Let’s face it, the outlook is rarely rosy for sex in a long-term relationship. At best, it’s widely thought that if you love each other, the sex will simply fall into place. But it often doesn’t. At worst, there’s a common view that once the sex has fizzled out, it’s gone for good. But fortunately, there may be a solution – a new approach that treats a couple as a single unit rather than two opposing individuals.
Known as Couple Sexual Styles, the idea was developed by sex therapist Professor Barry McCarthy of American University in Washington DC. In his book, Discovering Your Couple Sexual Style (Routledge, £13.99) McCarthy, who works with his wife and co-author Emily McCarthy, says he believes it can offer a real alternative for couples struggling to resolve a lack of desire.
According to the theory, we each fall into one of four different sexual styles:
- Emotionally Expressive
- Soul Mate
While each brings its own benefits and disadvantages, the key is learning to define your unique Couple Sexual Style, and knowing how to use it to improve your relationship in and out of the bedroom.
There is, of course, a paradox at the heart of this theory. We each have our own sexual preferences and values. But by its very nature, sex is an interpersonal experience. McCarthy’s method almost treats the couple as a third person in its own right, with its own ideals and behavioural codes.
The benefits of such an approach are obvious: learning to see inhibited desire as a mutual enemy is a unifying alternative to the internal power struggles that characterise most psychosexual counselling. Couples reframe their needs as, ‘Our team needs this…’ rather than, ‘If you loved me, you would…’ Genevieve, 45, and Peter, 50, had been married for 21 years when they sought the counselling that was the catalyst for learning how to work within their natural Complementary style. ‘We sought therapy when Peter was made redundant and fell into a depression,’ says Genevieve. ‘But then we revealed we had been celibate for nearly a decade. It all came out – he resented me for going off sex after our children were born; I blamed him for never making me feel desired in the first place. Our counsellor suggested sensate focus, a therapy that emphasises touching and exploration rather than penetration and orgasm. It worked because it was completely removed from our old patterns, and it became a journey we took together. It helped us break the cycle of blame and denial. Now, we have sex maybe twice a month – nothing compared to when we were in our twenties, but it’s the right level for where we are now.’
Within our set patterns, we can choose to create a guideline for how to behave as a couple. Some advice holds true for all couple styles. For example, the ideal is that your sex life should account for 15 to 20 per cent of your relationship and must fall within the framework of trust and friendship for it to work. This is a realistic figure for a positive, energising, long-term relationship.
Some couples – such as the Traditionals – will find this means making more time for sex, while the Emotionally Expressives will need to focus on the relationship outside the bedroom. Rosalie and David, both 32, are a classic Emotionally Expressive couple, and found the way to make the most of their couple style was to remove alcohol from the equation. ‘Sex had always been great, but we had fallen into a rut of getting drunk, picking a fight and having make-up sex, and it was undermining the rest of our relationship,’ says Rosalie. The turning point came when the couple gave up drinking to lose the weight they gained last Christmas. ‘Without booze, we had to get creative and find new ways to chase that high. The “Where has our sex life gone?” conversation became, “How can we get it back?” and it was a natural extension of that to explore the fetish scene together. I know it’s not for everyone, but role play allows us to let out in a safe way some of the aggression that is a natural part of our couple dynamic.’
Traditionals and Soul Mates are both at risk of de-eroticising. While Traditionals are most likely to evolve into having low-sex marriages, they are also less likely to be disturbed by it, as they value security over eroticism. That’s not to say there isn’t scope for improvement. Here, the key is to try to inhabit each other’s spaces – perhaps if one of you has a higher libido they can set aside an evening for intimacy and massage, while the other can pledge to commit to being more erotically creative. ‘Soul Mates find that too much friendship in the relationship edges out desire,’ says McCarthy. ‘Here, a little selfishness wouldn’t go amiss. Make your desires heard; keep it playful. Soul Mates should focus on responsive, not spontaneous, sex. Rather than trying to recapture the courtship phase, concentrate on open-ended touching where the goal is not orgasm, but a deeper intimate connection.’
Emotionally Expressives, on the other hand, need the opposite. ‘Their highly charged relationships require a dose of anti-drama. Set boundaries for respect, vow not to denigrate each other’s sexual performance during arguments – a classic Emotionally Expressive form of attack.’ McCarthy says Complementary is the ideal style, although that, too, is vulnerable to ruts. It’s fine for one person to initiate a conversation about it. ‘A brave opening gambit is for one partner to say, “I miss that connection, that sensuality we used to have. Can we explore that together again?”’ says McCarthy. ‘But achieving an appreciation of each other’s differences is a unilateral effort.’ Of course, identifying your Couple Sexual Style won’t guarantee the success of any relationship. The truth is, for some couples, sex is the fatal flaw in the partnership, just as religious differences or views about children will undermine others. But understanding the innate personality of your connection will mean you’re looking to a positive future from the same direction, rather than glaring at each other from opposing corners.