Dueling Libidos

7 steps to resolving a sexual desire conflict.

Posted May 30, 2019

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Source: Shutterstock photo

There was a palpable tension in the room as Anna and Cory told me about their escalating marital conflicts. “The real cause of our fighting is sex,” she said. “Always. I don’t feel like having sex as much as I used to. We have two kids under the age of three. I’m tired. We have no time and no privacy.”

Cory took a deep breath. “That’s not a good excuse,” he said. “They’re my kids, too. And I don’t feel like having less sex.”

They lapsed into an angry silence and looked at me.

I have heard this story, with variations, many times. Sometimes it is a woman complaining about sexual deprivation. Sometimes the mismatch of libidos is due to a change in the relationship—new parenthood, new tensions or stressors. With some couples, there always has been a clash between the partners’ levels of sexual desire. Whatever the circumstances behind the dueling libidos, there is a lot of pain.

This painful situation is not uncommon. 

In a 2017 study of 11,508 men and women between the ages of 16 and 74, British researchers found that 15 percent of men and 34.2 percent of women reported a lack of interest in sex. Men were most likely to have low sexual interest due to increasing age, erectile difficulties, and general physical and mental health problems. But the British study found that lack of communication about sex or other relationship problems could also be factors in men’s lack of interest in sex.

Women’s lack of desire was most often linked to relationship problems, poor physical health, depression, and having young children (though the latter was not a factor for men). 

The study also found that attitudes and previous experiences could impact sexual desire. For example, women who had grown up with negative views of sex or had experienced a painful, even traumatic, introduction to sex, such as rape, sexual abuse, or pressure to have barely consensual sex, were more likely to have low sexual interest later on. A less-than-optimal first sexual experience was not a factor in a male’s subsequent low libido. 

In both genders, however, attitudes about sexual interest and aging factored into the lack of sexual interest. Those who agreed with the statement that “People want less sex as they age” were more likely to report a low interest in sex. 

So there are many reasons why partners may find their sexual desires mismatched. If you and your partner find yourself at odds about sexual frequency, you might ask yourselves the following questions:

  •  Could there be a medical basis for one partner’s low interest in sex? A number of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, Addison’s disease, coronary artery disease, and painful conditions like arthritis or fibromyalgia, can contribute to low sexual desire. Libido can also suffer due to heavy alcohol use or from having taken certain prescription medications, such as SSRI anti-depressants or some types of birth control pills. Fatigue and depression can also lead to low libido. If any of this is sounding familiar, consulting with your primary physician is a good first step toward a more satisfying sex life.
  • Are we having relationship problems in other areas? Lack of communication, high conflict, and a general feeling of emotional distance can influence sexual desire in one or both partners. Seeing a licensed marriage and family therapist or other counseling professional to resolve some of these issues might help you both to feel calmer, safer, and more intimate in your relationship. Emotional intimacy can be a definite turn-on, especially for women.
  • Do we have differing perspectives, experiences, and attitudes about sex? Remember that famous scene from the film Annie Hall when the couple is talking separately with their respective therapists? Replying to both therapists' questions about how often the couple has sex, the woman says, “Constantly. Three times a week!” And the man answers: “Almost never! Only three times a week.” Could your sexual frustrations be due to similarly differing perspectives? Could you work out a reasonable compromise, discussing and trying to understand each other’s differing experiences? Perhaps one partner grew up in a family where sex wasn’t discussed or was considered shameful or a mere marital duty. Perhaps a partner with low desire has a history of trauma or abuse or negative early sexual experiences. Talking about these feelings and experiences together, perhaps with a therapist, can help to build the understanding and compassion to begin to bridge your sexual communications gap.
  • How have our lives or our bodies changed recently? Life changes—becoming a parent, losing a job, or beginning a demanding new one—can lead to stress and fatigue, which can factor into low sexual desire. Some of the physical changes of aging—from the vaginal dryness that comes with menopause or erectile dysfunction (or uncertainty) in men—can lead to sexual discomfort and an increased chance of avoidance. But these physical issues aren’t hopeless. A good lubricant or Viagra can work wonders for many couples. 
  • Is the problem a sexual desire disorder? There are several sexual desire disorders. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) is a condition where sexual desires and fantasies are largely absent. Sexual Aversion Disorder (SAD) causes a person to have an extreme aversion to and avoidance of all (or almost all) genital sexual contact with a partner. Both disorders occur on a continuum, with varying degrees of severity and many different causes. For some, the disorder may be lifelong. For others, the disorder is acquired or situational or due to psychological problems or a combination of factors. Causes may include a history of abuse, sexual orientation or gender identity issues, or growing up in a deeply negative sexual environment. If either of these disorders seems like a possibility, consult with your physician for a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Particularly for HSDD, psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as analytically oriented sex therapy has been found to be helpful. Medications that address the underlying causes of low sexual desire are also useful. However, SAD is more treatment-resistant. Studies have found that cognitive-behavioral therapy can help to manage the condition.

What can you do if your dueling libidos don’t seem to be due to serious medical, relationship, or psychological problems, but instead may stem from habit, miscommunication, distractions, and other realities of daily life?

1. Discuss your differences without blame or labeling. Help each other to feel safe, heard, and understood by not taking adversarial stances. Desire levels differ for a variety of reasons, and if your partner has a less urgent libido than yours, try not to take it personally. If you can discuss your differing levels of desire calmly, without judgment, you may find that his or her low level of desire isn’t a rejection of you but simply another aspect of this person you love. When you talk about your differing sexual desires with love and acceptance, compromise may be more readily possible.

2. Concentrate—just for now—on non-sexual ways to have fun and feel close. Give yourselves a break! If dueling libidos are fueling marital fights, take sex off the table for now. There are non-sexual ways to bridge the distance caused by conflict and hurt. 

My late friend and colleague, prominent sex and health educator Elizabeth Canfield, used to rhapsodize about the many ways we can make love. “Listening to a piece of music you both enjoy is a way of making love,” she would say. “Going on a walk and discovering a beautiful flower together or sharing the experience of a glorious sunrise or sunset is a way of making love. So is having a good conversation or laughing together.”

In the past, what have you done just for fun or to relax together? Finding ways, both old and new, to rediscover fun together, despite busy schedules and family obligations, can go a long way toward romantic reconnection. 

3. Find ways to compromise. When your levels of desire don’t match, compromise is in order. You may need to come to an agreement regarding frequency of sex—perhaps having intercourse less often than one partner would like ideally, but more often than the spouse with a lower level of desire would choose—and each agreeing to compromise out of love and a shared desire to maintain a strong relationship.

Compromise may also mean engaging in activities that do not include intercourse. Some higher desire spouses may choose masturbation to relieve sexual tensions and conflict. Some spouses with a lower desire for intercourse may nonetheless find pleasure in stimulating their partners to orgasm orally or manually. 

Kendra, a young wife and mother I saw recently as part of a dueling libido couple, reported that such alternatives hadn’t occurred to her as she pushed her ardent husband away after the birth of their first baby. “It was all intercourse or nothing in my mind,” she said. “But when I focused on pleasuring Jaden, even when I wasn’t turned on, I found that made my heart beat faster, too! And it helped us feel a lot closer. Actually, we’ve been having sex more these days, because I want it, too!” 

4. Be sensitive to sexual turn-offs as well as turn-ons. Respect preferences. Some people find a sweaty partner fresh from the gym a major turn-on, but others are repulsed, preferring their loved ones to be fresh from the shower. Maintain the level of cleanliness that your more fastidious partner prefers, and you could enjoy significant benefits.

Pay attention to timing, too. While some men feel most amorous in the morning, when their hormone levels may be higher, some women feel time pressure to get up, make breakfast, get the kids ready for school, and get dressed for work. “My husband doesn't understand, because he can be up and out the door in ten minutes!” a client I’ll call Jamie told me not long ago. “Showering, dressing, dealing with the kids means I need at least an hour to get everything done. It doesn’t make for romantic mornings—except on vacations or some rare lazy weekends when I love to linger in bed with him.”

Be sensitive to each other’s preferences and find ways to compromise in terms of timing. (Hygiene issues may be less negotiable.) Remember that nagging and criticizing are definitely not aphrodisiacs! 

5. Schedule sex. Seriously? Yes!  Some balk at the thought as hopelessly unromantic. But think about it for a moment. If you’ve been in conflict over sexual frequency, scheduling can help to empower your compromise and fuel anticipation.  

“I thought this was a really stupid, bad idea when it first came up,” my client Joe told me not long ago. “But I found it helped Judy and me a lot. I look forward to days that I know we’re going to make love. I think about sex a lot on that day and flirt with my wife more. Scheduling also cuts down on the uncertainty about whether or not we’ll have sex, whether she’ll consent, and it eliminates a lot of the tension about that. It also gives us more freedom to show affection on other days without my wife jumping to the conclusion that I’m badgering her to have sex.”

6. Practice affection, not seduction. A tender touch, loving words, cuddling with no goal but to show your love and devotion to your partner can go a long way toward building a more loving relationship—in and out of bed.

7. Enhance your friendship with each other. Ideally, our spouses and life partners are also our closest friends. Building your friendship with each other to include not only love and sexual sharing, but also trust, affection, shared humor, and abundant goodwill can benefit your relationship in all ways.

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock


Graham CA, Mercer, CH, Tanton C, et al. What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles. BMJ Open 2017: 7: e016942. doin 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016942

Montgomery, Keith A., Sexual Desire Disorders. Psychiatry (Edgemont). 2008 Jun; 5(6): 50-56

Simon, JA. Low Sexual Desire: Pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Postgrad Med. 2010 Nov; n122(6): 128-36. doin: 10.3810/pgm.2010.11.2230