Sex

Desire Differences: Long-Term Couples’ Top Sex Problem

Part 1: Desire differences exasperate couples.

Posted Sep 01, 2019

Over the years, I’ve asked many sex therapists why couples consult them. Desire differences usually top the list. For the dozen years I’ve published my Q&A website, GreatSexGuidance, frustrations about desire differences have been a leading reason people email me. 

Now a Canadian study corroborates these observations. The University of Waterloo, Ontario, researchers found that desire differences are long-term couples’ number one source of chronic sexual distress. They interviewed 117 long-married heterosexual couples, privately asking each spouse which sexual conflicts were most frequent and maddening. On both counts, desire differences topped the list. 

Average Frequency: How Often Do Americans Do It?

Only one sexual generalization is universally valid. Everyone is sexually unique. Put two unique individuals together, and the couple is sexually like no other. As a result, it’s impossible to generalize about “average” or “typical” sexual frequency. There’s no “right” frequency couples “should” embrace. But researchers keep peeking between the sheets. Everyone wants to know how often everyone else does it, largely to gauge where they sit on the spectrum. 

I reviewed the half-dozen most widely cited studies. In every age group, for relationships of every duration, frequency varies substantially. But most typically, couples under around 45 usually do it about once a week, older couples usually two to three times a month.

Based on interviews with a representative sample of 6,785 married Americans, the researchers identified the elements that contribute to frequency:

  • Stage of relationship. In every age group, after the initial hot-and-heavy period, six months to a year, frequency almost always declines. 
  • Age. Frequency usually declines with age, usually in a series of plateaus and drops. 
  • The relationship. Frequency generally tracks relationship satisfaction. However, frequency among self-described happy couples ranges from never to several times a week. Unhappy couples’ frequency also varies considerably.
  • Affairs. Compared with monogamous spouses, those who step out usually have more total sex with all partners, though often not much with spouses. 
  • Health. Both acute and chronic illnesses reduce frequency. But no matter how healthy or infirm people may be, frequency varies tremendously.
  • Education. Those with less than a high school education typically have the least sex. Frequency increases with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. But advanced degrees often mean somewhat less.
  • Religion. Compared with fundamentalists who consider non-procreative sex sinful, those who consider sex for pleasure acceptable usually do it more.
  • Cohabitation. Compared with married spouses, committed unmarried couples generally have somewhat more sex. 
  • Pregnancy. Some pregnant women want more sex, others less, and some experience no change. However, frequency typically declines during the third trimester. 
  • Children. The myth is that parents of young kids don’t have time or energy for sex. Some parents’ frequency declines. Others’ remains unchanged.
  • Divorce. Those in miserable, sexless marriages often hope for more whoopee after they divorce. That’s possible, but unlikely. Divorce is traumatic. The adjustment takes time and usually reduces libido and frequency for around a year after the papers get signed. 
  • Remarriage. Some have more sex the second time around. Others have the same or less.
  • Single parenthood. Some single parents don’t have much sex. Others maintain their pre-parenthood frequencies. Some make love more.
  • Shared housework. With more women working outside the home and more men joining in housework, some social scientists predicted increased frequency.  Actually, with shared housework, sex typically declines a bit.
  • Individual differences. After analyzing the impact of all the above, the Brigham Young team determined what proportion of frequency differences they accounted for—just 20 percent, only one-fifth of couples’ sexual frequency differences. Which means that individual differences account for four-fifths of the variance—80 percent. This makes sense. If you’ve have had more than one lover, were any two of them erotically identical? Sexuality is as individual as taste in food. Some people love liver, others can’t stand it. Similarly, some want sex more or less than others. Unfortunately, that often triggers conflict.

The High Cost of Desire Differences

When desire differences fester, goodwill erodes, and a grim chills descends over the relationship. Sexual satisfaction declines, and irritability, bickering, and recriminations increase. Higher-libido spouses feel rejected and unloved. Lower-desire partners feel besieged. Chronic desire differences can make both feel miserable. 

One major casualty is nonsexual affection: playful hugs, friendly kisses, and cuddling while watching TV. Higher-desire partners initiate affection hoping to get lucky. Lower-libido spouses shrink from nonsexual affection for fear of it being misinterpreted. 

Eventually, what began as one problem becomes two: the desire difference and the chronic resentments it engenders. 

Who Wants Sex More? Men or Women?

Men are supposedly insatiable, women more equivocal. But when couples actually consult sex therapists for desire differences, the women want more sex in one-third to half of the cases. 

When men want more, couples experience distress, but their problem feels culturally expected, therefore, “normal.” But when the woman has more libido, the stress of the desire difference gets compounded by the probability that both spouses view their situation as “abnormal.” 

Three Choices

Desire differences create three choices: 

  • Break up.
  • Live in misery, with possible infidelity by the lustier partner.
  • Negotiate a mutually workable compromise.

If you want to stay together reasonably happily and monogamously, you have only one choice—negotiating a frequency you both can live with. Resolving desire differences requires the same skills involved in negotiating all conflicts:

  • Begin sentences with “I want” or “I need,” not “You should.” State your desires, not what you want the other to do.
  • Be succinct. Your partner already knows how you feel.
  • Listen respectfully. Don’t interrupt. Don’t roll your eyes. You have two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately.
  • Separate your love for the person from your disagreement over frequency. If divorce is off the table, there must be good reasons why you’re staying. Remind yourself what you love about your partner.
  • Avoid contempt. It takes at least 10 endearments to neutralize one nasty zinger. Don’t descend into name-calling. Avoid sarcasm. Bend over backward to be kind.
  • Laugh. Your desire difference isn’t funny. Try to laugh about other things—anything. Watch comedies together. Share jokes. Levity reduces tensions.
  • Remember, you’re teammates. If you’re not going to separate but can’t stand the status quo, you have no alternative but to work together. With any luck, you’ll be able to thrash out a workable compromise. 

What Can You Both Live With?

Compromising on frequency doesn’t produce happiness. It reduces mutual unhappiness to an acceptable level. Neither of you gets what you really want. You get a frequency you both can live with. Your flexibility shows you value your relationship over “winning.”

If one wants sex twice a week while the other would feel fine with once a month, reasonable compromises might be once a week, or once every ten days, or twice a month, possibly with mutually agreed “bonus” sex on special occasions—birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, or Valentine’s Day. 

No negotiated frequency is set in stone. After a few months, you’re free to re-negotiate. 

Compromise should include flexibility. Weekly lovemaking doesn’t mean sex absolutely once every seven days. People get sick. Obligations arise. Adjustments become necessary. Try to be gracious.

The sooner you negotiate a compromise frequency, the better off you’re likely to be. Then pull out your calendars and schedule sex dates in advance. That’s the focus of Part 2, to be posted next.

Facebook image: fizkes/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.

Call, V. et al. “The Incidence and Frequency of Marital Sex in a National Sample,” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1995) 57:639.

Jasso, G. “Marital Coital Frequency and the Passage of Time: Estimating the Separate Effects of Spouses’ Ages and Marital Duration, Birth and Marriage Cohorts, and Period Influences,” American Sociological Review (1985) 50:224.

Karraker, A. et al. “Sexual Frequency Decline from Midlife to Later Life,” The Journal of Gerontology, Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (2011) 66B:502.

Klusmann, D. “Sexual Motivation and the Duration of Partnership,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2002) 31:275.

Kornrich, S. et al. “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” American Sociological Review (2013) 78:26.

Mark, K.P. and S.H. Murray. “Gender Differences in Desire Discrepancy as a Predictor of Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction in a College Sample of Heterosexual Romantic Relationships,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2012) 38:198.

Murray, S.H. and R.R. Milhausen. “Sexual Desire and Relationship Duration in Young Men and Women,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2012) 38:28.

Perel, E. Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. Harper. NY, 2017.