How to Deal When You and Your Partner Have Mismatched Libidos
DEAR DR. JENN,
My girlfriends wants sex way less than I do. It is starting to cause a lot of conflict in the relationship. How should we handle this? —Sexless in Seattle
Once a couple gets past the honeymoon stage of the relationship, usually some time between the six-month and the two-year point, there is a discrepancy between the two people’s desire for sex. Even if you both love pizza, one is going to want to eat it more often than the other. But unlike ordering pizza (where one person can grab something else off the menu if they're not in the mood) sex requires mutual consent and participation. Plus, if your partner doesn't want to eat pizza, you usually will not take that as a personal rejection. Sex is more complicated, for sure.
The stereotype, in heterosexual relationships, is that men always want sex and women turn frigid once they've got a ring on. This is a myth. I have seen heterosexual couples where that desire level is reversed, and same-sex couples that struggle with one person wanting sex way more or less than the other. No couple is immune and it is rare that any couple is on the same page in terms of their desired sexual frequency, at all times.
Couples who work through this and come out on top, so to speak, find a way to meet in the middle. The higher libido partner learns to accept that they may not get their ideal frequency but they learn to appreciate their partner's efforts. The lower desire person is able to sometimes “take one for the team.” If long term couples wait for both people to be in the mood at the same time, especially when there are jobs, bills, and kids involved, they will only have sex a couple of times a year. Therefore, I am a big believer in sometimes making love, even when we are not in the mood, because we want to show our partner we love, care for, and desire them. Or, we just want to make them feel good. If you're going this route, hopefully the sex is good enough to get you in the mood. I wouldn’t want anyone slogging through a terrible experience because they feel it’s their job.
Another exception is when a partner has experienced sexual trauma, in which case unwanted sex could be a triggering experience and further harm the connection between both people. If that sounds like you or your loved one, I urgently recommend professional help working through the trauma.
But generally speaking, when it comes to meeting in the middle, there is a lot both partners in a mismatched-libido pair can do.
If You're the Higher Desire Partner
1. Focus on the emotional connection. The number one complaint I hear from the partner with lower sexual interest is that they feel like the other person just wants sex, that in their frustration, their high-libido partner has stopped nurturing the emotional connection. This definitely leads to a relationship satisfaction nose dive. Most people in a relationship don’t tend to want to have sex when we don’t feel tended to or cared about.
2. Stop complaining. Nagging, complaining and pressuring tend to have the reverse effect you are looking for. Feeling pressure to perform is a libido killer. There is nothing seductive about a disgruntled romantic partner. It is important to be able to have respectful, sensitive conversations about the issue. If it’s too hot a topic, some work with a sex therapist or in couples therapy can help.
3. Take matters into your own hands. Masturbation is a healthy part of an adult romantic relationship. Taking care of yourself is healthy, and has two upsides: It relieves your own sexual pressure, but also reduces the pressure you may inadvertently be putting on your partner.
4. Go back to dating. Increase the romance in the relationship. Do the things you did when you were first dating. Get some flowers, plan a fun date, put on a sexy outfit you know she likes, give a back rub, write a card. Seduction outside of the bedroom can lead right back into it.
5. Evaluate your sexual needs. Are your sexual desires healthy but just higher than your partner? Or are you using sex to bind anxiety, act out something from your past or deal with a trauma? I have seem many people in my practice who were sexually abused and then became compulsive around sex. If this applies to you, you must get therapy to work through it.
If You're the Lower Desire Partner
1. Rule out the medical. Get a physical and have your hormone levels checked. A young couple once came into my office struggling because of the husband’s low libido, which had led to years of sexual rejection that left his wife feeling hurt and resentful. I suggested that he get his hormone levels tested, and when he did, he was diagnosed with low testosterone. He was prescribed testosterone shots, and his libido came back. Research suggests that one in four men over the age of 30 has low testosterone, but the hormone can be out of whack for women, too.
2. Take a look at your medications. What medications are you taking? Some, such as birth control pills, antidepressants, antihistamines, blood pressure medication, hair growth medication, medical marijuana, anti-seizure drugs, opioid painkillers, beta blockers, benzodiazepines, and cholesterol-lowering medications can all reduce libido. Sometimes a simple change in medication can solve the problem. Definitely talk this through with your doctor to see if a prescription change is possible, and may help.
3. Get back to dating basics. When I asked Michelle, a woman in her late twenties whose libido was flagging, what she did to get ready for dates when she and her partner first met, she gave me a long list: She got her nails done, had a bikini wax, shaved her legs, wore sexy matching bras and panties, and picked out special, provocative outfits. She would fantasize about their last sexual encounter and anticipate their next one. She would get excited thinking about some new sexual position she wanted to try. In her preparation for their dates, she was getting herself turned on. She thought it was all about being a great girlfriend, but the secondary gain was that all that date prep got her own juices flowing. Since much of this counts as self-care these days, why not give it a try?
4. Get yourself in the mood. Read sexy books, take time to fantasize, and watch movies or porn that gets you hot. A few years ago I got a call on my radio show from a woman who just wasn’t feeling much desire. She would get into bed next to her husband and feel as if her sexual light switch had been turned off. I gave her an assignment: Read one story a night from Nancy Friday’s collections of women’s sexual fantasies. She called me a week later to report that she was so turned on that she was waking up her husband in the middle of the night to get it on. The romance novel genre is a $1.5 billion a year business, with 91 percent of purchases by women. A recent study reported that erotic novel readers have sex 74 percent more frequently and are more satisfied with sex than folks who didn’t read the genre. Seems like science wants you to crack open a book.
5. Have sex. Have it with your partner. Have it with yourself. I know, when you’re not feeling it, this seems like a stretch. But here’s the thing: Sex begets sex. The more you have, the more you want. Both men and women have testosterone. When you don’t have sex for a while, your testosterone levels drop. Since testosterone is a big contributor to sex drive, your level of desire goes down. Set a sex goal for yourself. Try making a commitment to have sex twice a week (at least once with your partner, as opposed to solo) for a month and see how you feel. Treating sex like a to-do list item at first may not feel very sexy — but having a more revved up libido sure will.