Date Night: What is your couple sexual style?

AdamFlove, marriage, Mormon, sexuality 26 Comments

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.

Emotionally Expressive
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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

Comments 26

  1. Say what? 10% of men have internet fetishes and spend $500-$2000/month on internet access to them? Good gravy. I’m not sure I can believe this. That’s a lot of dough.

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    Martin – I may have misunderstood this when he said it, but I’m pretty sure he meant the 10% was men who already have sexual problems.

  3. Adam,

    Great post. I really liked John Gottman’s recommendations. This is absolutely critical in any healthy relationship, especially the without the kids statement.

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    Cowboy – actually I was concerned that the timing of this post is SUPER bad. Such is life. My last post on agency went up 3 days after a popular post on free will.

  5. I’ve never been big on grouping people into categories or “styles.” Also, where is McCarthy getting this information? I think some people are more willing to discuss their sexual lives, but a lot of people are not, so where do you “categorize” all of those who feel their relationship is private, sacred and not something they want to talk about to others?

  6. “how have you dealt with dissatisfying moments?”

    Usually not worry about it and then maybe show an increase of emotional affection, perhaps in part to reassure and shoo away negative feelings.

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    Jen – McCarthy has about 75 publications in peer-reviewed journals. Many of these are ostensibly empirical research. I’m sure a lot of it is based on his clinical work as well. Re: “where do you categorize all those people” – I would suggest to you that these “categories” are not for people other than yourself. Even people who view all aspects of their sexual lives to be secret or private can use the information privately without talking with others. I would add to your statement though that people who value a degree of openness or discussion about sexuality may also hold their relationship as sacred. Sacred does not have to mean “not talking with others about it at all.” They (not talking about it at all with others vs. careful or appropriate discussion) are both valid and understandable positions.

    Anon – That can be helpful I think. Those negative feelings at those moments can really cause a storm. It is helpful if couples can find a way to share their worries or loneliness etc. in a way that brings them together. Or even just laughing together.

    I second number 8 for the award.

  8. I should also add that these are not clear-cut groups. It is not about grouping people but helping them communicate about their desires, preferences, feelings, etc. to increase positive experiences with intimacy and etc. The styles themselves can be ordered – e.g. a person might have one style they most identify with, but also another one or two that are relevant as well. They key I think is in knowing this and constructing a shared style (read: way of being sexually or how you like things to go) as well, whether it fits into a category or not.

  9. Adam, it is interesting to me that you asked “What is your couple sexual style?” as opposed to “What is [you and your spouse’s] sexual style?”

    I see myself as a combination of Emotional and Complementary. My wife is a very strict Traditionalist. Because she appears to be uncomfortable with anything but traditional, as a couple, we are traditional, but I wish our couple style wasn’t traditional. (This applies to sexual and non-sexual issues.) I’ve brought this up several times, but it goes no where. If I have to accept her the way she is, then I find myself a bit frustrated. If she has to accept me the way I am, she gets frustrated. So, it is a stalemate. We’ve tried some counseling on the issue, but I haven’t found counseling to be effective at all. Traditional is better than celibacy, but I wish there was a bit more.

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    I think the idea is that you have a style (or styles) as does your spouse, and that together you can construct a style, which is probably the most important factor, i.e. your couple style. My order is probably 1-Complementary, 2-Soul Mate, 3-Emotionally Expressive, 4-Traditional. My wife is probably 1-Soul Mate, 2-Traditional, 3-Complementary, 4-Emotionally Expressive. So, we generally fall into Soul Mate I think, because it’s the closest together…

    “I’ve brought this up several times, but it goes no where. If I have to accept her the way she is, then I find myself a bit frustrated. If she has to accept me the way I am, she gets frustrated. So, it is a stalemate. We’ve tried some counseling on the issue, but I haven’t found counseling to be effective at all.”

    I hear your frustration. This is often how things go, i.e. nowhere, frustration, stalemates, standoffs, rigid patterns, etc. Even taking the step to counseling is a huge step for some people, and when it doesn’t help I think it can even make things worse… and even more hopeless. You’re certainly not alone in that. Not all therapy is created equal though. What kind of approach did the therapist use?

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  12. Adam, sexuality is much lower on my list or marital problems. Communication (I’m loud, my wife is silent) is a much bigger issue, though obviously communication affects many marital aspects. If I were to apply your above groupings into non-sexual categories, my wife is generally very traditional about marriage, finances, child-rearing, etc, while I am much more emotional.

    Frankly, we’re almost always on the same page with finances. (We’re both frugal.) Child rearing, inlaws, and Communication are much bigger issues. Holidays (where to spend them) is a big issue too. My wife prefers to be busy constantly. I like to do fun things too, but not at the breakneck speed she prefers. On our anniversary, she planned to go up to a ski resort, and then wanted to bungee jump, ride the tram to the top, and do the Zip line. When she commented how “relaxing” the mountains were, I said, “Are you kidding? What’s relaxing about these activities?”

    My wife married me because I was spontaneous. That can be a good thing, (like when I spontaneously want to do something she enjoys), but when I want to spontaneously want to go to a basketball game (that she doesn’t enjoy), suddenly my spontaneity isn’t so fun for her.

    As for the therapist, it seems to me he focused too much on what I could do to improve the marriage, rather than my wife. (I need to be less frustrated in communication, but she didn’t need to start communicating.) I’m willing to take my portion of the blame, but I’m not going to take it all. It seemed pretty one-sided to me. Only when I threatened to work with another counselor, did he see that he needed to start focusing on my wife. By then, he had destroyed my trust in him as a counselor, and it was too late.

  13. Yeah, I can see why that didn’t turn out so well. Without a good relationship (for therapy, it’s usually an “agreement on goals and tasks of therapy within the context of an emotional bond”) with the therapist, really nothing can happen. That’s the therapist’s job to build and monitor that as well.

    You two sound a lot like one of the common patterns that couples fall into – actually, I think I’m going to do my next post in this series on these patterns, and common experiences that spouses have in their positions. Often people in your position are “more emotional” or more “active” in communicating because they are trying to maintain the relationship, or are protesting the loss of emotional connection… while those distancing themselves, the “quieter” spouses, who may be relatively less emotionally expressive, withdraw in order to preserve the relationship. Sometimes, like you said about your DW, they “busy” themselves with activities as a means to withdraw or find safety in busy-ness. In these cases I think the therapist needs to be one who can work with these negative patterns, as well as access all the underlying emotion and create new patterns of accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement. Anyway, that’s probably more than you wanted, haha. 🙂

  14. ADam

    I find it interesting that you say spouses who are quieter withdraw in order to maintain the relationship. I mean on one level I agree with you 100% but, then what would a marriage be like if the were 100% combative. And by combative, I don’t mean physically abusive, but rather, what if they constantly vocalized their thoughts 100% of the time. I doubt their would be much peace.

  15. dblock – exactly. 100% open and honest communication is not helpful all the time. Often, unhappy couples communicate VERY clearly, it’s just mostly negative.

  16. In our case,Dh would be the less expressive.I’m learning that my big feelings can be a little overwhelming,drowning out his ability to express himself.My feelings about his thoughts can be a little scary too,so I have to learn to button them.I find that hard,but I do want my darling to feel safe and accepted for whatever he is-in the abstract I think we should all have that kind of a safe place.Challenging though,huh?

    I think sex comes to symbolise all of that content.Worth thinking about.

  17. 1. My husband and I have kids and a good sex life. Of course it dropped off for a while due to post-partum depression and breastfeeding and pretty much the overall infant stage is tough. After a while, though, it picks up again. However, we do not go on a weekly date (maybe monthly or every two months?) or go to a hotel 4 times a year. We have a getaway from the kids about every 3 years! I think perhaps couples who need dates and getaways have the “Love Language” of quality time. We do not. We are happy with our Love Languages of Words and Acts of Service (me) and Physical Affection (him). Also, it costs too much money to go out and to get a babysitter. These days with DVRs and instant Netflix, why bother? (And before that we had video stores). So, all we need is time to talk, time for physical affection, him being willing to do some housework to prove his love, plus a door with a lock on it and our sex life is great!
    2. This is true. We are open and honest, we have a sense of humor, we are considerate, and we have worked hard to not be self-conscious or high pressure. Nowadays, it is easy to simply shrug it off and know that every encounter doesn’t have to be earth-shattering and one poor experience is no big deal because so many other times are good. Rarely fazes us at all, but we have years of ups and downs and history to keep things in perspective. When you’ve gotten through bad sex or low sex drives due to pregnancy, post-partum and breastfeeding, cancer treatment, etc. but been able to also have some good stretches over the years it is just no big deal. Also it is about spending time together. You can still have fun cooking a meal together even if it ends up burnt.

  18. wayfarer – Our feelings can be too much for each other. Often it seems that only one spouse at a time can occupy the emotional “stage”.

    jks – Good to know it comes back. 🙂 Our youngest is a newborn… Re: dates – what is key I think is not so much that it’s EVERY week, or doing certain things, but that spouses find ways (their own ways) to connect. I love getting a way for a day or two… even if it’s nearby. These times are REALLY helpful for me. As for dates, twice a month would be enough for me… Gottman also recommends that couples spend at least 20 minutes a day reconnecting in some way, and also says that some couples do this through a weekly hour chat on Sundays or something like that. They make time for it. They sit down and eat a pastry and talk about stuff, without the kids. They make it a priority. Great you have found what works for you!!

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