Why Desire Matters Too: The Dangers of Underestimating Sexual Compatibility

An earlier version of this appeared in 2010.

I recently got a Facebook message from a former student of mine named “May,” a message which opened:

Is it possible to have feelings for someone and not be physically attracted to them? Aren’t they supposed to go hand in hand?

May gave me her permission to write a response here, though I did give her a more personal one as well.

I’ve gotten this question from others before — and not just from young people. I dealt with that issue in this February 2008 post on the indispensability of passion. Writing contra the infamous Lori Gottlieb, I said

Yes, passion may fade over time. But trust me on this one: there is a world of difference between being in a marriage in which the passion has cooled and one in which there was never any heat to begin with. Expecting sexual heat to endure (without any increase in effort) for years is unrealistic; settling for a marriage where there isn’t even any memory of fire and passion is, I think, too great a compromise.

That was true for marriage. But what of May, still in high school, contemplating what it is that she should do about a budding relationship with a classmate?

Depending on our stance, we tend to either oversell or dismiss young women’s sexuality. It is certainly far from true that adolescent girls aren’t interested in sex, just as it is far from true that adolescent boys are interested in nothing but. But even as we resist the traditional straitjacket narratives about teenagers and desire, we do need to acknowledge that we raise our sons and daughters to experience desire differently. And we need to acknowledge something else, something that forms part of a gentle warning to May: young women often overestimate their capacity to make things work.

Anyone who works with teenagers knows that grandiosity and low self-esteem often go hand in hand. I wrote about that in a post called I have so much love to give: young women and self-flattery.

Teenage girls are renowned for their vicious self-criticism. Time and again, I’ve heard young women criticize their own appearance, their academic shortcomings, their bad habits. But those same young women will often hasten to say, if they are or have been in a relationship, “You know, I’m a pretty awesome girlfriend.” Or if they haven’t yet been in one: “I am an incredibly loving person, and I would give so much to the right guy.”

There’s a corollary to that. Some young women overestimate their capacity not only to love with great intensity, they overestimate the malleability of their own emotions. Sexual identity is fluid — for both sexes. But that fluidity has its limits, and that’s something that on occasion, the young fail to understand. May hasn’t said this, but I’ve heard things like this from many of her peers: “I really like Leroy. I think I could fall in love with Leroy. I’m not physically attracted to Leroy, but he’s perfect in every other way. And you know, I think if I work at finding things about him that are desirable, I can make myself want him. And if I can’t, I think I can learn to live without that passion. I can make anything work.”

“I can make anything work” is tinged with defiance and hope. It’s the defiance of the conventional wisdom of parents and peers, which tells a young woman in this instance that there are limits to her capacity to change a man (and to change herself); it’s the hope that by her own sheer tenacity — and what she imagines is her inexhaustible well of love — she can manufacture passion itself.

Certainly, there are some young men who believe this (and some older folks of both sexes). But this insistence on persevering in the face of the romantically impossible tends to manifest more often in teenage girls; they, after all, are the ones who have been the primary consumers of the “love conquers all” discourse since they were in diapers. Older folks (like my third wife, whom I wrote about in one of the posts linked above) usually know better. They know that a fire that has died down may still have some embers which can be rekindled — but that where there was no flame to begin with, the prospect of future heat is invariably hopeless. Younger people haven’t learned that yet.

Of course, for some people, desire does build slowly. Making a snap judgment about whether or not physical desire is possible is always unwise. May may find that if she spends time with this guy that her feelings for him will change — we can be surprised by longing, something all of us know. But she must also be realistic about her own needs. She has known physical attraction for others; she is not without desire at all. And if she imagines that she can forego that attraction indefinitely, that she can live on kindness and emotional compatibility alone, she will sell herself short. And if she does what others like her have done, and imagine that by will and effort she can create desire inside herself, she will surely reap nothing but bitter disappointment.

There is much that we can make work. But there is also that that is a precondition to making things work. And when it comes to enduring romantic relationships, mutual physical attraction is one of those indispensable preconditions.

10 thoughts on “Why Desire Matters Too: The Dangers of Underestimating Sexual Compatibility

  1. Wow! Great article. Years ago, I almost got into an unpleasant relationship with an otherwise good fellow who I had absolutely no attraction to at all. Thankfully, I stopped the initial dating stages before getting to the “official” point in the relationship, realizing that I simply didn’t want to kiss, let alone have sex with, this person despite the fact that we had some commonalities and he was actually fairly good looking. Still, I felt guilty about this, because there’s so much cultural pressure for women to “learn to love” someone or settle for “nice” even if there’s hardly any attraction or chemistry.

    Then, after having two relationships with very good sexual chemistry, I realized how unfair that assumption is. Men have the freedom to want it all: looks, brains, sexiness, things in common, etc. Women on the other hand, are berated for turning a guy down for lack of attraction and dubbed as “shallow”. This is because women are the desired and not the desirers in a society rife with double standards. Because female desire is ignored, I’ve seen so many women fall into the trap of settling with a guy they do not physically want because maybe just liking his personality will “work out”. The whole “nice guys finish last and girls want jerks” trope feeds off of this prejudice as well.

  2. Not everyone has the choice between a relationship with or without sexual chemistry. For some, it’s the choice between having some sort of sexual relationship or none at all. For people like Lori Gottlieb, the possibility of attaining a relationship with chemistry and mutual sexual attraction is slim (Lori doesn’t say “settle when you can have something better” but “settle before settling is no longer an option”). Most likely May has 17 years to find a wonderful, caring, sexually compatible partner to share her life with, and I have no doubt she will. But not everyone has the same potential to have that. I can see why some people embrace settling because for them it’s the more attractive option than being alone.

  3. It will be a good day when the world finally wakes up and realizes that there’s much more to life than sex.

    Emotional/romantic compatibility > “sexual compatibility”

    • There is much more to life than sex; emotional and romantic compatibility is as important as sexual compatibility.

      However, consider a logical extreme like a homosexual trying to make a heterosexual relationship work because of emotional/romantic compatibility. A less extreme counter-example is evidence that body odor (google major histocompatibility complex) is a factor in who we find attractive. Sexual compatibility is very important. Denying instinctual drives is always a bit difficult, often futile and self-destructive (guilt over things beyond our control).

      • Don’t confuse heterosexuality with heteroromanticism. If a gay man, for example, cannot make a romantic relationship with a woman work, the fact that he’s homoromantic instead of heteroromantic would be enough to sink it.

  4. Great article and absolutely correct. Physical attraction isn’t everything, but without it, you’re in trouble.

    The headline knocked me off for a bit though – I think of sexual compatibility as meaning something more than mutual attraction. It is a more complicated question, I think.

  5. Just wanted to add that getting involved with a guy you’re not attracted to is not a nice thing to do, it just seems that way. If you stay together, he could end up extremely frustrated that you’re just not that into sex. He deserves better as much as you do.

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  8. Hugo, in light of this I was wondering: have you done any posts on asexuality? Within the asexual community there’s a ton of discussion centering around whether it is possible to have successful relationships between sexual and asexual individuals. That probably isn’t the case with many young people asking this question (especially if they feel romantic but not sexual attraction to the person in question but they are sexually attracted to other people), but what about those who don’t feel sexual attraction at all, or in a limited way (grey or demi-sexual)? It is perhaps not a matter then of finding someone they’ll feel attraction for (they may never), but being honest with their partner and having the toolkit for navigating that sort of relationship. Does mutual physical desire really have to be a necessary condition? I do not think that is the case, though it can be difficult for asexuals and sexuals to come to a compromise that meets both their needs. That difficulty doesn’t erase the asexual experience, however, and conversations which focus on desire as necessary unfortunately do. This is especially problematic as the tools for asserting asexuality in a relationship are sometimes very difficult to develop because there’s a lot of pressure to be otherwise. For some young people asking very similar questions to May’s, the answer, then, is very different — because the issue is very different. I’d like to read your take on some of this, if you have the time someday.

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