A difference in sexual desire in a relationship can cause strain and stress for all partners. Sexual desire sits somewhere on a continuum for each of us, and ranges from very high desire to no desire whatsoever. While there is no “correct” or “healthy” sex drive, many couples experience pain and frustration when there is a difference between how much sex one person is programmed for versus another.
High Sex Drive
In working with couples, I often hear the partners with high sex drives reporting that they feel frustrated by a lack of sex in their relationship and will talk about feeling hurt and rejected by their partners. Like most of us, when we feel rejected, we tend to project our fears onto that rejection. Am I unattractive? Am I a bad lover? Is my partner cheating, changing, or punishing me? In addition, partners who want more sex often admit to worrying whether others view them as “sex-crazed” or “perverts” who are unable to control their desires. Over time, this can leave these partners feeling unfulfilled, uncared for, and unable to express their needs for fear of being shamed.
Low Sex Drive
Things are no better for a partner with a low sex drive. These partners often experience guilt about not meeting their partners’ needs. Over time, this guilt can lead to resentment and feeling angry about continually rebuffing their partners’ advances. In addition, as one partner becomes more desperate for sexual connection, the partner with a low sex drive may take any sign of intimacy, such as hugging or cuddling, to be an indication of their partner’s readiness for sex. This can have the unfortunate side effect of leading the partner with the lower sex drive to avoid intimacy and physical contact in the relationship, furthering the feelings of isolation and disconnection for both parties.
Ebb and Flow
One of the first things that partners faced with this issue find helpful to hear is that this problem may not be permanent. When sex drops off in a relationship, it can be easy and natural to assume that this means that there is something wrong with one or more of the partners or that the sexual aspect of the relationship will never change. However, in almost any relationship, periods of lower and higher sexual desire are common and many things can impact them. Stress, illness, weight change, medications, and health concerns are just a few potentially temporary issues that can impact sexual desire.
It can also be helpful for couples to take a look at how they express their sexual needs in their relationship. Using statements that express personal feelings and needs, rather than accusations or assumptions about a partner can be very helpful. For example “I feel lonely and frustrated when we don’t have sex” or “I would like to cuddle tonight, but I want you to know that I don’t want to have sex” may be more effective than “You never want to have sex” or “You aren’t attracted to me anymore.”
Additionally, partners can often benefit from working together creatively to meet their differing needs. One helpful way of doing this is to look at what constitutes sex within your relationship. For some couples, certain sexual acts come to define their sex lives in a way that can cut off other avenues for fulfillment. This may have come to mean penetrative sex with a penis or sex toy, oral or manual stimulation, or certain types of bondage or role-play for others. In some couples, while these acts may be off the table for the partner who is currently less interested in sex, other options that may convey love, affection, and/or sexual validation may be acceptable. This may include non-penetrative sex for couples accustomed to it, or even allowing one partner to masturbate in the presence or embrace of a partner not able to commit to a more involved role at this time. While these are just a few ways to address differing sex drives, this list is far from exhaustive.
Sexual compatibility is an important source of connection in many relationships and couples struggling to find common ground are encouraged to reach out to an LGBTQ affirmative couples therapist for assistance.
About the guest blogger
Dr. Ian Bonner is a staff psychologist at IntraSpectrum Counseling. He specializes in working with the LGBTQ population, addiction, couples counseling, and mood disorders. Ian is a graduate of the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, and is the former case management coordinator for the Horizon Youth Program at the Center on Halsted.