Would it surprise you to know that a majority of couples regularly experience sexual desire discrepancy? That’s when one partner wants sex more or less often than the other. Some say as many as 80% of couples deal with this issue. I think it’s probably more, because fluctuations in sexual desire are part of being human and because there’s a huge range of normal. Still, we tend to think of differences in desire as the fault of one or the other – usually the partner who wants less sex.
"People tend to pathologize the individual with lower desire and that shouldn't be the case. Why is lower desire worse than higher desire? It's just desire."
- Kristen Mark, Ph.D., MPH
It’s natural for us to measure our desire for sex with the person with whom we’re having sex. So when we want more or less than they do, it’s easy to feel like something is wrong. I believe it’s safe to say that more than one case of desire discrepancy has been misdiagnosed as a sexual arousal disorder when, in fact, the issue has more to do with libido differences between two normal people. On the other end of the spectrum, the partner wanting more sex can be left feeling rejected and over-sexed.
Obviously, serious couple consequences can result when a discrepancy of sexual desire exists in a relationship. Guilt, shame and resentment can become a wedge between two people when one partner feels inadequate or rejected or faulty. When the issue isn’t talked about and dealt with, it’s easy to fall into negative patterns of thought and behavior that erode relationships, sometimes irreparably.
What's The Matter?
Sometimes, a libido discrepancy happens when one partner experiences low sexual desire due to underlying issues. A low libido can result from many things including: high levels of stress, fluctuating hormones, certain medications, physical illness (like diabetes), and mental conditions (like depression). Recent or long-ago trauma can cause some people to have a low desire for sex. If there is an underlying issue, it’s important to get to the bottom of it. This could mean that a visit to your doctor and/or a therapist is in order.
Understanding how desire works for ourselves and our partners is key and a mutual commitment to working through issues of sexual desire discrepancy is vital to the wellbeing of any relationship. Here are some practical strategies to consider when sexual desire is out of synch – for whatever reason:
Know yourself. Spend some alone time getting to know exactly what it is that turns you on. This is a prerequisite to effective communication with your partner about what it really takes to light your fire.
Let’s get real about the clitoris. It’s the sexual pleasure center for women just like the penis is for men. Let’s treat it accordingly, shall we?
Communication is queen. As in all things, talking and listening are crucial components of healthy relationships. Talk about what turns you on and listen to what gets your partner hot. It may inspire the two of you to listen to a sexy podcast or to read some erotica together.
Manage expectations. The fact of the matter is that sexual desire will experience seasons throughout our lives. Physical changes like childbirth, perimenopause, menopause, weight gain or loss, and illness all can affect our level of desire. So can mental and emotional factors like stress, loss, depression, relationship issues … the list goes on. The point is to expect that our sexual desire will go through changes and so will our partner’s.
It’s about quality, not quantity. This concept can be challenging for people with strong libidos. But it’s worth the effort to focus on quality when the result is sexual harmony. And prioritizing quality just might lead to more satisfying sex overall.
It’s not all about intercourse. There are so many ways to be sexual together without actual intercourse. Touching each other in non-sexual ways can be very pleasurable. So can touching each other in sexual ways but steering clear of the genitals. Flirting, kissing, tickling, massaging, whispering … Free yourself from an obligation to intercourse and allow pleasure to be your guide. You never know where it will lead.
Play with each other. Life inevitably moves us through the honeymoon stage of sex rather quickly. So, we all need to make an effort to keep things interesting. Why not add some play dates to your calendar and keep fun in your sexual bags of tricks.
There are games that you can purchase for as little as $10 to infuse some fun into your bedroom. One example is a deck of cards or dice with positions, locations and where-to-touch instructions. Another idea is a one-on-one game of Twister. The possibilities are endless, so use your imagination and have fun.
Play with yourself. If you’re the partner who experiences sexual desire more often, masturbating can be an important part of your sex life. It doesn’t have to be a big secret. And it doesn’t mean that you are over-sexed, if you want sex every day and your partner is more into once every couple of weeks. If you’re the one who experiences sexual desire less often, be supportive of your partner’s self-pleasure sessions and consider participating by adding some stimulation of your own. This is a perfect time for whispering sweet nothings and opening your minds to compromise. You may just discover things you both really enjoy in the process.
- Balance. Compromise is key in any relationship and the sexual component, when there is one, is no different. So, sometimes we may have sex when we’re really not in the mood or forego a roll in the hay when we really, really want one – because we’re practicing compromise. That’s alright as long as it feels okay (mentally and physically), is truly consensual and remains balanced between partners.
Practice makes perfect. When life is busy and complicated, keep intimacy in the mix by scheduling your together time. Because it simply isn’t going to happen without a purposeful approach that you’re both committed to.
Don’t forget the foreplay. Direct clitoral stimulation is oftentimes thought of as foreplay, when in fact many women have to have it to orgasm. Others may need more than one point of stimulation – like lips, or breasts, or necks. Whatever the case, the point is to take the “fore” out of foreplay and think of it as part of the whole experience. The touching we do during foreplay doesn’t have to end like an opening act for the main event.
Don’t take it personally. No can mean more than no when we feel rejected sexually. It’s easy to believe that there is something wrong with us when we’re in the mood and our partner is not; however, that is usually not the case. So it's a good idea for the one saying no to be kind and reassuring. This is the time for some honest communication about feelings and how you both will get your needs met.
Love yourself. If you’ve never felt shy about your naked body measuring up, you’re in the minority. Most of us feel a little less than sexy from time to time and this can have a negative impact on how we feel in bed with our partners. In fact, it can significantly dampen libido.
Let’s stop comparing ourselves to women we see on screens and impossible ideals of beauty. Focus instead on how you feel. How your partner feels. How you make each other feel. Being in the moment during sex and concentrating on physical sensations and emotional connection makes a big difference in how we experience sex.
The Good News
Luckily for us, science has provided some new intel on the way sexual desire works. It’s explained in the groundbreaking book – Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. Her book is a real game changer that challenges traditional beliefs about sexual desire.
For one thing, desire comes in more than one style, according to Dr. Nagoski.
People who experience spontaneous desire, don’t require stimulation to get turned on.
This type of desire heats up in response to stimulation – and the stimulation is not optional.
Contextual Sexual Desire
When circumstances and the environment impact our ability to feel sexual desire.
"Context is made of two things: the circumstances of the present moment—whom you're with, where you are, whether the situation is novel or familiar, risky or safe, etc.—and your brain state in the present moment—whether you're relaxed or stressed, trusting or not, loving or not, right now, in the moment."
– Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. from Come As You Are
About 15% of women are spontaneous which means about 85% are not. And most women fall into a blended category of responsive and contextual sexual desire. It’s a different story with men who are thought to be about 75% spontaneous. When one partner is responsive and the other is spontaneous, it can lead to significant desire discrepancy. However, we can come to accept these differences as normal and learn how to ignite passion in different ways – based on what works for our type of sexual desire – and our partner’s.
By the way, one type of sexual desire is not better than the others and the point is not to fix something that’s broken. Spontaneous, responsive, contextual – all are normal and legitimate.
It makes sense that we experience sexual desire in a way that is unique – just like every other part of us. There are things we share in common, of course, but it is the differences that make each of us special and one of a kind. When it comes to sexual desire, we must understand and accept ourselves and learn what turns us on and what we need to feel ready for sex. And then it's all about communicating with our partner - both talking and listening.
I think it's fitting for Dr. Nagoski to have the last word.
“We know by now that there’s no such thing as normal—or rather, that we’re all normal. We’re all made of the same parts as everyone else, organized in a unique way. No two alike.”
Want to know more about the new science of sexual desire? Try reading Emily Nagoski’s groundbreaking book. Here’s a link to buy it on Amazon.
By Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.
You’re thinking that therapy could help you – and your partner – get more out of your sex life? Here’s a link to the professionals who can help.
(American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists)
Psychology Today, Sexual Desire Discrepancy: Why It’s a Big Deal for Couples, Kyle D. Killian, Ph.D., LMFT, 12/27/2019
InStyle, What To Do When You and Your Partner Have Wildly Different Sex Drives, Steph Auteri, 9/30/2020
Mbg relationships, A Simple Reason Many Couples Deal With Desire Discrepancy, From A Sex Coach, Kelly Gonsalves, July 12, 2020
Psychology Today, Do You Want Sex More Than Your Partner Does?, Lawrence Josephs, Ph.D., December 28, 2018
Embrace Sexual Wellness LLC, Desire Discrepancy: What It Is and What You Can Do, February 3, 2021
Good Therapy, When the Urge Is Uneven: Understanding the Universe of Sexual Desire, Carolynn Aristone, MSW, LCSW, February 6, 2018
Good Therapy, 8 Ways to Survive Sexual Dry Spells in Your Relationship, Carolynn Aristole, MSW, LCSW, February 20, 2017
Mbg relationships, 4 Contextual Cues That Turn Women On, According To Sex Researchers, Kelly Gonsalves, August 10, 2020
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.