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Sex

How to Resolve Desire Differences

Putting romance on the calendar may relieve a lot of tension.

Recently, researchers at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, found that desire differences are long-term couples’ top source of chronic sexual distress. Part 1 of this series recommends starting the reconciliation process by negotiating a sexual frequency you both can live with. Compromising on frequency doesn’t produce happiness for either of you, but it reduces the desperation that chronic desire differences often cause.

Once you’ve compromised on frequency, then the challenge becomes how to implement it.

Pull Out Your Calendars

Chronic desire differences plunge couples into a maddening cycle of bickering. One pleads, “Tonight? Tonight?” The other says, “No,” or “I’m not in the mood,” or the worst retort, “Maybe.”

“Maybe” drives the more libidinous partner crazy. “So, what’ll it be? Yes? Or no?” That person becomes even more miserable and plaintive, which makes the lower-desire partner feel even more beleaguered and defensive. The battle usually ceases when you schedule sex dates in advance based on your negotiated frequency.

Many people recoil from scheduling, insisting the best sex is spontaneous. But after the brief hot-and-heavy period, spontaneous sex usually disappears. In established relationships, sex therapists almost universally recommend scheduling.

Scheduling means you both know when you’ll make love. That’s usually a tremendous relief. Higher-desire partners can look forward to it. Lower-desire lovers are freed from repelling constant advances.

Daily life becomes less strained. Resentments fade. Sexual conflict gets replaced by certainty, and usually eventual grudging acceptance of scheduling.

“What If We Have a Sex Date, and I’m Not in the Mood?”

This is lower-libido lovers’ immediate retort to scheduling. The myth is that sex “just happens” when lovers are “in the mood.” But by the time couples have developed toxic desire differences, sex rarely just happens. One partner is always in the mood, the other seldom if ever.

Most people believe that desire precedes sex. You want it, then go for it. That’s true for most men and some women.

But studies by University of British Columbia psychiatrist Rosemary Basson, M.D., show that before sex, many low-libido women (and presumably many men, too) say they feel sexually neutral. Then, assuming they enjoy the sex, they warm up and eventually feel desire. For these people, desire is not the cause of sex, but its result.

If some people don’t experience a classic sex drive, why do they do it? To please or placate partners, to experience pleasure, and to express love and affection—reasons that are not strictly sexual.

What about new relationships when lovers can’t keep their hands off each other? Basson’s model still holds. People with strong libidos revel in them as they fall in love and enjoy lots of hot sex.

Meanwhile, those more interested in emotional closeness know that sex opens the door to it, so early in relationships, when they feel especially hungry for love and affection, they, too, are up for frequent sex. But as lovers settle into life together, hunger for closeness moderates and lower-libido folks experience less desire.

Note to higher-libido partners: Don’t pressure your lower-desire lovers by saying, “If the desire doesn’t precede sex for you, then just have sex with me whenever I want, and you’ll get in the mood as we make love.” This misconstrues Basson’s findings.

Imagine your partner loves socializing with certain friends. You like them, too, but not as much. How would you feel if your partner said, “It doesn’t matter that you like them less. Just play along, and by the end of the visit, you’ll enjoy it.” That may be true once a month—but not twice a week. The key is to negotiate a compromise frequency you can both live with long-term. Sex should never feel coerced.

It’s equally important for lower-libido partners to let go of the idea that before proceeding, they must feel affirmatively in the mood. Scheduling allows you time to psyche up for lovemaking, to work up anticipatory excitement, so you enjoy it.

Scheduling frees couples from constant bickering. After a few months, chances are you’ll feel good about scheduling and better about your relationship.

Accept Your Schedule Graciously

Once you’ve scheduled your compromise frequency, embrace it in good faith. You haven’t gotten what you truly want, but you’ve both demonstrated sufficient flexibility to adopt a frequency you both can live with. Try to see the glass as half full.

Avoid snide remarks about the huge sacrifice you’ve made. Your lover already knows—and has made a similar sacrifice. Do your best to stop bickering. Give your scheduled compromise frequency a few months, then, if necessary, re-negotiate.

Restore Nonsexual Affection

Scheduling produces one immediate benefit—a return to the pleasure of giving and receiving nonsexual affection. Being touched, held, and cuddled are among life’s most satisfying pleasures. Studies show that nonsexual physical affection is a boon to relationships.

Once you schedule sex, affectionate touch loses its sexual charge. Both of you can initiate cuddling secure in the knowledge that all you’re doing is sharing affection. That’s usually a relief—and it allows affectionate touch to return to your relationship.

Note to the more libidinous partner: Don’t misinterpret spontaneous affection as a sexual invitation. Stick to your schedule.

Work to Restore Goodwill

When lovers experience chronic conflict, they typically think the other person should be nicer. But you don’t control your partner. You only control yourself. If you want to restore relationship harmony, make every effort to be nicer yourself. Perform at least one spontaneous act of loving-kindness a day.

Savor Your Solution

When couples negotiate mutually acceptable frequencies and schedule them, at first, both feel wary. That’s to be expected. Goodwill has eroded. Trust has been damaged. And both people may focus more on what they’ve given up than gained.

But over time, assuming you both honor your agreement, tensions usually subside. You still have a desire difference, but its sting fades, and your relationship—and lovemaking—improve. Over time, you both realize you’ve accomplished something important. You’ve negotiated an agreement you can both live with. Congratulations.

If Self-Help Doesn’t Work

Self-help may not be able to repair the damage if one or both insist the problem is all the other’s fault; one or both claim all the distress; or one or both insist the other is deranged or intransigent. If these accusations sound familiar, consider sex therapy. Desire differences are one of the leading reasons couples seek professional help, so most therapists have substantial experience helping couples overcome them.

Facebook image: margo_black/Shutterstock

References

Sutherland, S.E. et al. “A Descriptive Analysis of Sexual Problems in Long-Term Heterosexual Relationships,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2019) 16:701.

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