New lovers can’t keep their hands off each other. But the “hot and heavy” period ends after a year or so, and almost inevitably, sexual frequency declines. If both partners' libidos subside identically, there’s no problem. But typically, one partner wants sex more than the other, and in long-term relationships, desire differences often become festering sores: “You never want to!” “You’re insatiable!”
Who wants sex more? If you’re thinking that men want sex more often, you’re almost right. According to sex therapists, the man has more libido in two-thirds of cases, but surprisingly, in one-third, it’s the woman. When the man has more desire, it causes stress, but “everyone knows” that men are horny, so people expect this, it’s culturally normal. However, when the woman wants sex more, it’s culturally unexpected, more stressful for the couple, and may lead to name-calling. “Nymphomaniac!”
One largely overlooked aspect of desire differences is that they eliminate nonsexual affection. Those with greater desire eagerly initiate hugging, cuddling, and kissing in part because it’s emotionally nourishing, but also in hopes of getting lucky. Meanwhile, those with less interest withdraw from kissing and hugging for fear that it might be misinterpreted as a green light for sex.
Today, desire differences are a leading reason why couples consult sex therapists. Therapists typically ask, “In your relationship, who controls the sex?” Each person points to the other—and both are astonished that their partner thinks they are in control when each of them feels powerless. The one with more libido feels eviscerated by every cruel “no.” And the one with less feels emotionally battered from constantly fending off advances.
Fortunately, desire differences CAN be resolved. Here are the steps sex therapists recommend:
• What do you really want? Is it sex? Or other needs: more fun together, nonsexual affection, or proof of your partner’s love. Despite desire differences, couples usually feel closer when they cuddle more, make social plans, and treat each other compassionately.
• Negotiate a compromise frequency. If one wants sex twice a week while the other prefers once a month, their average is four or five times a month. But averages don’t matter. The challenge is to find a frequency you can both live with long-term. There no right or wrong here, but as a point of reference, the most typical frequency for couples age 21 to 40 is three times a month to once a week. For older couples, it's two to three times a month.
• Schedule sex dates in advance. This is critical. Scheduled sex dates reassure higher-desire partners that lovemaking will actually happen, and they reassure lower-desire partners that it will happen onlywhen scheduled. In most cases, as soon as couples schedule sex dates, relationship tensions begin to subside.
Of course, no sex schedule is carved in stone. Sex therapists advise trying scheduling for six months. If it’s not working, re-negotiate.
But usually, scheduling is a breath of fresh air. Higher-desire partners hate to grovel and lower-desire partners hate feeling besieged. Scheduling is usually a relief.
• “But suppose we have a date, and I’m not in the mood?” Lower-desire partners always ask this question. But in practice, the issue is usually less problematic than they fear. As scheduling reduces tension over sex, the relationship improves, and lower-desire partners can typically psyche themselves up for scheduled sex.
• Embrace your schedule in good faith. Don’t bicker about your compromise schedule. Higher-desire folks must not whine for more sex, and lower-desire partners must not cancel sex dates, or unreasonably postpone them.
• Cuddle more. When couples embrace their schedules in good faith, nonsexual affection returns to the relationship. Both people can initiate hugging, kissing, and cuddling without fear of misinterpretation because both know their schedule. Couples who have resolved desire differences often feel surprised by how much they’ve missed nonsexual affection, and astonished at how important it is to the relationship and their own well-being.
• Consider sex therapy. If you need help negotiating a schedule, or if a chronic desire difference has poisoned your relationship to the extent that you can’t discuss the issue, consult a sex therapist. To find one near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology. Figure four to six months of weekly hour-long sessions.