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Sex

How to Manage When Partners Have Different Desires for Sex

Positive communication, scheduling, and more.

Key points

  • When partners consistently want different amounts of sex and it leads to conflict, this is known as a sexual desire discrepancy.
  • Desire discrepancies may affect as many as 1 in 4 people in relationships in any given year.
  • It is important for partners to avoid blaming and shaming one another and engage in positive communication about sex.
  • Scheduling sex can create opportunities to build arousal and bridge the gap.
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

In long-term relationships, partners’ sex drives are bound to get out of sync from time to time. That’s normal and not a cause for concern, unless it becomes a persistent issue that starts putting significant stress and strain on the relationship. When this happens, it’s known as a sexual desire discrepancy.

Desire discrepancies are common. For instance, a nationally representative British sex survey found that about 1 in 4 adults in relationships reported experiencing this issue in the past year alone. These discrepancies are also one of the most frequent reasons couples enter sex therapy.

So what can you do if you’re in a sexual relationship where you and your partner want drastically different amounts or types of sex?

I spoke with Drs. Lori Brotto and Kristen Mark about this subject on recent episodes of the Sex and Psychology Podcast. Both of them are researchers and experts in the area of sexual desire. Here are some of the key things they told me.

Desire Discrepancies are a Couple Issue, Not an Individual Problem

As a starting point, look at this as a couple issue rather than a problem specific to one partner. When partners start blaming and shaming one another for wanting “too much” or “not enough” sex, it doesn’t lead anywhere good. In other words, think of this as a relationship issue that you need to address together—don’t go it alone. (In fact, Dr. Mark's research finds that couple-focused strategies are far more successful than individual strategies.)

Next, identify any potential health issues or stressors that might be tamping down desire, such as chronic fatigue or bringing a new baby into the picture. Sometimes people need to address those issues before addressing their sexual issues because they may be inextricably linked. In other words, there might be value in speaking with your doctor, re-evaluating your work-life balance, or otherwise getting a handle on the factors that might be affecting your libido before anything else.

Positive Communication Is Crucial

From there, communication is key. Our partners don’t necessarily always know what we like and want—so if we expect them to be mind-readers, they’re going to get it wrong sometimes. And sometimes that’s the thing that puts a damper on desire: our partners aren’t giving us what we want because we haven’t told them what we want.

So in some cases, partners need to spend time sharing their desires and teaching each other what does and doesn’t feel good. It’s normal to not want sex that isn’t meeting your needs—but if you can improve the quality of the sex you’re having, that can help stimulate the desire for more.

As you communicate about this, do so in a healthy and productive way. For instance, if you’re feeling sexually frustrated, being confrontational with your partner can ultimately make things worse. You might end up pushing your partner further away and, in the process, making the desire discrepancy even bigger. In short, be careful not to escalate the conflict.

Consider Scheduling Sex

Something else that can help is scheduling sex or having regular date nights. I know planned sex doesn’t sound sexy to everyone because many of us think that sex is “supposed” to be spontaneous. However, planned sex has some advantages over spontaneity. For one thing, you have time for anticipation (and arousal) to build. For another, you have time to get in the right headspace so that you can fully enjoy yourself. When sex is on the schedule, we can plan the rest of our lives around it so that we have less interference and fewer distractions.

Planned sex also affords the opportunity to build your partner’s arousal. You can flirt for hours—maybe even days—in advance. This can help increase the odds that you’ll both be in the mood when the time comes.

While sexual desire discrepancies are common and may, at times, feel hopeless, it should be reassuring to know that there is a lot you can to do manage these situations in healthy and satisfying ways.

Facebook image: Suwit Rattiwan/Shutterstock

References

Herbenick, D., Mullinax, M., & Mark, K. (2014). Sexual desire discrepancy as a feature, not a bug, of long‐term relationships: Women's self‐reported strategies for modulating sexual desire. The journal of sexual medicine, 11(9), 2196-2206.

Vowels, L. M., & Mark, K. P. (2020). Strategies for mitigating sexual desire discrepancy in relationships. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(3), 1017-1028.

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