Lissy Ann Puno dishes psychologist-backed truths about sex and intimacy that every couple needs to know to grow a healthy, loving relationship.

The real #CoupleGoals

According to Lissy Ann, there are four main components needed in any healthy relationship: Love, Commitment, Intimacy, and Sex. 

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“Taken apart or experienced it on its own, they are as important but experiencing it together, gives it more meaning and fulfilment for the individual and the couple,” Lissy Ann told Rappler.

But what exactly makes a “healthy, loving relationship?” Lissy Ann said that a a loving relationship is one in which “individuals trust each other enough to become vulnerable and secure, and “neither exploits nor takes the other for granted.” It involves “communication, sharing, and tenderness.”

Sure, that sounds like rainbows and butterflies, but it’s compromise that moves us along, as Maroon 5 said. I’m sure that many of us would want that kind of relationship for ourselves, but like the good things in life, achieving true #CoupleGoals requires time and effort on both sides. This includes choosing to love, committing to one another, making time for sex, and working on intimacy.

But isn’t intimacy just the same as sex? How are the two components different? Contrary to popular belief, they’re two different aspects of a relationship – and intimacy may not exactly be what you think.

“Intimacy actually means ‘inmost,’ so this refers to the innermost part of our beings or core. It suggests that to be intimate you need a very strong personal relationship and emotional closeness in order to feel safe to reveal that innermost self,” Lissy Ann said.

Often, Lissy Ann’s clinical practice sees struggling couples expressing sexual issues, which are usually symptoms of of a relationship that is not working. However, there are times where “sexual intimacy” is actually the problem.

Why is sexual intimacy important?

Combine sex and intimacy, and you get “sexual intimacy” – a very important aspect of any romantic relationship. Sexual intimacy is defined as the “sexual expression of one’s love for the other,” and is all about “communication,” not only just an obligation or duty.

“Sexual intimacy is the expression of love through the physical body and one’s sexuality. Sexual intimacy is when you feel accepted, safe, valued, loving, and free to express yourself and your love for your partner with pure pleasure and enjoyment,” Lissy Ann said.

Love and acceptance are two elements that are just as important to the sexual experience as they are to the emotional.

For males and females, sexual intimacy can be experienced differently – for women, sexual intimacy is felt when there is a lot of emotional closeness and affection; while for men, sexual intimacy is felt with the frequency of the sexual experience.

If sexual intimacy is something you feel is lacking in your relationship, don’t worry – there are always ways to work on this together. Lissy Ann suggests that to grow in emotional intimacy, spend time doing recreational fun, and invest in deep levels of communication. After this, meaningful sex should come naturally from all of that.

“Sexual intimacy would be an extension of the emotions/feelings felt in the relationship that want to be expressed with the use of affection and physical gestures of lovemaking. It can be lots of fun when shared with someone who understands you deeply and when both needs are met during lovemaking,” Lissy Ann said.

If having sexual intimacy is important, does this mean the act of sex – the frequency, passion level, and other factors – is just as important, too? Should it be prioritized over everything else? Lissy Ann said that is not always the case.

Skewed about sex

We may feel like our relationship is “not enough” if we don’t have sex “the way they do in the movies,” or have sex as often as people say they do. Young adolescents may also feel like sex should always be the “end goal” of every relationship, or that you must have sex with your partner right away to feel connected and committed.

Compared to sex, sexual intimacy is hardly ever taught, especially in mainstream media, hence many people’s possible skewed perceptions on sex. In TV shows and films, all we see are heated couples engaging in passionate sex, anytime and every time, and hardly the more intimate side.

“Media tends to promote an overly sexualized culture. As you can see around us in magazines, advertisements, newspapers, billboards, programs, movies, internet, commercials, the message seems to be that “sex sells” and “anything goes.” We are exposed to sexual images that have a strong message towards it. We want to correct this image,” Lissy Ann said.

There has always been a “hyper-focus” on sex and putting physical pleasure on a pedestal, but Lissy Ann reminds both singles and couples that “there is a lot more at stake than the pleasure that is associated with sex.”

“We should also have respect for our bodies, authentic love for one another, tenderness and intimacy in a committed relationship, mental and emotional health and well-being, and communication that allows us to be loved and understood,” she added.

When two become one – or not

A couple’s worst fear could be finding out that their physical attraction and emotional connection to each other stops at that. What if we’re not sexually compatible?

Sexual compatibility, known as being mutually sexually attracted to your partner, is actually more than that – it’s when a couple has the same level of sexual desire and expectations that translate to a mutually satisfying frequency and quality of sex.

You’re basically on the same sex page. But what happens if you’re not?

“Sexual compatibility can be reached with a lot of understanding, communication, and love for one another that you are willing to negotiate during times when sexual desire and expectation are not of equal weight,” Lissy Ann said.

This understanding should stem from a place of non-judgment and the acceptance that “human beings are created sexual beings.” “It is a continuing desire that allows us to enjoy a fulfilling sexual life with a partner who who we want to love in a safe committed relationship,” she added.

“When there are significant differences in each spouse, try to understand if there are other issues contributing to the lack of compatibility.”

“Is it worth it to try improving our sexual compatibility?” According to Lissy Ann, it is. Sexual compatibility is part of a healthy and loving relationship, which is ultimately made up of a variety of values, attitudes, and traits that two people discover while dating. Sex is one part of this.

“It is important that with love, respect, and kindness we get to know one another in terms of the views that we have with regard to sex. It is definitely not discovered in an instant or moment of attraction,” she said.

Discovering sexual compatibility includes being emotionally intimate with another – while dating, you will discover differences, barriers, past experiences, and childhood upbringing that may “block the manner in which sex would be experienced.” This process will help each partner understand how they would approach this in their relationship.

“Grow as lovers and allow the compatibility to grow. Trusting that both are willing to communicate about their sex lives in an honest way will enhance the overall quality of the relationship. Address frustrations, disappointments, and other concerns immediately so not to develop resentment, hurts, and misunderstanding,” Lissy Ann said.

Let’s talk about sex, baby: Make-or-break dealbreakers

The aforementioned all-or-nothing statements at the beginning – so, are these true or not? There is no absolute answer, and nothing is black or white, as it always depends on the couple. But according to Lissy Ann, the following answers to these common questions about sex are “based on a level of emotional maturity, psychological health, and a good foundation to a relationship where both couples want to make it work.”

Do we need to be sexually compatible to make things work?” No. There are other “ingredients” to make a relationship work; not only sex.

What if I am not sexually satisfied in my relationship? Can it still work?” Maybe. It can work, but you both need to be willing to work on it and find ways towards mutual sexual fulfillment. When this is addressed in mature ways, you can reach the point of getting your needs met.

Can our relationship still work if partner just wants to be sexually satisfied somewhere else?” No. “Respect the boundaries of a committed relationship”, Lissy Ann said.

“Is it okay if I have a strong libido and my partner doesn’t?” Yes. Talk about the mismatch of your sexual desire and expectations and try to find a balance. Both have to make compromises.

Is it risky if we wait until marriage after we test our sexual compatibility?” There are a lot of things to discover after marriage and being sexual partners could be one of them. Lissy Ann suggests to “get to know one another deeply before marriage” – know yourselves, know one another, past childhood experiences, let your love grow, understand one another, deepen communication, and learn how to problem solve.

How often should we really have sex as a married couple?” There really is no by-the-book answer for this – it depends on many factors like age, stress, and physical condition. However, a “sexless marriage” is something to be concerned about. According to Lissy Ann, that is defined by having sex less than 10 times a year.

“What if we skip sex for weeks/months because we’re both tired and busy?” Identify the roadblocks and distractions in your lives that take away the opportunity to spend time as a couple. Be aware if you are building excuses and focusing your energy on other things that take away one’s drive and energy for having sex.

What if our sexual drive as a couple is not as rampant or aggressive as we think ‘it should be?'” According to Lissy Ann, what the media portrays would not be a good basis of what sexual intimacy would be in a healthy, loving relationship.

“What if sex isn’t a mutual priority?” Talk about it with understanding, tenderness, and love and ask for your needs and talk about why it is important to you.

“With all the right ingredients, your sexual compatibility will grow too,” Lissy Ann said, which is reassuring to hear, especially for couples still working their way through the maze that is sex and intimacy. However, you don’t have to feel sad that you’re lost – with the right partner and the right tools, sooner or later, you will be found. – Rappler.com

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.