How to Shift a Compliant Relationship: Celebrating Your Desires & Honor Your Partner’s Limitations
Couples come to me a lot in search of relief from a sense of either resentment or obligation because either their partner won’t accommodate their desires or they’re feeling obligated to fulfill their partner’s desires and are living in compliance. Neither feels particularly sexy (unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case there are kinks we will discuss elsewhere…). So, how can people in relationships have differentiated desires and still feel fulfilled?
First, if you have unmet desires it’s important to affirm that you get to want what you want! Most people who come to me don’t actually believe that it’s ok to want what they want. They feel they have to be justified, or their partner has to have the same desire for it to be acceptable.
Not true! You get to want what you want!
Second — and this is the bad news — your partner doesn’t have to give you what you want. For whatever reason, whether it’s not a priority, not a value, not an interest, or it’s an outright boundary, your partner isn’t responsible for all your desires getting met.
Why do we believe otherwise? Why do we act like dogs, barking up the wrong tree, over and over again, expecting to be fulfilled in ways our partner just isn’t making happen for us? The myth of the fairy tale relationship misleads us into actually believing our partner should be EVERYTHING to us. This is a main challenge of conventional monogamous relationships (And believe me, other relationship formats come with plenty of challenges, too.).
But the reality is that no one person can fulfill all your desires. And the other bad news? No two people are 100% compatible. There will always be a compatibility gap. And the longer you’re together that gap becomes not only more obvious, but the extent of the incompatibility becomes clearer.
And so what do you do? If you’re like most people, you’ll bounce from relationship to relationship, hoping that somehow it will all balance out and you’ll eventually check all your desire needs off your bucket list, even if not all at the same time.
But desires are endless. We’ll never be able to fulfill anyone’s desires fully because desire isn’t fixed. It evolves. And so it’s not a target that can be pinned. The sooner couples accept this the sooner they’ll feel empowered to authenticallty resource themselves.
And, sometimes it’s just not enough. I worked with a couple recently who had different life priorities. She wanted to settle down and build a family, while he was fully occupied by his tech job. The longer this went on the more anguish it brought her, and the more judged he felt. And so in session we got to see that neither one is wrong — they just have differing desires.
I had another client who longed to be handled roughly in sex, but this was incredibly triggering for her monogamous partner, whose desire was for a softer, romantic sexual connection. It was killing her libido, and she’d almost completely lost interest in sex. The closest they could get to bridging that gap was for him to wield his romantic passion toward her, being soft yet more dominant. In the end, it simply wasn’t enough for her, and she had to decide if she could resource her desires elsewhere through porn and fantasy, do nothing and lose her libido, or end the relationship and find another sexual partner. But still, his limitation wasn’t wrong — they were just mismatched in their desires.
So what can you do if you have a ton of unmet desires?
Celebrate that your desires are amazing, and make you feel sexually alive!
Normalize that there will always be a desire gap in your relationships.
De-shame where your partner’s desires are different than yours, and honor both their boundaries and their limitations.
Decide if this is something you can either bridge with your partner, take turns fulfilling, or resource otherwise.
Process your disappointment and grieve your unmet desires.
What can you do if you’re the compliant one who feels obligated to go along with your partner’s desires while crossing your own boundaries or limitations?
De-shame your limitations and boundaries. It’s not only ok to have them, but when you honor them you rebuild your sense of dignity and self respect.
Stop having obligation sex. It not only kills your libido, but it will make you feel resentful towards your partner.
Celebrate your partner’s desires! They might be different from yours, but you can still celebrate them for your partner.
Speak honestly with your partner about what you’re open to and what you just don’t want to do.
Troubleshoot possible options together, whether you’ll be bridging their desires, taking turns to help them get more of what they want, or resourcing otherwise in or outside the relationship.
Process any disappointment and guilt you might feel for not meeting your partner’s needs.
Remember, you get to have your desires and boundaries/limitations, and your partner does too! No couple is 100% compatible, so if you do nothing else, try not to be so hard on yourself or your partner for not being a perfect desire match. Even if the relationship ends, you’ll walk away understanding each other better, and accepting each other all the more. That’s what it means to have true intimacy. And I’d still call that a successful relationship worth celebrating.