6 Reasons Why a Partner May Have Less Desire for Sex

There are plenty of good reasons for low desire.

Posted Jun 27, 2017

ProStockStudio/Shutterstock
Source: ProStockStudio/Shutterstock

One of the most common complaints sex therapists deal with is low desire. Sometimes a single person brings it in, and sometimes he or she is part of a couple. In a relationship it’s often called a desire discrepancy—one person wants sex significantly more than the other.

While low desire is very real, it isn’t always a sexual dysfunction—that is, it doesn’t always reflect a pathology. The person who feels less desire than their partner might have very good reasons, whether they’re conscious or not. Before you start thinking that there’s something wrong with you or your partner (or your patient), consider these reasonable reasons for low desire:

1. Chronic Relationship Conflict

Most people would rather not have sex when they’re angry or sad. That’s not when we feel our most generous, flexible, or gentle. And when a relationship has chronic, low-level conflict, people don’t get much chance to stockpile good feelings about their partner or the relationship. If a couple argues in a mean way, the effects may last for days or weeks after people have forgotten about the original issue. Desire may never get a chance to rebound after hurt feelings. And finally, who wants to kiss someone they’re angry with?

2. Poor Hygiene

Most people like to be appealing to others, and most people want a sex partner to be appealing to them. Components of that might include personal hygiene — breath, teeth, hair, skin, nails. Some people’s standards are just higher than others’, and some people seem genuinely immune to smelling their own bad breath or dirty hair.

If your partner’s personal hygiene turns you off, you’re not doing him or her a favor by keeping silent about it. Be gentle, but provide the information your partner apparently needs. And if the smell, texture, or cleanliness of your partner’s skin makes it hard for you to desire sex, say so — again, in a gentle but clear way. Your partner deserves this information.

3. Battling Over Conception

Intercourse is the only sexual activity that can lead to conception. There are four attitudes with which people approach intercourse: 

  1. Wanting to prevent conception (the most common).
  2. Wanting to facilitate conception.
  3. Indifference to the outcome.
  4. Choosing not to think about it (drunk, impulsive, etc.).

Note that numbers 3 and 4 above are not the same: In #3, a person will accept either outcome, while in #4, a person either hasn’t decided what outcome they prefer, or doesn’t connect their present decision-making with future outcomes. A stunning number of Americans don’t use contraception and yet don’t want to conceive. Some of these couples disagree so much about it that they can’t enjoy sex together. When sex always involves someone saying, "Let’s use a condom,” and their partner saying, "This is a great chance to get pregnant,” it’s easy to see why one or both partners would start to steer clear of sex.

4. Battling Over the Sexual Menu

After people have been together for a while, they know each other's tastes in food, movies, and clothes, among other things. After urging your wife to wear a bright orange miniskirt a few times, a guy usually gets the message: Don’t bother asking anymore. (In my house, it’s sushi: Don’t bother asking me anymore, because the answer will always be no.)

When it comes to sex, however, some people just don’t learn. And so it’s, “Honey, how about reverse cowgirl tonight?” week after week. Added to a list of other things—no, you can’t put your finger there; no, I don’t want to wear that lingerie you bought me; no, I don’t like pretending my best friend’s in bed with us—and eventually somebody just might decide that sex is more trouble than it’s worth.

While I understand the impulse to keep asking, at some point reality has to take over. I encourage people to say, “Sweetheart, the answer is no thanks. Not just for tonight, but until the end of time. Please stop asking. If I change my mind, I promise to let you know.” And then the other person needs to do some grieving so they actually can stop asking.

5. Paraphilia Mismatch 

A paraphilia (or fetish) is a rigid need for an object or partner’s body part for someone to feel desire or arousal—such as opera gloves, manicured feet, or a repetitive script in which one partner pretends to be a prostitute. The problem isn’t necessarily the paraphilia—it’s when a partner doesn’t want to participate, or finds the whole thing gross. When one person is disgusted (or bored) by the other’s sexuality, and a couple can’t find a consensus they both enjoy, it’s easy to see how this can lead to low desire.

6. Lack of Planning or Preparation

There’s an awful old joke that ends with, “Honey, asking if I’m awake is NOT foreplay.” 

Most adults rarely have sex if they don’t plan it. Nevertheless, patients often tell me that sex should be “natural and spontaneous.” To which I generally respond, “When was the last time you did anything spontaneously?” These days, adults rarely do, which is a different malaise deserving its own discussion. But if you don’t go bowling spontaneously, and you don’t plant a vegetable garden spontaneously, and you don’t take your kid to the zoo spontaneously, why would you expect to have sex spontaneously?

If you approach your partner at a time when they’re tired, or have just eaten dinner, or have to get up early, or have a cold, or are worried about a sick kid (which is how they got that cold, right?), they’re going to say no. Worse, they might feel like you’re not actually paying attention to them, as proven by the fact that you’re asking for sex when you’re obviously going to be turned down. 

If someone is never in the mood, no matter what, that’s a problem. But if you have a knack for initiating sex when your chances approach zero, you may be the one with the problem—and your partner’s seeming low desire may not be a pathology at all.

There are, of course, other good reasons for low desire. For more, see my book Sexual Intelligence. And for effective ideas on working with couples on this issue, see my CD sets (and audio downloads) Working With Couples and Love, Sex, & Intimacy.