Is “Sexual Compatibility” a Myth? Some Thoughts on Cohabitation

Is “Sexual Compatibility” a Myth? Some Thoughts on Cohabitation June 14, 2011

I recently returned from Twickenham, England, the home of Catholic satirist Alexander Pope, where I gave a workshop titled “How Far Can We Go?  Talking to Young People about Physical Intimacy,” at the 3rd International Theology of the Body Symposium.  It was a very fruitful experience.  Apart from making all kinds of interesting connections with other conference participants, I had my thoughts on several issues stimulated by the excellent feedback I received in the Q & A sessions of my workshops.  I hope to share some of these thoughts with the readership here at Vox Nova over the next little while.

At the end of my second workshop I was asked about how to talk to young people about the pitfalls of cohabitation.  As we are all aware, most of our contemporaries see it as foolhardy to marry someone if you haven’t lived with them.  “Isn’t it just asking for trouble,” they suggest, “to commit to someone when you don’t even know if you can stand to be in the same house with them?”  This seems perfectly logical, of course, which is why, when a widely publicized study came out several years back (I read about it on MSN when I signed out of my hotmail account) indicating that cohabitation radically lowered the odds of marital success, people didn’t know what to make of it.  It was simply inconceivable that people who did the smart thing and test-drove the relationship first would increase their chance of divorce by 60%.

The obvious explanation to many people was that it was religious people who didn’t live together before marriage, and religious people are less prone to divorce.  But this second claim isn’t actually true, at least not very significantly.  Furthermore, it was often suggested, religious people are more likely to stay in unhappy marriages, exactly the kind encouraged by the silly practice of not living together.  But there is no evidence that religious marriages are unhappier than other marriages.

No, it turns out that it is not simply that a certain cross-section of society which doesn’t cohabitate also does not divorce.  It is actually the case that cohabitation itself is a problem.  Cohabitation ostensibly says, “We’re being prudent by not rushing into things.  Our future will be happier if we make sure we are compatible by living in a situation that is very like marriage.  And, if we find that this doesn’t work out, we can part ways before making a huge mistake.”

What is really says is . . . well, that last sentence should give it away.

In fact, though cohabitation looks a lot like marriage on the surface, it is missing the very heart of marriage, namely a promise to be faithful come what may.  And without this promise, cohabitation ends up being not a close analogate of marriage, but it’s radical opposite.  While marriage says, “I’ll be with you no matter what,” cohabitation says, “I’ll be with you as long as I can stand you.”  It says, “If you do your share of the housework, and pay your share of the bills, and keep me satisfied sexually, I’ll stick around.  But if you don’t, well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

The kind of insecurity this un-promise engenders is at the heart of the increased failure of cohabitation-preceded-marriages (to say nothing of a series of cohabitating relationship which end without ever reaching marriage).  When you promise to take someone in health, for richer, and for better, for as long as either of you shall like, you aren’t really promising anything.  And, without a promise, the ambiguity of human relationships are unlikely to stand the test of time.

In the Q & A session I said that a test-drive says, “I will love you as long as you put the cap back on the toothpaste, and make the bed and remember not to use metal utensils in my non-stick cookware,” while a promise says “I will love you even if you don’t put the cap back on the toothpaste!  I will love you even if you void the warranty on my cookware!”

Just as I thought I was hitting my stride, the questioner interrupted me and said, “We know all that.  But kids are telling us that they have to live together to find out if they are sexually compatible.  What are we supposed to say to them about that?”  At that point, as happens with Q & A sessions, we were informed that we were over time.  But I thought about the question and had an interesting talk with the questioner at the social on Saturday night.

As someone who has only ever had one sexual partner, I cannot speak authoritatively on this matter, and I invite others of broader experience to offer their thoughts as well, but it seems to me that “sexual compatibility” so construed is a myth.  It seems to presume that there is something almost biological going on wherein one must find someone with a similar sex drive, similar sexual tastes, even a compatible body.

But, from my limited experience, this simply isn’t how things work.  If every man is to hold out until he finds a woman with a sex drive to match his, only a select few males will ever find a partner.  Women’s sex drives are a different kind of thing than men’s.  They require different stimuli, they naturally vary over the course of a mentrual cycle, and they are much more easily affected by the seemingly non-sexual aspects of the relationship.  Sexual tastes and compatible bodies follow from this.  If a man doesn’t recognize how a woman’s sex drive works, her sexual tastes (cuddling, for instance) will seem foreign to him, and her body will not respond to his in the way he expects.  (One could write a whole other piece about how the porn epidemic is destroying any realistic expectations about women’s drives, tastes, and bodies.)

The fact is that virtually every couple will go through times when their drives, tastes, and bodies seem less compatible and times when they seem more compatible.  And, as most marriage counselors will tell you, in this their sex lives mirror the rest of their lives together.  The real problem about the search for “sexual compatibility” is that it abstracts sex from the broader relationship.  It makes good sex the result of a biological fluke rather than the natural outcome of a loving relationship.  It absolves women and (probably, especially) men from taking the responsibility to be good lovers to their spouses.  And, in doing so, it undoes one of the most important functions of sex in marriage.

The natural desire for physical intimacy should serve to help us focus on the other aspects of our relationship where our urge to serve the other person is compromised by human weakness.  Foreplay starts with helping around the house and listening when someone has had a bad day.  When “sexual compatibility” becomes something independent of relational compatibility as a whole, sex becomes less and less capable of confirming and sealing the commitment between two people who have promised their lives to one another.  And when we strip sex of its power to hold people together by isolating it from its normal role in a relationship, we should not be surprised when marital breakdown follows.


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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