What to Do When You and Your Partner Have Wildly Different Sex Drives

For starters, know that this is a couple problem... not a you problem.

A graphic of a man and a woman in a bedroom turned away from each other
Photo: Jenna Brillhart

My husband's idea of a fantastic evening is to "Netflix and chill." My idea of a fantastic evening is to pull on palazzo-style lounge pants, crawl into bed by 9 p.m., and read until I pass out.

I could blame motherhood. The pandemic. The overwhelming stress and exhaustion of being a woman who has just turned 40 and who happens to be juggling way too many responsibilities. All of these things are true.

But in all honesty, these elements only amplify a discrepancy in desire that has always existed between myself and my husband.

My appetite for sex has never been as large as his. And because I've spent much of our relationship assuming this was an indication of some sort of personal deficiency on my part, our sex life has been the source of much angst. For both of us.

But this desire gap between partners is common. According to one study, desire and frequency issues (both low sexual desire and desire discrepancy) are the most reported sexual concerns (34%) among women. A more recent study delivered similar results, with 40% of participants reporting low sexual desire. This call-out of "low sexual desire" is also likely an indicator of desire discrepancy between partners. After all, we often measure our desire levels in relation to the person we're with.

Still, sexual desire discrepancy doesn't have to be the bogeyman it's often made out to be. According to new research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, how couples respond to these discrepancies can actually improve their overall relationship satisfaction.

The Desire Gap Is a Normal Part of Most Relationships

Our levels of desire shift over the course of our lives and, by extension, over the course of our relationships. This happens as a result of many factors, including age, stress levels, and relationship status. Being mentally prepared for these shifts can make all the difference in the world in terms of sexual and relationship satisfaction.

Kristen Mark, Ph.D., MPH — a sex and relationships researcher, educator, and therapist and one of the authors of this most recent study — says that expectations play a huge part in how sexual desire discrepancy impacts a relationship. "What I see clinically with couples struggling is, 'I thought our sex life was so amazing. I thought this is what it would [always] be,'" says Mark. This attitude ensures that the inevitable desire fluctuations that occur over the course of a relationship become a source of distress.

She says that couples who don't catastrophize, on the other hand, have it easier. These couples acknowledge the ways in which desire shifts and, because they see these fluctuations as normal, they don't necessarily treat them as a huge problem that must be fixed. Because of this, they can roll with the changes going on in the bedroom.

Briana, 31

"When I first started dating my husband, we could have sex eight times in a weekend. We were just animalistic. Now, maybe it's been eight months since we had sex. I don't know. I'm just not counting anymore."

— Briana, 31

"I remember when I first started dating my husband and we could have sex eight times in a weekend. We were just animalistic," says Briana, 31. Three kids later, "now, maybe it's been eight months since we had sex. I don't know. I'm just not counting anymore."

The women I spoke to about their sex lives pinpointed various reasons for the desire gaps in their relationships. Like me, Briana has been feeling the stress of motherhood. She told me that sometimes, after an exhausting day of running after kids and breastfeeding her youngest, her body feels more like a tool than anything else. "At the end of the day," she says, "there's nothing left to give."

Laura Zam, a sexuality educator and the author of The Pleasure Plan, echoes this. Adding to the average stressors of her day, Zam has spent her life grappling with painful intercourse. For her, the prospect of sex can seem especially daunting. "It's a feeling of, sometimes, anger," she says, speaking about how she used to feel blindsided by her husband's desire when the day was over. "My body was finally mine and I did not want to share it."

Annika, 42

"His sex drive is much more influenced by outside factors. A tough week at work… depression… anxiety… he loses interest. But sex makes me feel better."

— Annika, 42

Annika, 42, meanwhile, points out the ways in which sex can sometimes hold different meanings for individuals. "The short version is that I'm horny more often than my husband," she says. "The longer version is that his sex drive is much more influenced by outside factors. A tough week at work… depression… anxiety… he loses interest. But sex makes me feel better."

How the Desire Gap Can Place Strain on a Relationship

In many cases, these discrepancies between partners can cause distress — on both sides. The person with the higher libido may feel rejected, while the one with the lower libido may feel some combination of guilt and resentment.

"When we don't have sex, my husband feels he's not good enough or not attractive enough," says Briana. "But it's not that I don't want to have sex with him. I don't want to have sex with anybody. At the end of the day, I'm touched out. I don't want anybody to need me for anything. It has nothing to do with my relationship with him."

For others, it can be viewed as a lack of effort in maintaining intimacy. "My husband would say, 'This is not important to you. You don't seem to be really invested in this part of our relationship,'" Zam says. "I felt guilty. And it brought up these feelings of brokenness. I already felt broken, sexually. Obviously, something was wrong with me."

How Some Couples Have Defused the Tension Caused by Sexual Desire Discrepancy

Happily, all of the women to whom I spoke feel that, as time has passed, they've been able to respond to these sexual differences in a healthier way. Their number one tip, of course, is a lot of communication.

"In the last few years," says Annika, who has been with her husband for 22 years, "we started talking about our feelings and are much more on the same page."

She explains how, at the beginning of their relationship, they handled their desire discrepancy poorly, both of them holding onto resentment. But in recent years, their coping mechanisms have changed. "Annoyingly, yes," she says. "Communication is key."

"I think it's important to not let it become this elephant in the room," says Mark. "To work together to come up with solutions."

And in fact, Mark's research shows that relational strategies developed by both partners — versus by just one partner — were associated with greater sexual and relationship satisfaction. Mark explains that desire discrepancy is a "dyadic issue," an issue created by the interaction between two individuals. "This isn't something one person has to bear the load of," she says. "People tend to pathologize the individual with lower desire and that shouldn't be the case. Why is lower desire worse than higher desire? It's just desire."

Kristen Mark, Ph.D., MPH

People tend to pathologize the individual with lower desire and that shouldn't be the case. Why is lower desire worse than higher desire? It's just desire.

— Kristen Mark, Ph.D., MPH

And when couples begin to communicate about their desire, better solutions naturally arise. For Briana and her husband, for example, there is an ongoing conversation around how they can find a middle ground that makes both of them happy.

Sometimes, that means engaging in maintenance sex. "It's about me fulfilling a need for him because I love him," says Briana.

In other cases, it means redefining what sex is, and also embracing non-sexual intimacy.

"What I found was that, when I was declining sex, I was declining a very narrow definition of sex," says Zam. "I started to ask myself what was interesting to me sexually... erotically. What I don't enjoy is when [penetrative sex] is the be-all and end-all. I need a lot of variety. I like to go into a sexual romantic encounter with no preconceived notions of what the activity will be. It may or may not include orgasm. It just depends on what I'm in the mood for."

She explains that she learned to "find her own 'yes,'" even when her body was saying "no."

"I'd respect the 'no,'" she says, "but is there an authentic 'yes' there and where is it? What would be nice right now?"

Briana, meanwhile, spoke of how she and her husband became able to acknowledge the natural ebbs and flows in desire. "It's not always going to be like this," says Briana. "We can not have sex and still have fun with each other. We can find other things for our relationship to be based off of other than our sexual relationship."

She mentions how she and her husband sometimes shower together, and how it doesn't have to be sexual in nature, but can still be positive physical touch — a term that is often used by child psychologists to describe the sort of touch that encourages connection and bonding. "There are so many different ways to show your spouse positive touch," she says. "It doesn't always have to end in orgasm."

In the end, when it comes to the research around desire discrepancy, Mark speculates that perhaps the solutions we've historically been given for managing the desire gap in our relationships aren't necessarily the best solutions for the relationship itself.

Masturbation, for example, is one of the most commonly suggested (and used) strategies among couples whose desire levels don't match up, but its use doesn't actually lead to greater relationship satisfaction — unless it's been discussed as part of a larger conversation.

"I think that's the most important piece," says Mark when asked about the biggest takeaway from her research. "Treating this couples issue as a couples issue."

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