The myth of sexual chemistry

Most writers are wrong about sexual chemistry. Don’t look in biochemistry books for "sex hormones" or search the web for the "science of attraction." Sexual chemistry in long-term relationships is actually an accident of matching sexual styles.

“Amazing sexual chemistry” is more than falling in love or paying attention to your partner, feeling sexual attraction, sexual tension, keeping eye contact, walking hand in hand, or when you feel drawn to each other or having rhythmic body language.

I’m going to argue that it’s more than when you have emotional connections or feel good. In a healthy relationship, you can grow sexual chemistry.

“Sexual chemistry” means matching sexual styles

In my years doing sex and couples therapy, the most difficult challenge is working with couples who fight because they simply can’t see things the same way. This is even more true when the subject is sex. It starts with understanding that there’s more than one ‘reality…’

Read a “Profile in Marriage!”

Couples simply can’t see things the way their partner does, so they make something up. Unfortunately what they make up usually isn’t flattering to the other person. Often a person loses sexual desire.

Sexual chemistry requires respecting differences. In this brief post, I want to talk about one area where couples differ. And in this area, it seems to the couple that it is nearly impossible that they could reconcile those differences:

Sex, chemistry, and styles of sex

Yes, sex. Couples have different ‘sexual styles’ and as a result, start to have less and less pleasure in physical sharing.


One person likes a nice quiet room, to be relaxed, and close their eyes and focus in on the sensations. This is not sexual chemistry. It’s a preference.

If you remember that old commercial, “Calgon, Take Me AWAY!”:

“Trancers” are a sexual style who are quiet sorts of lovers. They like darkened rooms, quiet interactions, steady rhythms, not a lot of talking. They “groove” to sex in their own calm way.

The “sexual chemistry” of partner engagers

Another person wants sex to be a time of reconnection. For them, the “charge” is the affection, and being “in sync” with their lover. This style is called “Partner Engagers.”

Think of the song by Bobby Vinton, the “Polish Prince."

You put those two together, and the latter says: “I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me!” and the former (Trancer) says: “Can we just be quiet now and get into it?”

The “sexual chemistry” of role enactors

Another style is all sparkles and glitter. Think of Rita Hayworth as Gilda:

Sex is dramatic, with high self-esteem. All playfulness and creative, exhibitionistic, even. Sexual skills are valued. Novelty keeps things interesting.

“Want to watch a sexy movie? Sharing fantasies? Let’s start now... Watch me strip in front of this audience! Cool!”

This one, called “Role Enactor,” would really conflict together with the romantic Partner Engager who shouts:

“Why don’t you just love ME! Why do we need these outfits, movies, and sex in daring places!”

The Role Enactor shouts back:

“I do love you, but why do you have to be such a stick in the mud!”

Pathology to passion: sexual chemistry to sexual style

To get these couples to stop pathologizing, they have to understand that terms like “prude” or “nympho,” “objectifying” or “demanding” are hardly going to bring them to a better “mutual understanding.”

Or more satisfying sex life.

Don’t negotiate! Don’t lament poor “Sexual Chemistry.”

We might miss the fact, though, that neither of them will likely want to “negotiate.” Sexual chemistry doesn’t require conversation. It’s hidden somewhere in the Mythical Land of Groin.

Why? Because they don’t speak the same language. They don’t frame things the same way. Each things of "being sexual" in a different way and having different goals. They may even do the same physical act but for very different sexual reasons.

Picture the scene:

One says: “I want sex 3 times a week!”

The other says: “No, that’s too much! Once or twice a month is more than enough!”

Will this couple be satisfied with once-a-week sex? Your sexual relationship is not a place to negotiate a compromise. For one, it will be way too infrequent, while for the other, it will be way too often.

And in sex, like in agreements about what kind of future the couple should work toward, it takes “two to tango,” at least for a mutually good time.

Negotiation won’t work.

Are you curious about what might work? Try a couples sex retreat!

Originally published August 10, 2013.

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Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. My boyfriend is sexually attracted to me and also emotionally. And so do I. We both love each other very much. But he told me he doesn’t feel chemistry with me. We’ve been together for a little over 4 month. The chemistry was never there for him. I haven’t noticed, if it wasn’t there I’d didn’t affect me. But for him it’s stating to make him not wanting sex at all with me.
    Do you believe a sex therapist can help? Do you believe we can create chemistry?

    1. As you read, I think people put a lot of stock in “chemistry” and for magical reasons. No one can argue with your boyfriend when he says it is “chemistry.” But what does that actually mean? Does he even know? Most people say it is just “a feeling” and leave it at that. I think couples therapy is good for everyone, but it depends upon whether or not both of you want to invest in the relationship or not. It’s a new relationship, so it would have to be a mutual decision. -Dr. K

  2. My husband and I got married two years ago in our 50s. We decided to wait for sex. Big mistake. No chemistry. Very interested in your class.

  3. Dr K.
    Do you think that if couples are lacking in chemistry that it could be grown or if it is missing from the start (although you dearly, dearly love the person) that the relationship might not be right for you?

    1. Hi Janelle, Great question. And complicated, too. The first question I’d ask them is: “How motivated are you to work on desire? How committed?” I believe that “chemistry” is a complicated short-hand for a lot of things. “Something in the way she moves, or looks my way, or calls my name, that seems to leave this troubled world behind…” James Taylor. Attraction to another seems to increases with a rise in their self-confidence, capacity in the world, and a more distance-taking perspective. We have many stories of someone who was ‘just there’ for years, and never noticed…until that moment when everything changed.

      We’re often so afraid to look squarely at the feelings: “I love you, I’m just not IN love with you…” And yet, we keep hoping that our responsibilities stop at just the “feeling” and no action is required. When we, as sex therapists, get very deeping down to it, we notice a bunch of things that may seem subtle and imperceptible if we aren’t paying attention. “It was the way she directed her full attention to me when she went to kiss me. I could really FEEL her in that look…” “I never realized it, but I actually felt unsettled when he put his head above me to kiss me. I felt a ‘trapped’ feeling. I had to ask him to kiss me on his side, and that made it better…” “He just won’t stroke me the way I like to be stroked. He said he gets ‘bored’ and after two minutes stops. I can’t relax to really enjoy sex easily, and stroking me helps so much…”

      “Love” requires an ability to merge. “Desire” requires an ability to distance and gaze upon. Sometimes “best friends” have merged into a comfortable bubble, so close that it is hard to distance adequately to gaze upon the other.

      One thing is for sure: Chemistry is a brief short-hand that few people spend long enough to really analyze. We prefer to say “I have it” or “I’ve lost it” and close the discussion. But what if you are married with three kids, 3, 6, & 9? Resigning yourself to suffering “poor chemistry” the rest of your life, or divorcing, is a lousy excuse for living a passionate life. Go to a great sex therapist and work on it. That’s what I’d say.

      Thanks for the question, Jenelle.

  4. Did a man write this article? I’m going to have to totally disagree with you. Women date and marry men for all types of reasons. Often times that reason is security. Men marry women generally for one reason and that’s sex and serial attraction. So a man who’s very much attracted to a woman can be married to a woman who isn’t attracted to him in the least past his wallet (OK and maybe he’s a respectable person, comes from a good family, etc etc). So, the sec for him is great and it doesn’t matter what tricks he learns, she won’t be into it.
    Look if a woman has real chemistry with man she’s going to feel things that if the security guy did the exact same thing to her but she doesn’t have that chemistry with him then she will feel nothing.
    I’ve had men, who have said they’ve had amazing sex with me and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I hated every moment of it. When they ask me what turns me on I want to say “when you leave”. And when I finally tell them I feel absolutely nothing they can’t believe it.
    On the other hand I’ve had knock down 25 organs and 3 hours later amazing sex too and the difference is chemistry.
    I think it’s different for men and women and in my experience most people go their whole lives without experiencing real chemistry because they rush into sex and rationships for fear of being alone but those who wait, those who aren’t afraid to be single for a whole those that are willing to wait for the guy who when he touches you, you feel warm all over and when you hear his voice your heart races. That’s chemistry. OK if you get nothing else from this comment get this one thing. Styles don’t matter because 2 guys do the same thing to you and you have chemistry with the one and it’s amazing and with the other guy you feel nothing. Chemistry chemistry. Whoever wrote this article is either a guy or if it’s woman she must be married to a guy who’s given her a great big house in the suburbs, a lot of Shiney stuff and very few mind blowing organs.

    1. Dear Lauren,

      Thank you for your personal stories.

      This article doesn’t deny that some people connect with others sexually, and with others they don’t. But it challenges the notion of “chemistry.”

      If it’s chemistry, what is this chemical called?

      It talks about how being “turned on” or “turned off” is a complicated process depended upon a complex variety of interactional variables. One writer clustered these variables into groups, that have been very helpful in helping couples relate better sexually.

      “Chemistry” you are born with, or so it implies. You have it, or you don’t.

      “Styles” imply a tendency, a preference, maybe a built-in preference, or one shaped by experience, but one that *can* be shaped.

      I can’t understand why you make gender-related comments, because after working for 30 years with people, I’ve discovered that just as many men feel they have no “chemistry” with their wives, as the opposite.

      I know you are right that some people choose to marry for status and wealth, or to escape poverty, instead of genuine fondness and admiration, and that’s probably less true depending upon how high up your social status is, and the stability of your family of origin. But this is not what this article speaks to. In the USA anyway, marrying for those reasons is less common.

      And when your heart races when someone touches you? I’d call that “love.” But that’s just my feminine side talking.

      Thanks again for your comment. Dr. K (the article’s author who decidedly never married for wealth. 😉 )

  5. My husband and I have been struggling with personality clashes and other emotional issues for a number of years. In the past 2.5 – 3 years (we’ve only been together 4 and been married for 1 year) our physical intimacy has completely dried up. I feel like having sex and want him but he is too emotionally disconnected to even try physical intimacy. He doesn’t think that being sexually close can positively impact the emotional side of our relationship and so he never engages in even so much as a passionate kiss. We are at our wits end with each other and literally hanging by a thread here.
    Will a weekend workshop help us achieve emotional AND sexual closeness? What do you recommend?

    1. Hi Rachelle,

      You are pointing out how intimately connected “emotional disconnection” is from “sexual disconnection.” Once we developed our neocortex, sex became, well, “complicated.” How we’ve been raised, how we attach to other people, how we feel about ourselves and our bodies, and especially how we feel about our relationship, is going to impact us both emotionally and sexually. Nurturing, loving, connected sex is OF COURSE going to positively impact the emotional side of a relationship (but you knew that…). So will passionate kisses. Our workshops don’t treat sex and emotions as separate spheres. We treat two entire people who are complicated human beings. We try to determine, before people even come in, what might be happening to create distance, and to learn as much as we can about your personal and relationship dynamics.

      You don’t have to know ahead of time whether it is more important to focus on sex OR emotional closeness. Let us help you to decide when you complete the thorough assessment we do. After that, we can provide you with a week-end intensive that will be tailored to your needs.
      Thanks for your comment…
      Dr. K

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