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How Couples Deal with Differences in Sexual Desire

The bedroom doesn’t have to be a battleground.

When it comes to sex in relationships, nothing can be considered “normal,” and focusing on averages only blurs the great diversity of the human sexual experience. So, for example, if you’re wondering how often couples “should” have sex, you’re missing the point. While some people may find once or twice a month more than sufficient to bond them with their partner, others need it daily or even more frequently. In other words, people vary greatly in their level of sexual desire.

Furthermore, even at the individual level, people can experience differences in sexual desire. Some days you feel a burning need, other days not so much. And then there are the times when nothing can get you in the mood. This wide range of differences—both between persons and within individuals—is the only thing that’s “normal” about sexual desire.

Given these differences, it’s inevitable that couples will have to deal with sexual desire discrepancy. In fact, this is one of the most common reasons why couples seek counseling. But with or without help, couples do find ways to negotiate differences in sexual desire, although some of these are likely to be more satisfying than others.

To shed light on this issue, University of Southampton (England) psychologist Laura Vowels and her colleague Kristen Mark asked 229 adults in committed relationships to describe the strategies they use to navigate sexual desire discrepancy with their partner. The researchers reported the results of this study in a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

First, the participants responded to surveys intended to assess their general levels of sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and sexual desire. The researchers found no gender differences in terms of sexual and relationship satisfaction. However, men were more likely than women to report a higher level of sexual desire than their partner, consistent with prior research.

Next, the participants were asked to report what strategies they used to negotiate differences in sexual desire with their partner. They also rated how satisfied they were with each strategy they used. This was an open-ended question because the researchers wanted to collect as many different strategies as possible.

Afterward, the researchers conducted a content analysis, in which they were able to group all mentioned strategies into five themes, which they ranked according to the level of sexual activity involved. (It’s important to note here that for the purposes of this study “sex” was defined as intercourse.) Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Disengagement. The partner with lower sexual desire rejects advances or even protests against them, while the partner with higher sexual desire either gives up or else channels their thoughts toward non-sexual activities such as exercise or hobbies. While 11 percent of respondents reported disengaging with their partner, only 9 percent of these found it to be a strategy that led to satisfying results. Of all the strategies for dealing with differences in sexual desire, disengagement is by far the least helpful. It also has the potential to inflict great damage on the relationship in the long run.
  • Communication. The couple discusses the reasons for the sexual desire discrepancy and tries to find a compromise solution, such as scheduling sex for another time. Only 11 percent of respondents reported that they used this strategy, but of these, 57 percent said they found it helpful. Couples are drawn closer together when they can openly and honestly communicate about their feelings and desires, and they may also be able to resolve their differences in sexual desire by doing so. However, attempts at communication can also lead to frustration when partners get defensive or feel uncomfortable talking about sexual issues.
  • Engagement in activity without partner. This theme included activities such as solo masturbation, watching porn, and reading romance novels or erotica. About a quarter of respondents (27 percent) dealt with sexual rejection in this way, and nearly half of these (46 percent) found it a helpful strategy. In fact, more than half of the respondents mentioned masturbation as one of their strategies, even if not their most commonly used approach. As a stop-gap for a temporary discrepancy in sexual desire, self-stimulation is a reasonably good solution. However, resentment is likely to build when one partner feels this is the only way they can get their sexual needs met.
  • Engagement in activity together. These include activities such as cuddling, massages, and showering together that may or may not lead to sex. Alternatively, the low-desire partner may offer an alternative sexual activity, such as mutual masturbation or oral sex. More than a third of respondents (38 percent) reported using such an approach, and more than half of these (54 percent) found it lead to satisfying results. Even non-sexual activities, such as cooking a meal together or holding hands while walking in the park, can be important bonding experiences for couples, and these can help the low-desire partner regain sexual interest in their significant other.
  • Have sex anyway. For some couples, the low-desire partner offers a “quickie” instead of “full sex.” Others consent to sex as usual even though they’re not in the mood, oftentimes finding themselves getting aroused in the process. Respondents who reported using this approach typically indicated their belief in the importance of sex in a relationship and their desire to satisfy their partner’s needs. While only 14 percent of respondents said they used this approach, well more than half of them (58 percent) said they were happy with the results.

This study shows that couples use a variety of strategies to deal with differences in sexual desire and that each can be reasonably effective at resolving the issue.

The only exception is disengagement, which is clearly damaging to the relationship, especially when it becomes standard practice. If you find yourself rejecting your partner’s sexual advances, you need to communicate the reasons for your lack of interest and offer your partner non-sexual alternatives for bonding. You also need to be open to the possibility of sexual desire returning once your other relationship and emotional needs are met.

Likewise, if you find your sexual advances repeated thwarted, you need to open a channel of communication with your partner, not shut them off. Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that listening is far more important than talking if you want to understand where your partner is coming from. As you meet their other needs, you may also find them warming up to you sexually as well.

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Vowels, L. M. & Mark, K. P. (2020). Strategies for mitigating sexual desire discrepancy in relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49, 1017-1028.