I was going to law school. Coming home from a mission in Japan, I was going to get a law degree and take Japanese business CEOs golfing and get paid a ton of money. This fantasy lasted right up until I heard a tape by marital researcher John Gottman. I was captivated at how marital conflict could be studied. I have since been immersed in studying couples and relationships, and have been seeing couples in therapy part-time for about three years, primarily using Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). It can be difficult, but is also a privilege to watch. I love being a part of helping couples find each other again. For this new “Date Night” series, I would like to write about what I have been studying or experiencing with couples.
In January of this year I attended a conference where one of the speakers was Barry McCarthy, a professor at American University. He talked about couple sexuality, and described four common sexual “styles” that individuals and couples choose (or fall into). It sounds a little facebook quiz-ish, but it is helpful to recognize your style, partner’s, and the style you have together. Here are the four styles:
This is the most common. McCarthy calls it a “mine and ours” style. Each person has their own sexual voice and preferences, and is responsible for their own experience. They combine this with also being responsible for the “intimate team.” Each partner can initiate sex or say no. They can switch off choosing different activities in bed. A big strength of this style is the role flexibility.
This is “predictable and stable.” These couples do not like too much excitement, and prefer traditional roles – the man is usually in charge of initiating sex, while the woman is in charge emotional closeness. Sex may not be seen as important, and strong displays of emotion and eroticism may be discouraged. A strength of this style is having clear roles, which can help prevent sex from becoming a problem.
These couples are “best-friends” but may not necessarily have the best sex life. They are open with their positive feelings, do everything together, and often think that the more close they are, the better the sex will be. This is not always the case though, as McCarthy says these partners often “de-eroticize each other.” When this style works well these couples feel a sense of acceptance and do not fear rejection. When it doesn’t work these couples lose erotic feelings for their partner, and worry about hurting feelings by talking about sexual concerns. These couples also have the most difficult time recovering from affairs.
These couples enjoy a little conflict and drama. They share positive and negative feelings. This is the most erotic, unpredictable, and exciting style. They are open to sexual expression and exploration. Interestingly, McCarthy says that these are usually the only couples that can effectively use things like pornography, fantasies, toys, and etc, but that these must be used as a “bridge” to arousal, rather than as a way of “walling off’ one’s partner, which often happens.
In his book, McCarthy offers an assessment to help you determine your order of preference. While it helps to know your style and your partner’s, as well as construct a style together, a reviewer notes that the most helpful aspect of the book may be the focus on mutual enjoyment rather than on arousal and orgasm (Beuhler, 2010).
Some other comments from McCarthy’s speech
- 80-85% of partners have sensitive or secret material they have never shared with their spouse (e.g. STIs, being sexually humiliated, shame about masturbation). In addition, about 10% of males (note-this *may* refer to 10% of males who already have a sexual problem, but I will check up on it to be sure) have a sexual secret that interferes with sex, which McCarthy called a “variant arousal pattern” (e.g. a fetish – which is NOT a preference, but is hard-wired into the brain with high degrees of secrecy, shame, and eroticism. These are usually on the Internet. These people may spend $500 to $2000 a month on fetish and other related sites.
- When sex completely stops in a relationship, 90-95% of the time it is the male’s decision to stop.
- Partners who report having a good sexual relationship have the ability to veto sex. They do not say “if you loved me you would…”
- Viagra doesn’t work because no one tells the couple how to integrate it into their sexual style.
- Many sexual experiences are asynchronus. As long as these experiences are not coerced, there is not a problem. Many couples get trapped in the “tyranny of mutuality,” which means partners feel they always have to be on the same page sexually, or that sex always has to be equal for both partners. Sometimes sex IS more for one or the other. Sometimes it’s to release tension for one or the other. With the mutuality problem, some couples often fall into “let’s just cuddle.” They think that if it’s not working for one, it shouldn’t work for either.
- The worst time to talk about sex is when you’re nude in bed after a bad sexual experience.
Questions for MM readers:
- McCarthy says that 70% of couples experience a drop in sexual satisfaction when kids arrive. “What are we doing to be in the 30%?” John Gottman recommends a weekly date (at least 2 hours) and 4 “weekend getaways” (without the kids) a year. What daily, weekly, or yearly activities with your spouse have been good for your marriage?
- Among happily married sexually active couples – 5-15% of their encounters are dissatisfying. These couples don’t apologize for it, and are able to laugh about it. For those who have relatively happy sexual relationships, how have you dealt with dissatisfying moments?
Buehler, S. (2010). A review of “Discovering your couple sexual style.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 36.
McCarthy, B.W. & McCarthy, E.M. (2009). Discovering your couple sexual style: Sharing desire, pleasure, and satisfaction.