Differences in Sexual Desire (& Low Libido)
Whilst this article is no substitute for professional counselling or sex therapy, understanding the difficulties common in differences of sexual desire may assist you to more accurately identify common relationship issues. You can then decide whether you may benefit from professional counselling, or whether you may be able to try some of the suggestions below.
It’s common for couples to experience some form of sexual concern in the course of their relationship. Some studies show that over 50% of couples report sexual dissatisfaction and more than 60% who attend couples therapy report significant sexual concerns (1).
A common complaint encountered in relationships is that one partner wants sex more than the other. In fact, issues with sexual desire is the most common sexual problem for couples seeking sex therapy (2).
A common complaint encountered in relationships is that one partner wants sex more than the other. Many couples are able to achieve some kind of compromise and make a sexual adjustment that satisfies both partners. For other couples, however, the differences in sexual desire continue to be a troublesome aspect of their relationship and can cause distress. It is virtually impossible to state what “normal” desire is: we each have different appetites for sex, just as we do for food. Individuals have different needs for intimacy and sexual contact. Differences in sexual desire can sometimes lead to anger and resentment and can carry over into other areas of a couple’s life, affecting the entire relationship.
EXPECTATIONS, POWER AND TRUST
For many couples, the early stage of a relationship is characterised by sexual novelty and discovery. Once the “honeymoon” comes to an end, couples are forced to confront each other on a wide variety of issues: the novelty of the relationship wears off and people discover imperfections in each other. With unrealistic portrayals of relationships commonly portrayed in the media, it is easy for disappointment and unhappiness to result when problems occur for which there is no quick or effective resolution. It is not surprising that disappointment, disillusionment and unhappiness sometimes are the cause for a lack of desire for sex with one’s partner.
Imbalance of power in a relationship can also have a negative influence on sexual functioning: If one partner has all the power or makes all the decisions, the other partner may feel that the only power they have is not to agree to sex. One of the biggest obstacles to a satisfying sexual relationship is a lack of trust: some people find that they cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable and emotionally intimate with their partner, which often results in an unsatisfactory sexual relationship.
LOWER LEVELS OF SEXUAL DESIRE
For some individuals, low desire has nothing to do with their partner, but is a more general state. The person may have had negative sexual experiences, or have been influenced by cultural, religious or parental role models, who may have taught them to avoid or regret sex. Others may just have a lower appetite for sex, and can be perfectly happy when they do have sex, but simply do not want it very often. While this is often not a problem for them, it may become a problem for their partner.
PHYSICAL, MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH
While your, or your partner’s, sexual desire may have nothing at all to do with the state of your health, there are some cases where one’s health does affect sexual desire. If your libido has dropped after a period of higher desire, and you cannot attribute this to any significant changes in your life, you may want to consider a physical check-up to determine if the change in desire is due to physical factors: some health conditions and medications have a detrimental effect on sexual desire. Many cases of a sudden or gradual drop in libido are attributable to emotional causes, such as stress, fatigue or depression.
IF YOU WANT MORE SEX THAN YOUR PARTNER
The suggestions and questions below are not meant to imply that you are at fault for wanting more frequent sex than your partner: blame is not the issue at all. The important thing is for both partners to cooperate in finding ways to make their sexual relationship more comfortable and enjoyable. Some people are able to leave their personal and/or relationship problems outside the bedroom door, while others cannot, and find it difficult or impossible to desire and enjoy sex if things are not going well in other aspects of their lives. Some people use sex to make up after a fight, while others can only enjoy sex if they are feeling good about their relationship with their partner.
Ask yourself whether the following statements apply to you:
- I am affectionate to my partner in a nonsexual way.
- I let my partner know that I care for him or her at times other than when I want sex.
- I hug, kiss, and hold my partner’s hand without expecting sex to follow.
- I share my thoughts and feelings with my partner.
- I help my partner feel comfortable and safe with me so that they know that it is okay to relax and enjoy things with me.
If you feel that you answered ‘no’ to some of these statements, you may wish to explore ways in which you can change the answer to yes. This will likely help your partner feel more comfortable and more intimate with you. Relationship Counselling or Marriage Counselling can also assist people to find ways to express intimacy in non sexual ways, thereby enhancing sexual desire. Many people find that even in a once intimate relationship, expressing or accessing intimate non-sexual feelings has become the core difficulty. Learning how to reconnect with intimate feelings and finding ways to safely express these is one of the most powerful and growth promoting aspects of successful couple therapy.
MAKING SURE THE TIME IS RIGHT
If you decide to experiment with new opportunities for sexual intimacy, then you should choose the times that you initiate sex carefully. If one of you is feeling tired or rushed, it is difficult for sex to be a relaxed and enjoyable experience. It is important to make time for the two of you to be together for activities other than sex, and for your sexual time to be relaxed, romantic and intimate. Try preparing for sex by putting on some soft music, lighting candles, or creating some other romantic gesture that will show your partner that you are truly thinking about them when you are planning your time together.
If your partner has a lot of worries and stresses in other areas of his or her life, it is often difficult to take time to relax and enjoy sex. You can help by providing an environment that is calm and relaxing and letting your partner know that your time together can be a release from the stresses of everyday life.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
Communication during sex is also very important. Not only is it important for you to communicate what you like to your partner, but also to try to get him or her to tell you what feels good for them. Be a considerate, gentle lover. When sex is offered in the context of a romantic setting, is leisurely, and has some imagination and variety associated with it, it often becomes more enjoyable for both partners. Make sure that you focus on your partner’s pleasure as well as your own. Frequently, people are so preoccupied with having an orgasm that they do not relax enough to enjoy and experience the other parts of sex. This could be compared to being on a train and spending so much time thinking about when and how you will arrive at your destination, that you forget to look out of the window and enjoy the scenery along the way.
How you like to be touched and stimulated may not necessarily coincide with your partner’s desires. Be sure to work out (or just ask!) what gives him or her the most pleasure and to spend at least some of your sexual time together doing those activities.
If your relationship is generally troubled, if you cannot speak freely, and if you frequently argue and disagree, it may be necessary to address some of these problems before your partner can feel confident and relaxed enough to be sexual with you. A skilled relationship counsellor or marriage counsellor can help you solve these issues if you feel you are stuck or keep going around in circles in your problems or disagreements.
IF YOU WANT LESS SEX THAN YOUR PARTNER
The suggestions below do not imply that there is anything wrong with you because you want sex less frequently than your partner does. However, these suggestions may be helpful if you would like to resolve your different needs, or want to increase your desire to have sex more frequently.
An important first step is to spend some time thinking about how you truly feel about sex in general and sex with your partner in particular. Is sex something that you find repulsive or unpleasant? Do you find that you rarely desire sex at all, or is your low desire specific to your partner? Do you think you may enjoy sex (more) with someone else?
IF YOU DON’T WANT SEX WITH YOUR PARTNER
If most of your difficulties are partner specific, then give some thought to what would make sex better and more enjoyable with your partner. Communication is usually the key to any good relationship in general, and to good sex in particular. Try to tell your partner what you want from sex and what would make sex more relaxing and more enjoyable for you. Sex is a lot more than intercourse and orgasm, and if you and your partner can communicate and share other sexual activities or other ways of being intimate, you may find your desire increasing.
If you have difficulty being intimate with your partner, tell him or her, and see if you both can work out ways of increasing trust and intimacy. Ask for what you want sexually. If you would like your partner to be a better lover, you must help this come about by giving your partner feedback on what feels good for you. It is important to focus on the positive rather than on the negative when discussing your sex life. It is easy to focus on the unattractive aspects of your partner, but this can be reversed. For example, rather than focusing on her “big thighs” or his “big stomach”, focus instead on “her beautiful blue eyes” or “his strong arms”. Choosing what you focus on will help determine the amount of sexual desire you have.
GENERALLY LOW SEXUAL DESIRE
You may find that your desire is low in general, and that this is not directly related to sex with your partner. There are several questions you can ask yourself to help explore the role of sex in your life.
- Are you under a lot of stress?
- Are you willing and able to make time for yourself and look after your own needs and pleasures?
- Are there things in your life that you worry about excessively?
- Do you feel generally depressed about life?
- When you do engage in sexual activity, do you enjoy it and wonder why you do not pursue it more often?
- Do you find yourself reluctant to initiate or accept your partner’s initiation?
- Have you had a medical check up with a GP familiar with sexual health issues?
Life stress and depression are frequently incompatible with sexual desire, and if these are problems for you, it may explain why your desire is lower than your partner’s. You may want to seek one on one or couple counselling with a skilled Counsellor or Psychologist.
Taking time for yourself, is an important component in the enjoyment of sexual activity. Talking about your issues with a counsellor or psychologist can help you solve some of the problems in your life which may be weighing down on you and impeding your sexual desire.
Sometimes sexual desire disappears because of other issues in the relationship. For example, if there is conflict over having or not having children, or over contraception, sexual desire may decrease. Again, if these issues can be discussed openly and compromise reached, sexual desire will often return.
NEGATIVE BELIEFS ABOUT SEX
Sometimes, “old messages” intrude upon our thoughts and keep us from enjoying our own sexuality. For example, if you learned that sex was wrong, dirty, or immoral as a child, it may be difficult for you to give up the feelings associated with those messages, even though you no longer hold those beliefs. Learning that those “old messages” need not currently influence your life can often have a strong impact on changing your sexual desire. Sex should be fun, so try giving yourself permission to have fun and to play and then start treating sex as a playful activity. You may find this makes a difference. People with strongly ingrained negative messages about sex, or those who have suffered sexual abuse or mistreatment will most likely find the services of a counsellor beneficial.
WHAT BOTH PARTNERS CAN DO
Communication and compromise can go a long way towards improving a couples’ sexual relationship. It is important to focus on what you can do to make things better, rather than on what your partner should do.
It is unfair to assume that the partner with lower desire has to make all the changes in the relationship. Compromise, with both partners making changes, is necessary to make any successful relationship work. It may seem as if the higher desire partner wants sex all the time. In many cases, more frequent sex would lower the number of requests. If one partner wants sex once a week while the other wants it every day, it should be possible to compromise on two or three times per week. Clearly, if one partner wants sex once a week and the other wants it once a year, compromise may be more difficult.
Working together, or with a counsellor, a couple can communicate to try and resolve other issues in their relationship so that sexual activity is not used to act out power struggles, control, and anger. Frequently, patterns of who initiates sex and how sex is initiated and refused is an issue for many couples. If sex is refused because of the way it is initiated, feedback is required. When refusing an invitation for sex, it is important to let your partner know that it is not a rejection of them, but simply about how you are feeling at the time. Making another date for sex or making a point to initiate sex at some later time will often prevent feelings of anger and frustration that often go along with being refused.
SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP
If you have tried the suggestions above, but have found that they have not helped resolve the problem of differences in your sexual desire, then it may be necessary for you to undertake counselling. If your relationship is so distressed that communication is difficult, you may need professional help in the form of a marriage or relationship counsellor to improve your overall relationship before your sexual relationship can improve.
If you have a long history of negative attitudes towards sex or if, rather than a difference of sexual appetite, one partner has strong aversion to sex, then relationship counselling is recommended to find out why this aversion exists and to help overcome it. Couple counselling would be most beneficial if both partners agree to attend the therapy sessions. It is most beneficial when both partners are motivated to make changes. You certainly may wish to have a consultation with a counsellor on your own to discuss the problem and to see what he or she can offer. Based on this consultation, you can make a decision whether or not you would like to pursue a course of psychotherapy individually or within your relationship or marriage.
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Brassard , A. , Péloquin , K. , Dupuy , E. , Wright , J. , & Shaver , PR. ( 2012 ). Romantic attachment insecurity predicts sexual dissatisfaction in couples seeking marital therapy. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy , 38 ( 3 ), 245 – 262
Davies, S., Katz, J., & Jackson, J. L. (1999). Sexual desire discrepancies: Effects on sexual and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Archives of sexual behavior, 28(6), 553-567