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How Couples Can Cope with Different Libidos, Sexual Desire

Using a simple scale can help you figure out who's right — or wrong — for you.

I’ve learned from counseling countless men and women that everyone needs to know what I call their ‘Sex Number.’ Simply put, on a scale of 1 to 10, how sexual do you consider yourself? I use a simple 1 to 10 scale frequently when working with clients to help them figure out where they fall on this basic scale.

Knowing your sex number is crucial for many reasons. If you’re single, you need to ask yourself what number range you want your future partner to be in. Once you’re in a relationship and tied down because of the emotional attachment, realizing that you’re sexually incompatible can be extremely frustrating. If you’re the one who wants more sexual activity because your number is significantly higher than your partner’s, you might find yourself doing any of the following: constantly pushing for more sex; taking your partner’s lack of interest in having sex with you personally; or looking outside of the relationship to meet your sexual needs.

If you’re in a relationship already, I’m sure you could come up with the number that you believe fits your partner. (I hope for the relationship’s sake that your numbers are in a similar range). The next time one of you tries to initiate sexual activity and the other isn’t interested, remind yourself what your sex numbers are. The most important benefit of knowing your sex number is that it prevents everyone from taking sexual interest and libido levels personally. One member of a couple I saw in session recently said, “I stopped feeling bad that he never seeks me out because I realize he’s a two and I’m an eight.” I’ve spent almost two years seeing this particular couple, and it’s the intervention where I asked them to state their sex numbers that yielded the most significant impact. Who knew, given all the years I spent studying complex theories in grad school?

If you are very sexual, you have a significant need to engage in sexual activity regularly and frequently. If you are not very sexual, you have a need to make your partner understand that you have a low sex number and don’t want to be pressured to be sexual when it’s not really something you want. Everyone understands that a very sexual person is going to feel frustrated if the partner isn’t very interested in sex, but many people forget to think about the frustration the less sexual partner feels. After all, who wants to be pressured into anything, disappoint your partner, or be made to feel guilty if you’re simply not an extremely sexual person? For the less sexual partners of the world, many would rather give up sex altogether than continue to argue about it.

What should you do if your sex numbers are very different but you’ve been together for a long time and don’t want to end the relationship? If either or both of you feel significantly frustrated by the difference in sex numbers and the discrepancy has been the source of more hard feelings and awkward or angry conversations than you can count, the two of you need to find a way to compromise so that both of your needs are met.

Discuss a Menu of Sexual Acts

One way to compromise is to broaden your range of activities that the two of you consider sexual. In addition to the obvious sexual activities, add other forms of touch and intimacy into the equation. Include light touching and massages, as these activities reinforce intimacy. If the more sexual partner wants more, the more sexual partner can masturbate, for example, while the other watches. In order for this to work without producing unnecessary drama and tension, the two of you must first discuss what you want from the encounter. Person A says, “I’d be up for some light touching, and I could kiss you while you masturbate if that’s okay.” What, you ask? This doesn’t sound romantic? Don’t dismiss deliberate conversations about sex because they prevent a lot of negative feelings in the long run. When you first learn to start discussing sexual plans with your partner, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable. But once you get used to talking about sexual acts, the conversations will become automatic to the point that you don’t think twice about it.

Rethink Monogamy

The vast majority of romantic couples in American society report that they're monogamous, despite the fact that a high percentage of individuals within those couples secretly seek out sexual adventures with others. Secrets, of course, are bad news for the obvious aspect that they can destroy intimacy. If you and your partner have vastly different sex numbers and the less sexual one isn’t interested in compromising to have more sexual activity, you both should consider creative ways that the more sexual partner can get those needs met. If you’re a couple who would consider letting each other have the occasional sexual dalliance outside the relationship, make sure to keep the lines of communication open to avoid growing apart. Perhaps you’re a couple that must set specific rules: never engage in sexual activity with the same person more than once, only seek out adventures on vacation or far away from home, and so forth.

Sublimate Your Sexual Energy

The first time I ever considered the various ways an individual could sublimate sexual energy, I was in a supervision session in grad school with one of my mentors. She shared with me that her own romantic relationship had become fairly unsexual over the years, and she went on to explain that she had found a way to sublimate her still-strong sexual energy into making art. The benefit of sublimation, a high-level defense mechanism, is that you can choose to sublimate sexual energy into whichever behaviors turn you on, so to speak. For some, it may be art; for others, it may be woodworking, exercising, making music, or writing. It's important to note that all of the behaviors I'm suggesting actually produce a tangible result, so the mental energy isn't wasted on feelings of frustration, sadness, or anger. Bottom line: If you have decided that you want to stay with your partner for the long haul, despite the difference in sexual interest, sublimation of your sexual energy is one of the healthiest ways to manage your sexual thoughts and feelings.

Consider Ending the Relationship

As a therapist, I'm hard-pressed to believe that ending a relationship for sexual reasons is a good idea. Given that there are so many alternatives (sublimating the energy, changing the parameters of monogamy, and compromise), my hope is that couples find a way to keep the good parts of the relationship rather than throw it away. Yet I also know the reality, that sometimes the dynamic between a couple gets tarnished to the point that going separate ways is worth considering. If you and your partner have tried hard — and tried many different ways — to compensate for the difference in your sexual numbers, have a conversation in which each of you discusses the pros and cons of splitting up.

Ultimately, sex is always a delicate subject, and navigating it within a couple requires that everyone be careful and sensitive as they set out to get their needs met. Be mindful of the ongoing need to change and adapt, and your life will reward you!

Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter.

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