How to Be Sexually Responsive, Not Sexually Compliant

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This article summarizes the findings of a recent study by Muise et al., published in Current Opinion in Psychology, on the costs and benefits of sexual responsiveness in romantic relationships.

What is sexual responsiveness?

To be responsive means to show interest in your partner, notice and recognize his or her needs, express an accurate understanding of these needs, and provide timely, sensitive care.

Responsiveness promotes harmony and interpersonal chemistry.

Sexual responsiveness refers to understanding, accommodating, and meeting a partner’s sexual needs, desires, and preferences. How?

For instance, by making compromises and other changes, such as engaging in intercourse more often or accommodating a spouse’s sexual preferences.

Sexual responsiveness also involves paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal signals, seeking mutual satisfaction, and being open to sexual experimentation.

Who benefits the most from having a sexually responsive partner?

A responsive partner is of great value for everyone, but especially for people whose sexual needs have rarely been met in the past or those currently dealing with sexual health issues like low sexual desire or pain during intercourse.

Responsiveness can also buffer against lower sexual satisfaction and well-being associated with unmet sexual ideals—ideals of attractiveness, status, wealth, romantic passion, and others. Indeed, it is quite common that a partner falls short of some ideal.

So, that is another reason responsiveness matters.

Similarly, it buffers the negative impact of the transition to parenthood, a period during which sexual desire and satisfaction often drop.

Finally, responsiveness is particularly valuable for the anxiously attached—people who often worry about being rejected and abandoned.

To illustrate, a 2021 study found, “On days when anxiously attached people perceived their partner as responsive to their sexual needs, they reported similar levels of relationship and sexual satisfaction, trust, and commitment as people lower in anxiety.”

Potential costs of sexual responsiveness

Sexual responsiveness is associated with well-being and relationship satisfaction when it is freely chosen, autonomous, and self-determined.

When accommodating others comes at the expense of neglecting one’s own interests, preferences, and needs, there can be negative consequences for personal and relationship well-being.

As Muise et al. note, self-neglect and sexual compliance, as opposed to responsiveness, are linked with:

  • Lower sexual desire.
  • Lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.
  • Higher sexual distress among women with low sexual desire.
  • Poorer sexual functioning.
  • Higher anxiety and depression.
  • More painful sex in some women.

These findings make intuitive sense. After all, when responsiveness is not self-determined—motivated instead by obligation, guilt, threats, coercion, or fears of angering or losing the partner—one is more likely to feel uninterested, detached, and disconnected during sex.

Feeling detached during intercourse does not enhance intimacy and relationship satisfaction.


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Who is more likely to be sexually responsive?

Many sexually responsive people are high in sexual communal strength.

These are individuals who feel motivated to meet the needs of their spouse without having any expectations of direct reciprocation.

These individuals engage in sex because it pleases their partner and fosters intimacy, outcomes that they find inherently enjoyable and meaningful.

Similarly, people who regard their partner’s sexual problems not as obstacles but as growth opportunities are more responsive.

In contrast, those who believe sexual satisfaction is a consequence of natural compatibility tend to believe that a satisfying sex life should not require effort or hard work to maintain. So they don’t. And their relationships suffer.


By being responsive, you make your partner feel understood, validated, valued, and loved. You help them feel that their experiences, interests, needs, desires, happiness, and well-being really matter.

As noted, one component of such sensitive and supportive behavior is sexual responsiveness, which is associated with higher relationship quality and greater sexual desire.

It bears repeating that sexual compliance differs from responsiveness.

In the former case, sex is motivated by obligation, pressure, coercion, or fears of upsetting or losing the partner; in the latter case, by autonomous reasons like pleasure and meaning.

Responsiveness is about showing interest in another person and understanding and validating their needs, not ignoring your own needs or desires.

How do you strike the right balance between sexual responsiveness and autonomy?

Consider the following suggestions:

  1. Have open, honest communication about sex. Such discussions can help you become aware of each other’s changing desires, needs, and preferences. As a result, honest communication helps build intimacy and improve relationship satisfaction.
  2. When your partner is discussing their sexual needs and desires, listen with acceptance and empathy. This is important because talking openly about one’s sexual needs may trigger feelings of vulnerability, fear, worry, embarrassment, and shame.
  3. Honor your feelings. It is absolutely fine if you are not in the mood for sex when your spouse is. Engage in sex when you have a true sense of choice and feel free to do otherwise—not out of fear, pressure, threats, or coercion.
  4. To say no to sex responsively, warmly acknowledge your partner’s desire for intimate connection. Provide reassurance that despite refusing their sexual advances, you still love them and care about their happiness.
  5. When the roles are reversed—you desire sex but your significant other is not in the mood—be understanding toward your partner. Have self-compassion if feeling neglected or unloved and thus angry.
  6. If needed, give individual or couple psychotherapy a try. In therapy, you can learn effective communication (e.g., high-quality listening and assertiveness), emotion regulation skills (such as reappraisal and problem-solving), healthy relationship dynamics (like breaking the cycle of anger), and more satisfying ways of expressing and exploring your sexuality.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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