Compromise is a funny word. In some contexts it's seen as a strength. Compromising with others to achieve a common goal, reach a higher cause, do more than you could ever do on your own. In other contexts, sexuality is one example, compromise sounds like a dirty word. It's like settling or somehow not being true to yourself.
What compromise is at its root is something we need to do to be in the world with others. Without compromise fewer of us would survive, and we certainly wouldn't get nearly as much accomplished. Why some compromises are seen as valuable, civilizing parts of life and others are seen as signs of weakness isn't clear. For the most part though any sexual compromise, no matter how beneficial it may be, is considered iffy. But it's worth asking yourself why this is, and what sorts of compromises you are willing to make in exchange for what kinds of sexual returns.
What Is Sexual Compromise?
Maybe the most commonly discussed example of sexual compromise is the compromise to have sex even if you aren't in the mood. Couples often have different sex drives, and even if they are more or less equal, there are times when one of you may be very much in the mood when the other is most definitely not. Dealing with sex drive discrepancies often requires compromise. Sometimes that compromise involves engaging in sexual activities, sometimes not. At a minimum it means dealing with your partner's desire even if you aren't in the mood to deal with it.
Sexual compromise may also be specific to a sexual activity. A sexual compromise might involve trying something new when you aren't 100% sure you're going to like it. You may be more or less involved in the activity. For example the compromise might be that you wear a certain kind of underwear, or move your body in a certain kind of way, that fits in with your partner's fantasy or desire. But the compromise calls on you to participate.
Sexual compromises may involve NOT doing certain things. A partner who needs space and rest for one reason or another, a break from sexual interactions, may mean that your compromise is to focus your sexual energy away from them and on to yourself (if you are in a monogamous relationship) or others (if you are in an open relationship).
However it looks, talking about sexual compromise in a culture that tells you your body is your own and you should never do anything you don't want to do with it, can be confusing. When does sexual compromise become sexual exploitation? What's the difference between compromise and settling? And how do you find a healthy balance? What follows are a few answers and a lot more questions for you to consider as you think through the place of compromise in your own sexual relationship.
Who Are You Doing It For?
If you're making compromises in your sexual relationship, who you are doing it for? We make all sorts of decisions based on our desire to take care of and give love to a partner we care for. We may get in the habit of saying "I love you" more than we really feel like saying it, we might learn to clean up after ourselves more often and more thoroughly than we'd like, we may spend time with people and family members who we'd rather not see. These things we do are compromises that make our partners happy. In and of itself, there's no reason why making similar changes in our behavior sexually is a problem. As long as you're the one making the decision and you are able to make sense of it for yourself. Doing something to avoid an argument, a fight, or conflict is not the same as doing something because it doesn't take much away from you and it means a lot to your partner.
Part of what you need to figure out of course is, what does it mean to you? For some people, any sexual interaction is a sign of love and something that involves risk and vulnerability. As such it isn't the same as picking up your dirty clothes or wiping the counter when you're finished making breakfast. But for others sex can be less loaded and something that's easy to share, whether or not we feel 100% committed or present. There's no right answer, only an answer that feels right for you. And even that can and will change over time.
When It's Easier to Say Yes than No
If you don't feel like being sexual at all, getting to the no is important, and having sex when you actively don't want to isn't likely to do much for your relationship in the long term. The caveat above, that sex means different things to different people at different times, shouldn't be used as an excuse to ignore your needs, or allow your partners needs to consistently take priority.
But if you aren't feeling no, but aren't feeling an enthusiastic yes either, then it is and it should be your call. It's your body, it's your choice. Particularly in the context of a committed long term relationship most of us have sex sometimes when we aren't feeling it 100%. In that context we may start because we know we'll enjoy it once it gets going, or we may have sex because we really don't mind. The same decision may feel very different in the context of a casual relationship or early on in a new relationship where the exchange may be less equitable and in fact your lack of communication may be (incorrectly) communicating that you are okay having your boundaries pushed or ignored.
It's hard to generalize, but if you are saying yes only because saying no feels to difficult, then you'd probably do much better to learn to say no. Over time the effects on your sex life could be pretty lousy.
Do We Have to Talk About It?
There are many ways to communicate in a sexual relationship, and not all of them involve words. In a new relationship it's hard to imagine how you could compromise sexually without at least a little explicit exchange of feelings and thoughts. Remember that if you don't say how you feel and share your expectations there's no sure way your partner will know them. In established relationships this kind of compromise often goes unspoken, and that may work perfectly fine for your relationship. A good sign you need to talk about something is if you, well, feel like you need to talk about something.
Compromise vs Settling
Compromising sexually is not the same thing as settling. The idea that you settle for a sex life or a sexual relationship that's less than what you want may include a kind of resignation, the decision that you'll never get what you want anyway so you might as well settle for something less. While we all should get to make these decisions for ourselves, what is troubling to me as a sex educator about the idea of settling is the implication that it is permanent. That one decides to settle with a particular situation and then that situation never changes.
Life, and relationships, are always changing. Even when we aren't aware of it. To make a decision that you are going to ignore some of your desires, or settle into a relationship pattern that isn't what you want, and that there will be no opportunity to talk about it, renegotiate the terms, take a break from it, or leave it altogether, doesn't seem wise or healthy. It may be scarier to acknowledge that nothing is permanent, but keeping an awareness of the possibility of change, in my opinion, is worth dealing with some of the fear.
We all make compromises in our relationships, sexual and otherwise. And we get to change our minds and deicide that what we want looks different than what we thought we wanted or what we always said we wanted. But if settling means foreclosing opportunities for growth, exploration, and change, it isn't an option I would recommend.
The Bottom Line:
Most cultures and communities treat sex differently from other forms of social interaction. This can lead to special rules when it comes to sexuality which may or may not feel right for you. The bottom line is that we all compromise sexually, and as long as your compromises are choices you are actively making, and not concessions you are living with begrudgingly, there's no reason why sexual compromise should be considered a problem or a sign of a bad or mismatched sexual relationship.