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Sexual Desire Discrepancy: Why It’s a Big Deal for Couples

About 80% of couples regularly experience a desire discrepancy.

Milan Popovic/UnSplash
One partner wants to, and the other doesn't. It happens a lot more than you think.
Source: Milan Popovic/UnSplash

Research shows that up to 80% of couples regularly experience situations where one partner wants to have sex and the other doesn’t (Day, Muise, Joel, & Impett, 2015). While sex therapists would tell you that low sexual desire is the most common sexual problem, desire discrepancy is considered more distressing due to its dampening down the romance in a relationship (Mark, 2015).

Stereotypes abound about the high libido male trying to get lucky with a low libido female partner, but beyond that scenario’s heteronormativity, it's simply not accurate. High libido-low libido dynamics and situations come up for gay and lesbian couples, too. Further, one study found that in straight couples, 60% of the time the woman reported a higher sex drive than the man. So let’s set aside some of our preconceived notions and biases about this subject.

Some partners don’t view desire discrepancy as a big problem. Many partners respond to an invitation for sex with a “meh” or “not tonight honey.” Others argue that “no one ever died from not having sex.” That may or may not be true (see below).

But lack of enthusiasm may be a problem for your partner, and a significant stressor in your relationship down the road. When couples report high sexual satisfaction, this contributes 15%-20% to their overall relationship satisfaction. But couples’ low sexual satisfaction accounts for 50% to a whopping 70% of their total relationship satisfaction, or lack thereof (Girard & Wooley, 2017). Bottom line? Lack of sex or infrequent sex synchronization is not something that should be passively accepted or dismissed with a shrug.

The Benefits of Sex

Let’s review why orgasms are beneficial for reasons other than just pleasure.

1. Fun. Partner play and touch are hugely important to sustain relationship satisfaction. It frequently ranks in the top four things that contribute to couple satisfaction and happiness, so ideally it should be kept in the mix over time.

2. Sexual activity enhances your health. That’s right: Safe sex is good for you.

  • Having sex increases testosterone levels, which helps you gain muscle mass and lose fat, and it keeps your immune system humming (Robinson, WebMD). And the more you do it, the more you want to do it, as it enhances libido.
  • Sex causes the hormone oxytocin to surge to five times the normal level; this releases endorphins, which alleviate pain. Prolactin is also released with orgasm, facilitating restful sleep.
  • Sex two or more times a week lowers systolic blood pressure and can cut the risk of heart attack or stroke in half (Robinson, WebMD).

3. Being affectionate and enjoying being close is good modeling. Parents having alone time and enjoying touching and kissing around the house are modeling affectionate, pleasant contact as being “normal” and expected later on in life. Seeing you prioritize the relationship and the intimacy that went into getting this whole family started is important (see Couples, Parenthood, and Sex).

So, what do you do when you’re not doing it nearly enough, at least according to someone in your relationship?

  • Talk about it. Sex is often a sensitive, even taboo, topic. Sexuality is loaded with various unspoken needs and insecurities (even some we don’t admit to ourselves), so these conversations, while they can be tricky, are also necessary. You can talk preferences (“I really like it when you…”) and mechanics (“Take your time when you stimulate me here…”), or if that’s too headstrong (ha), you can stick to feelings about sex and intimacy in general. The key is to get your point of view out there and then really listen to what your partner says without being critical, or engaging in any shaming or blaming. (Many of us have had quite enough sex negative messaging for one lifetime, thank you very much).
  • What are your (plural) best times to do it? As a grad student, I was reviewing sex questionnaire items and ran across one that read something like: “After a long day of work I am too tired for sex.” Even as a healthy 21-year-old university student, I could imagine that this item could be a truthful statement for a lot of people and not a valid proxy or indicator of a lack of libido or relationship issues. When people are exhausted, vigorous, enthusiastic sex is often not at the forefront of their minds. So, figuring out when you are fresh and energetic in the week, and checking your partner for scheduling overlap, can increase the chances of a pleasant merging (Borreson, 2018). Lock in those times for potential get-togethers; life is hectic nowadays.
  • Create a sexy vibe. Do votive candles, incense, a bubble bath, or sexy music hold appeal? Figuring out what scents and conditions make for a sexy mood is important. Kick out the dogs and cats from the bedroom. Turn on the tunes. Get an atmosphere going that works for both of you (Borreson, 2018).

These suggestions may alleviate some of the tension that surrounds desire discrepancy. It’s possible that radically different desire (and energy) levels could be connected to a health problem (e.g., an iron deficiency, or low testosterone), so regular consultation with a medical professional is advised. Conflictual or repeatedly unproductive communication around sex (“you always…”, “you never want to….”) can contribute to a sense that unresolved problems are piling up in the relationship.

Is sex the root of the problem, or is it a wider relationship issue being expressed through sex? A visit to a couples therapist, or sex therapist, can help provide answers.

Facebook image: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock


Borreson, K. (2018). What to do when your libidos don’t match. Retrieved at…

Girard, A. & Wooley, S.R. (2017). Using emotionally focused therapy to treat sexual desire discrepancy in couples. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 43(8), 720-735.

Mark, K. P. (2015). Sexual desire discrepancy. Current Sexual Health Reports. doi:10.1007/s11930-015-0057-7

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