What to Try When One of You Wants Sex, but the Other Doesn't
New research on how to navigate sexual desire discrepancies in relationships.
Posted Mar 25, 2020
You’re feeling turned on and start to initiate sex with your partner, but they roll over and tell you they just want to go to sleep. Or you’re sitting on the couch relaxing, immersed in your favorite show, when your partner gives you that look, and you think to yourself, “Not now!”
While sex can certainly be more spontaneous and passionate than the scenarios I just described, if you’re like most couples, you’ve likely experienced some degree of sexual desire discrepancy in your relationship (a term used by clinicians and researchers to describe when our level of sexual interest doesn’t match up to that of our partner’s).
Sometimes desire discrepancies can weigh more heavily on a relationship, such as when one partner has consistently higher (or lower) sexual desire than the other. Others of us may simply cycle through various ebbs and flows in sexual desire over our lives that do not always align with our partner's sexual urges or interest.
In other words, it’s not so much a matter of whether you'll experience a desire discrepancy with a romantic partner; it's more likely a question of when. And when discrepant interests in sex show up in a relationship, it's good to be prepared for how to best navigate it together.
The good news is that the researchers who conducted a new study just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior not only share what strategies people use to navigate sexual desire discrepancies in their own relationships, but their findings also shed light on which strategies are most effective for heightening sexual satisfaction and relationship quality.
Vowels and Mark's study consisted of 229 participants (73 men, 145 women, and 11 genderfluid or genderqueer individuals), who were 34.65 years old on average and in relationships for an average of 8 years. Most participants were married or cohabitating, about 20% were in a relationship but living apart, and 7.4% were in consensual non-monogamous relationships. The majority of participants were white, well-educated, and non-religious. Just over half identified as heterosexual, 29.7% as bisexual, and 5.2% identified as lesbian or gay.
The participants were asked to respond to the following four questions: "During times when you feel your desire is higher or lower than your partner's, what do you do?" "Does your partner do anything in these cases where one of you has higher or lower desire than the other?" "Do you and your partner engage in any specific strategies on days when only one of you desires sex?" and "To what extent do you find these strategies helpful?"
The authors then coded and analyzed the responses and grouped them into the following 5 themes to capture how participants navigated sexual desire discrepancies in their relationships.
5 Strategies for Mitigating Desire Discrepancies
1. Masturbation. The most common strategy that participants in this sample described using, when one partner wanted sex and the other wasn't in the mood, was for the person who was interested in sex to masturbate. Some participants described masturbating privately while others described doing so near or beside their partner. (This did not include mutual masturbation — a shared activity — which is instead captured in the following theme.) Masturbation was described by some participants as including the use of pornography; for others it included reading romantic novels and/or erotica.
2. Engage in a Different Activity with Partner. A number of participants also reported engaging in different sexual or sensual activities with one another, without necessarily having penetrative sex. For example, participants described trying different sexual activities like oral sex, manual stimulation, masturbating together, or trying something to get themselves or their partner into the mood. Some participants in this category also said they chose to be physically close to their partner without it necessarily being sexual — for example, cuddling or holding hands.
3. Communication. Communication was described in various ways by participants as a way to navigate desire discrepancies. For example, some participants described talking through the situation to better understand where their partner was coming from and, if possible, finding a compromise (e.g., "It's nothing personal, I'm just tired tonight, can we just kiss for a bit instead?"). Others indicated that communication led to a better understating and respect of each other's wishes (e.g., "I can see you're stressed about your meeting tomorrow, let's hold off until after it's done"). Finally, some participants in this category described communicating with one another to schedule sex for another time when both members might have a better chance of feeling in the mood (e.g., "This week is just crazy, let's carve out some time to be intimate this weekend when we can really focus on each other").
4. Maintenance Sex. Despite not being interested in sex at the time, a number of participants described agreeing to have sex with their partner anyway. Sometimes participants described acknowledging their desire was more responsive, and said they would agree to have sex knowing their desire might increase as sexual activity progressed. Other participants mentioned that having sex was important to their relationship and that they would agree to have sex for relationship-enhancing reasons, even if they didn't feel a desire to be sexual.
5. Disengagement. A final strategy some participants noted was simply disengaging. Within this theme, some participants described waiting for another time, "doing nothing," or using some kind of distraction that was completely unrelated to sex, like cooking, doing chores, or exercising.
What Strategies Were More (and Less) Effective?
The authors then asked whether any of the above-mentioned strategies were more or less successful at navigating desire discrepancies in participants' relationships.
Almost half of the participants indicated that their strategies were "very helpful" and that they often felt closer to their partner afterward. The most commonly endorsed "very helpful" strategy was a) communication, followed by b) engaging in another activity together and c) having sex anyway. Less than half of the participants who masturbated (45.7%) indicated that it was “very helpful” and only 9.1% found disengaging strategies to be “very helpful.”
In contrast, most participants who reported disengaging stated that their strategies were "not helpful" (72.7%) compared to only a minority of participants who said they masturbated (20%), engaged in a different activity with their partner (12.3%), or had sex anyway (5.4%).
Notably, none of the participants who reported communicating about their desire discrepancies reported this strategy to be unhelpful.
Most of the participants indicated that doing nothing was not a helpful strategy, while over half the sample that reported engaging in a partnered activity (whether that be communicating, having sex, and/or trying a different shared sexual or sensual activity) found their strategies to be helpful.
These findings suggest that by staying connected, talking with our partner about our sexual interest (or lack thereof), why we’re feeling that way, and making a joint decision about how and when to be sexually active in the future, leads to the highest chance of being sexually satisfied. These strategies can even leave couples feeling closer and more connected, even when they don’t end up having sex.
Vowels, L. M. & Mark, K. P. (2020). Strategies for mitigating sexual desire discrepancies in relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, http://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01640-y