What’s the secret to amazing sexual chemistry that lasts? While falling in love, feeling drawn to each other, and sharing intimate moments are all important, the real key may lie in something less discussed: matching sexual styles. Recent psychology research sheds light on how differences in sexual preferences and approaches can lead to frustration and conflict between partners, while alignment fosters satisfaction and connection.

H2: The Myth of “Sexual Chemistry” Many popular depictions of sexual chemistry focus on the magical, inexplicable spark of attraction and passion between two people. However, studies suggest that long-term sexual compatibility is less about initial attraction and more about a complex interplay of behavioral patterns, emotional needs, and communication styles[1].

Renowned sex therapist David Schnarch argues that the idea of finding a “soulmate” who perfectly meets all of your needs is a setup for disappointment. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of having the confidence to first identify your own sexual preferences, and then to share them. He uses the term “differentiation,” (borrowed from Bowenian notions) meaning the ability to maintain your sense of self while being emotionally close to a partner[2].

Three Types of Sexual Styles

According to Donald Mosher’s Three Dimensions of Depth of Involvement in Human Sexual Response model, there are three main sexual styles that individuals tend to exhibit[3]:

  1. Partner Engagers: Focus on emotional connection and affection. Sex is a way to express love and feel “in sync” with their partner.
  2. Role Enactors: Approach sex with an emphasis on fun, creativity and adventure. They enjoy roleplaying, trying new things, and get bored with too much routine.
  3. Trancers: Prefer a slower, more immersive experience. They like to be fully relaxed, block out distractions and focus inward on physical sensations.

While many people are a blend, most lean toward one style over the others. Problems arise when partners have very different, even opposite styles.

In future posts, I’ll explore these styles in greater depth, recognizing that a person can improve their depth of involvement in each style.

When Styles Clash

Imagine a Partner Engager paired with a Role Enactor. The Partner Engager may feel objectified or disconnected by the Role Enactor’s penchant for sexual experimentation and fantasies. “I want to feel your love, not act out some script,” they might say. Meanwhile, the Role Enactor feels stifled and bored by the Partner Engager’s more vanilla approach. “Sex should be fun and exciting – not this predictable chore,” they think.

Or consider a Trancer matched with a Partner Engager. The Trancer’s need for quiet and stillness to savor the sensations frustrates the Partner Engager who associates sex with lively emotional sharing. “Why won’t you look at me or talk to me?” frets the Partner Engager, while the Trancer wonders,”Why are you so clingy and distracting – just relax into it!”

Pathologizing the Differences

When styles clash, partners often default to labeling and blaming. The Role Enactor calls the Partner Engager “boring and prudish.” The Partner Engager calls the Role Enactor “shallow and sex-obsessed.”

The Trancer calls the Partner Engager “needy and insecure.” The Partner Engager calls the Trancer “disconnected and selfish.” Each one sees their own style as the proper way to “do” sex, and views the mismatch as evidence that something is wrong with their partner.

This dynamic erodes empathy and destroys intimacy. Each feels increasingly resentful, rejected, and misunderstood – not exactly a recipe for sexual chemistry. To move forward, couples need to cultivate sexual empathy.

Cultivating Sexual Empathy

Sexual empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate your partner’s sexual style, even if it differs from your own[4]. It involves:

  • Learning about the different styles and how they manifest
  • Reflecting on your own style and how it shapes your assumptions about sex
  • Respectfully seeking to understand your partner’s point of view
  • Negotiating ways to meet each other’s needs through open communication
  • Practicing flexibility and a willingness to occasionally stretch beyond your comfort zone

For example, a Role Enactor could agree to incorporate more affection and eye contact to meet their Partner Engager’s need for emotional connection during sex. A Partner Engager could experiment with roleplaying their partner’s favorite sexy scenario now and then.

A Trancer could make an effort to occasionally whisper words of appreciation to their partner during sex. And their Partner Engager partner could get more comfortable with periods of silence and stillness.

A Paradigm for Sexual Compatibility

Armed with an understanding of sexual styles, couples can move away from finger-pointing and toward a more nuanced view of sexual compatibility. They can untangle what differences are dealbreakers vs. what differences simply require more creativity and compromise to navigate. This prevents the toxic pattern of trying to change each other.


While there is no perfect recipe for sexual chemistry, insight into your natural sexual style – and your partner’s – is key. By honoring these differences and practicing sexual empathy, couples can stop seeing each other as “flawed” and start to truly sexually accept each other. As you develop an appreciation for what makes your partner tick in bed, you may find that bridging your different styles leads you to a whole new level of sexual and emotional intimacy. Instead of getting hung up on whether you have enough “spark” based on some mythical notion, focus on keeping the lines of communication open and being willing to continually grow together as lovers.

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[1] Basson, R. (2001). Human sex-response cycles. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 27(1), 33-43.
[2] Schnarch, D. M. (1997). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships. Henry Holt & Co.
[3] Mosher, D. L. (1980). Three dimensions of depth of involvement in human sexual response. Journal of Sex Research, 16(1), 1-42.
[4] McCarthy, B., & Farr, E. (2012). Strategies and techniques to maintain sexual desire. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 42(4), 227-233.

Originally published August 10, 2013.

Are you curious about what might work? Try a couples sex retreat! Trained doctoral-level sex therapists can help