Even if you’re highly compatible with your partner, a mismatch in desire may come up sooner or later. A paraphilia, also known as a fetish or kink, is a sexual interest that is considered unusual or outside of the mainstream. Paraphilias are actually very common: According to a 2017 study published in The Journal of Sex Research, almost half of more than 1,000 people surveyed reported at least one kink or fetish. If your partner has a sexual interest that you don’t share, you may be wondering how to navigate this difference.
Can your relationship work if your partner has a fetish you don’t share?
Absolutely. Research has suggested that good communication, trust, and feelings of emotional connectedness are among the most important factors in long-term relationship satisfaction (1); if you have these key ingredients, there’s a good chance that sexual differences will be manageable.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a hookup or a relationship in which sex is the focus, it might not make sense to try to make things work with someone whose sexual desires are very different from your own.
How can I support a partner when they’re into something I’m not?
1. Talk about it.
Communication is important in any relationship. Particularly in romantic partnerships, the ability to have hard conversations has been linked to relationship success (1). Your approach may depend on your own and your partner’s comfort level, as well as how the subject of your partner’s kink came up: Did they bring it up directly? Did something they said or did, or the type of porn they like, hint at a fetish or kink? Do you just have a feeling that your partner isn’t getting their needs met
Sex can be a vulnerable subject, particularly for those who have experienced trauma or who grew up in cultures that portrayed sex as bad or sinful; some people may feel shame and insecurity about their sexuality. It can be helpful to start a conversation in a non-sexual context, in a moment when you’re both feeling comfortable and safe.
2. Be curious.
Especially if their desire is outside of the mainstream, your partner may be worried that you’ll judge or reject them. It can take a lot of courage to talk about something as personal as a fetish. Even if it’s something you don’t relate to, or feel uncomfortable with, try to honor their vulnerability by staying calm and curious: What turns them on? Why? How would they like you to be involved?
If their disclosure causes you distress—maybe you’re a survivor of assault and their fantasy involves role-playing a non-consensual encounter—it’s ok to step away. You can thank them for trusting you enough to share and gently let them know that you need time to process what they’ve told you.
3. Be honest with your partner—and yourself.
In some situations, it can be relatively easy to accommodate a partner’s desire. Maybe your partner has a fantasy or fetish you don’t share—a thing for feet, silky underwear, food play, or bondage, for example—but that you’re happy to engage in.
In other cases, your partner’s desire may represent something you can’t participate in. Whether a fantasy or sexual act reminds you of trauma or abuse, is physically or psychologically painful, or just makes you really uncomfortable, you have the right to opt out.
Being clear about whether your partner’s desire is something you can accommodate, something you may be able to get on board with over time, or a hard “no” can be helpful in navigating a conversation about different sexual needs.
If you think you can work with their kink:
1. Manage expectations.
Some people are surprised to discover that they enjoy a previously unfamiliar fantasy just as much as their partner does. In other cases, though, you may find yourself turned off by, uncomfortable with, or simply not interested in something your partner loves. Let your partner know before trying anything new that, while you are open to exploring, you can’t guarantee a positive response.
2. Set boundaries.
If you want to try to accommodate your partner’s fetish, it’s important to set boundaries beforehand. Know, and communicate, what you are and aren’t willing to try. (Sometimes you might not know that something doesn’t feel good until you’re doing it—that’s ok! You have the right to withdraw consent at any time—even in the middle of sex.)
It can be helpful to set a time-limit, at least the first few times you try something new: This can take some of the pressure off and help you to feel more at ease.
Using a safe word or signal can be a good way to pause the action and take a break, talk about what you’re experiencing, or stop if you need to.
3. Take it slow.
Exploring something new with a partner can be exciting. It’s important to balance the excitement with safety and sustainability: doing too much, too fast can make you feel overwhelmed and may even, in some cases, be unsafe.
Anal play is a good example of the benefits of a slow and steady approach: the delicate tissues of the anus and rectum need plenty of warmup, lots of lube, and a gentle touch (2). Whether your partner wants to play with your butt or have their butt played with, starting with a few sessions where you focus on the outside of the anus, before progressing to penetration, can help you both get familiar with what feels good and avoid potential injury.
The same goes with other kinks: Start small, go slowly, and take all the time you need to talk about what you’re both experiencing.
4. Make a schedule.
If you’ve decided to incorporate your partner’s desire into your sex life, it’s important to make sure that your needs get met, too. Sometimes, the excitement of getting the chance to explore a particular fetish or fantasy can cause people to lose sight of their partner’s needs. Even if you enjoy the kind of sex your partner wants, making sure that you get what you want, too, can help keep your relationship balanced.
Some couples find setting a schedule helpful: You can try setting aside times each week, month, or whatever feels sustainable, to play in the way your partner wants to.
If you can’t go there:
1. Let them know gently.
Sharing a sexual fantasy or kink can be very vulnerable. Even if you find your partner’s fetish shocking or unpleasant, avoid shaming or negative language: Instead, keep the focus on yourself and your own needs. Communicate gently but firmly that their desire isn’t something that you will be able to participate in. It’s ok if you can’t, or don’t want to, explain why—you have the right to say no to anything, at any time, for any reason.
If you’re not sure how to break the news to your partner, talking it over with a sex-affirming therapist beforehand may be helpful.
2. Determine how important it is—but don’t try to change them.
Some people may fantasize about or enjoy a particular sexual act or scenario but don’t mind going without if their partner isn’t into it. If this describes your partner, you can open a discussion about how both of your needs can be met in the relationship.
For other people, though, a specific desire can be a part of their sexual identity, and something that they need to experience to feel satisfied. Evidence suggests that, for some people, specific sexual desires can be as ingrained as sexual orientation (3). If this is the case for your partner, wanting or expecting them to set this part of their sexuality aside can be unrealistic, and even hurtful.
If your partner wants something that you don’t, there may be other ways to explore together: Maybe you aren’t willing to try a threesome but would be happy to watch porn that features threesomes or engage in dirty talk about them.
For some people, talking about fantasies with a partner, watching porn, or exploring role-play scenarios can be a reasonable way to get their needs met.
4. Consider opening the relationship.
If you’re both willing to explore an open relationship, connecting with someone who shares their kink, or working with a sex worker, may be a way for your partner to get their sexual needs met.
For many people, opening a relationship feels like a huge step. If having an open relationship isn’t an option, a compromise may be for your partner to find a community of like minded people: Even if they’re not connecting in person, swapping pictures, sharing fantasies, and chatting about what they’re into may be a good outlet for their desires.
5. Know when it’s time to let go.
If your partner’s fetish, kink, or fantasy is central to their sexual identity, you’re not willing to open the relationship, and you can’t work out a compromise, the relationship might not be sustainable over the long-term. Even if you care for each other, it’s ok to let go of a relationship in which both people aren’t getting their needs met.
The bottom line
People who have differing sexual desires can still enjoy a successful, mutually satisfying relationship. Respectful communication, thorough boundary-setting, and ongoing conversation can help couples to navigate the challenges that come with having different sexual needs. If your partner has a need that is central to their sexuality that you can’t fulfill and can’t compromise on, though, the relationship may not be sustainable over the long run.