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Sexual Desire Discrepancies: How to Communicate

Thoughts and observations on sexual desire discrepancies.

Key points

  • Many couples have different levels of sexual desire.
  • Conflict can arise when the partners have feelings about a lack of sex in the relationship that they don't communicate fully.
  • Once deeper feelings about themselves and the relationship are communicated, the partners may begin to find more kindness for each other.

Let me tell you about a very common sexual dynamic I often encounter in my sex therapy practice.

Many couples have what is known as a desire discrepancy, where one partner has a “higher” desire for sex and the other partner has a “lower” desire for sex. After a certain point, this is the norm and not the exception in most long-term relationships despite whatever happened early on in their relationship.

molotoka/Shutterstock
Source: molotoka/Shutterstock

This dynamic can go a couple of ways. The first is that Partner H (“Higher” libido) communicates—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes passive-aggressively—to Partner L (“Lower” libido) their desire for sex. So Partner L goes through a cost-benefit analysis. “If I say yes, then what can I reasonably expect to happen in our sexual encounters, and then what can I reasonably expect afterward between us outside the bedroom? If I say no, what can I reasonably expect my partner’s reaction to be and what will happen in the next few days?”

Partner L only admits, once the three of us start talking about it, that they go through this cost-benefit analysis. We then go through each possibility of Partner L saying yes or no: when did their predictions come true? How was the sex for them? What was Partner H’s experience of all this? Did they know Partner L was engaging in this inner analysis? How was the sex for them when Partner L said yes to sex?

Typically in this dynamic, Partner L talks about feeling “pressured” by Partner H’s communications for sex. Partner H typically talks about not wanting to be a “nag” or a “jerk”, or feeling some degree of “desperate” or “needy”, or that it feels like they are being “rejected”, and not liking any these states. Despite how different their individual experiences are, they both agree that this dynamic does not work for them but do not know any other way.

Another way this can go is that after some amount of “communications” by Partner H and so-called “reactions” when told "no", Partner H stops communicating their desire for sex entirely. Often it is because Partner H wants to avoid all those uncomfortable feelings I described above. Partner H reports it is difficult for them to repeatedly tolerate feeling those feelings. Partner L notices Partner H is no longer communicating their desire for sex, maybe even feels Partner H’s unexpressed sadness or anger or avoidance, and reports either still feeling some degree of “pressure and guilt” but now with the added bonus layer of “relief”.

Sound familiar? I frequently hear Partner L say that, when they are engaging in that cost-benefit analysis over whether to agree to have sex or not, one of the “benefits” to saying yes to Partner L is that Partner H “won’t be grumpy” for a few days afterward and that the inverse is also true: one of the “costs” Partner L assesses if they say no to sex is that Partner H “will be grumpy” for a few days. Sex now becomes a way for Partner L to help Partner H manage or avoid those “grumpy” emotions.

I generally find that most couples leave it at that and do not discuss this “grumpy” issue with adequate depth on their own. So, in sessions with my clients who report having this dynamic, I focus on this perception that Partner L has of Partner H regarding that “grumpiness.” Can Partner L be more specific and describe what they observe in Partner H? What is Partner H saying and doing? What is that like for Partner L? Is Partner H aware of the words and behaviors Partner L is observing in them? What is Partner H’s own self-assessment? Are they in fact “grumpy” because they didn’t have sex or is something else going on or is nothing going on?

When we dive deeper and seek to learn more, what we all find out is that often what looks like “grumpiness” on the outside in Partner H can be an internal process that Parter H is engaging in to manage certain emotions and perceptions. These emotions can include loneliness or feeling alone (these are two separate experiences), sadness, anger, resentment, rejection, being touch-deprived, self-doubt, low self-esteem, lacking sexual confidence, worry, or anxiety about the relationship. The list goes on. In doing this work we can avoid defaulting to certain gender-specific tropes and ways of relating to each other that are not only not helpful, but that create more distance between partners—and that is rarely the goal of couples sex therapy.

In couples sex therapy we explore these feelings more deeply. Once those deeper feelings and experiences are brought up and out, it can, but not always, change the dynamic between the couple. It no longer becomes about how both partners are managing Partner H’s “grumpiness” from lack of sex, but instead, the conversation shifts to what meaning does Partner H make about having or not having sex with their partner. What is it like for Partner H to share this information? Did Partner L know this information? What is Partner L’s reaction? And when Partner L can listen with empathy to Partner H's experience when they say no, and not from a sense of sexual duty or responsibility to say yes to sex to help their partner avoid feeling “grumpy” (something they both struggle to tolerate), often Partner L’s heart softens a little towards Partner H. They become two equals just trying to figure out a workable solution.

And that is the goal of couples sex therapy.

© 2021 Diane Gleim

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