It’s not unusual for one person in a couple to have different sexual needs than the other person. In fact, everyone has their own sexual preferences, interests, sources of arousal, fantasies, and needs, and it would be incredibly unlikely for one’s personal sexual profile to perfectly match another person’s. This difference isn’t a bad thing or unhealthy for a relationship at all. In fact, dialoguing about sexual differences and needs can be an incredibly intimate conversation that builds closeness and connection. When done poorly, however, talking about sex and sexual problems in a relationship can create greater disconnection, shame, and distance. Today, we’re going to focus on one of the core principles of sexual dialogue in a relationship that should create a foundational framework for the conversation: it’s not a me problem it’s a we problem.
This framework is especially important when one person in the couple has a diagnosed sexual health problem (like vaginismus or erectile dysfunction for example) and another partner does not. In situations like this, the partner without the diagnosis might be inclined to say things like, “You need to figure out what’s wrong with you,” or “It’s not my fault you have a problem with sex.” Statements such as these are problematic for many reasons, and we’ll go through some of these reasons below.
Understanding our emotions
Most of us grow up learning, in some way, that emotions should be the logical consequence of some sort of activating event. You "shouldn't" be upset unless something “bad” happens to you; you "shouldn't" be sad unless you lose out on something; you "shouldn't" be angry unless someone wrong you. So oftentimes, if someone feels upset about something, they tend to immediately look for the "cause" of their distress--otherwise they might feel their emotions are misplaced. But the truth is, feelings don’t always work this way and it’s normal to experience a range of emotions even if there is no clear antecedent or if no one did anything wrong.
When one person's emotions need some sort of identified antecedent, one may feel that the logical assignment of responsibility for these emotions should be given to the partner. In doing so, they may minimize the variety of legitimate opinions, perspectives, feelings, and needs of the partner, in the service of "making sense" of their own experiences. When it comes to a sexual relationship, when one partner believes there’s a “right” number of times to have intercourse in a week, or a “right” way to have sex, or a specific way that sex should feel, it ignores the legitimate diversity inherent in sexual experiences. There are no rules around the “right” way to have sex (as long as it’s between consenting individuals), and feeling upset, angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated, infuriated, thwarted, or devastated when the implicit rules you hold about sex aren’t met doesn’t naturally imply that your partner did something wrong. In fact, there are plenty of happy couples that don’t have sex, or have sex once a month, or once a day. It is not the frequency of manner with which couples have sex that creates happiness or unhappiness, and the upset feelings (anger, disappointment, etc…) you have in these contexts don’t necessarily mean anyone is doing anything wrong or unacceptable.
This is crucial because this situation isn’t a problem because something is wrong with your partner. It’s a problem because it’s not working for you. When I say “you”, I mean both you in the specific sense (you personally have a problem with it), and you in the general sense (you as a couple/relationship are struggling with this). This is key because ultimately your partner isn’t doing something wrong to cause your frustration, anger, or disappointment. Your mind just naturally looks for a cause for your feelings of discomfort and typically lands on your partner as the source of it. In navigating this, you may benefit from making space for your feelings from a non-judgmental and non-blaming stance. This means accepting that you are solely responsible for your own feelings and also that your feelings aren’t a reflection of your partner’s acceptability.
Interdependence of Sexual and Relational Health
Additionally, sexual health encompasses physical, emotional, and relational well-being. It is influenced by many factors including communication, trust, emotional connection, stress levels, physical health, and individual preferences. Recognizing that both partners contribute to the dynamics of the sexual relationship is critical for fostering empathy, understanding, and collaboration. In fact, intimacy and sexual satisfaction are co-created within a relationship, influenced by many different things. This interdependence of sexual health and relationship health is important in contextualizing sexual health problems as existing outside one individual. Indeed, sexual health issues can be complex and multifaceted. They may arise due to physical conditions, mental health concerns, past experiences, relationship stress, or a combination of various factors. Blaming your partner oversimplifies the problem and fails to acknowledge the intricate nature of sexual difficulties. Instead, it is essential to approach these challenges with empathy, seeking to understand the underlying causes of the problem together.
Furthermore, blaming your partner can create a sense of isolation and distance within the relationship. Both partners need to strive to create a safe and non-judgmental space, where each person feels comfortable expressing their concerns in a non-defensive way and seek solutions together. Remember: it’s a problem because it’s not working in the relationship, not because this is a fundamental problem in being.
Also, from a practical perspective, blaming your partner for sexual problems leads to resentment and creates a communication barrier that hinders effective problem solving. Open and honest communication is key to understanding each other’s needs, desires, and concerns. A blame-free collaborative rather than adversarial atmosphere encourages constructive dialogue, where both partners can express their feelings without fear of judgment or criticism.
When one partner tells the other that they need to “fix” a sexual issue, it can trigger something called psychological reactance. Reactance arises from a perceived threat to one’s autonomy or freedom of choice. It occurs when one feels pressured into accepting a specific view or attitude, and often results in the individual strengthening their own view or attitude rather than allowing themselves to be persuaded otherwise. Approaching your partner from the perspective of blame and adversary–with the goal of persuading your partner to see themselves or their perspective as “wrong” or “bad” and you or your perspective as “right” or “good”--is likely to increase the possibility of psychological reactance, where you are less likely to get what you want and need. By approaching conflict with the mindset of “it’s us versus the problem” rather than “it’s me versus you”, you stop thinking about how to persuade your partner to do what you want and how you can “win” the fight, and instead focus on how to mutually fix whatever isn’t working. This stops you from seeing your partner as a roadblock to getting your needs met, allows you to slow down and respond effectively instead of reacting impulsively, listen more intimately and respectfully to each other, and promotes greater conflict management.
The Role of Contempt
Finally, I’m not just saying you should start looking at sexual health problems as a mutual problem because it’ll help you get what you want, but because characterizing the sexual health problem as the problem neglects the broader picture of the dynamics in the relationship. Assigning the label of the "problem partner" as a result of the sexual difficulties and subsequent impact on the relationship creates a power differential in the relationship. This can result in the experience of contempt from one or both individuals in the relationship. Contempt is a hostile form of disrespect and erodes the foundation of a healthy relationship, fostering resentment and emotional disconnection. Aside from creating an atmosphere that further hinders problem resolution and mutual growth, research shows that contempt is the number one predictor of relationship demise. Contempt is the idea that you are superior in some way to your partner. It puts you in a one-up position and sees your partner as inferior or less than you in some way. As a specific example, when your partner yells when they’re angry and you never yell no matter how angry you get, you might start thinking, “I would never do that. I handle my emotions better than them. I’m better at giving respect in this relationship than they are…” These types of thoughts are all indicative of contempt--a belief that you are in a position of moral superiority.
The same is true when it comes to sex. If you initiate sex all the time and your partner never initiates, you might notice thoughts like, “What is their problem? Initiating sex is healthy in a relationship and they’re incapable of doing it no matter how many times I’ve asked them to. There is something seriously wrong with them if they think sex once a week is enough. I’m a much better person to be with in a relationship than they are.” As soon as thoughts like this rear their head, you can be sure you’re in the realm of contempt–the deadliest poison known for relationships. It can be fundamentally inaccurate to characterize the problems in the relationship as stemming from their sexual health problem when contempt itself is contributing to that relational discord. Contempt erodes trust and impedes vulnerability and emotional intimacy. It’s impossible to be in a healthy relationship with someone who implicitly believes they are superior in some way or that their perspective, opinion, or feelings are more “right” Put differently, by seeing a sexual problem as a "me" problem rather than a "we" problem, an entirely new problem can emerge--one that is particularly toxic to the relationship.
Research consistently shows that blaming your partner for sexual problems is associated with lower relationship satisfaction and can lead to greater psychological distress, reduced sexual satisfaction, and diminished overall relationship quality. Each individual brings their unique desires, preferences, and comfort levels to sex. Acknowledging and embracing these differences, while creating space for your own needs, creates a foundation for acceptance, exploration, connection, and a shared journey toward sexual fulfillment. Couples who address sexual issues together with a focus on shared responsibility and open communication, experience higher sexual satisfaction and relationship quality. If you and your partner are struggling with sexual health concerns, reach out to a professional to help you navigate this challenge in a way that builds connection rather than discord.