Desire discrepancy is completely normal for couples: over the course of a relationship, differences in sexual drive are bound to happen. Fluctuations in libido, attraction towards a partner and need for sexual intimacy may occur at any time, but are known to increase the longer a couple is together.
Often, one person wants to have sex more frequently, whilst the other person feels less of a desire for sexual and emotional intimacy with their partner. This difference in libidos is the most common sex-related reason couples seek counselling.
Desire discrepancy can affect any couple – heterosexual or same sex-attracted – and if left unaddressed it can wreak havoc with the long-term stability of your relationship. Research shows that desire discrepancy is consistently associated with reduced overall relationship satisfaction. Help is available though – specialist sex and intimacy counselling can help you and your partner to get back in sexual sync with each other.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s very common for women to experience higher levels of desire, and for men to experience lower sexual drive in comparison to their partners.
Differences in sexual desire may be caused by:
- Stress or fatigue
- Mood issues like anxiety and depression
- Medication side-effects
- Substance use
- Relationship conflict
- Self-esteem and body image issues
- Fear of inability to achieve orgasm leading to avoidance of sex
- Sexual dysfunction (erectile difficulties or genito-pelvic pain)
- Cultural or religious beliefs about sex
- Fluctuations in hormones
- Acute or chronic illness
- Pregnancy, childbirth, or fertility issues
- The responsibilities of raising a family
Whatever it is that’s contributing to the difference in your desire for sexual connection, it’s important to be honest with each other and communicate about your needs and wants – sexually, and in terms of emotional and physical affection.
You’re in this together: Tips for both partners
Empathy and compassion for your partner are essential if you both want to get in sync sexually and reduce desire discrepancy in your relationship. A successful and rewarding sex life takes time, patience and commitment from both partners.
It’s also important to cultivate a sense of excitement and newness in your relationship to stave off boredom with each other. This may be as simple as a few hours at a new restaurant, or a weekend away together to a destination you haven’t visited before. Romantic desire thrives on the exotic, whereas love grows from familiarity and commitment – successful relationships work to maintain both.
Relationship expert Esther Perel explores the ways couples can reconcile love and romance to rekindle desire for each other in her TEDTalk – you can watch it below:
Desire discrepancy: Tips for the partner with higher desire
If you have higher desire for sex and intimacy than your partner, it can be difficult not to take their reduced interest in sex or lack of desire personally. You may be feeling frustrated, angry, sad, hurt and rejected if your advances are repeatedly rejected.
It’s important to remember that there are many different causes of low libido – from medical reasons, to other factors in the relationship or your life together that may be affecting your partner’s desire for sexual intimacy.
When you take the focus off sex (or lack thereof), and start putting energy and attention towards cultivating other sources of connection between you and your partner, the tension and pressure to meet one another’s sexual needs will reduce.
Additionally, increased non-sexual physical affection and emotional intimacy has been shown to increase an interest in sex for the partner with lower desire.
Often the partner who would like sex more frequently finds themselves in constant pursuit of their partner, always initiating sexual activity. If this sounds like you, it can be helpful to back off a little, and allow time and space for your partner to make the first move – which may actually be talking about what’s happening between you before initiating anything physical.
Desire discrepancy: Tips for the partner with lower desire
If you desire less frequent sex than your partner, and find yourself avoiding your partner’s advances – or being in situations with them that might lead to sex – it’s vitally important to pause and reflect on what you really want and need from your relationship.
Are there other factors in your relationship that have diminished your sexual appetite? It can be helpful to think back to times when you did experience sexual desire, and consider what was happening in your life together then. Was there less stress? More emotional intimacy? Taking the time to rediscover what increases your desire can lead to valuable insights about how to reduce the desire discrepancy you’re currently experiencing.
Did you always have a lower sex drive than your partner, or has this been a recent development? Often there are underlying causes associated with a low libido, and it may be helpful to see a health professional (your GP or gynaecologist) to eliminate any possibility of a physical condition that may be affecting your libido.
It’s also helpful to pay attention to the small stirring of desire you feel, and follow them – you may not be feeling an overwhelming desire to have sex with your partner, but acting on even the smallest erotic impulse can jump-start your libido and lead to immensely rewarding sex.
Many partners with low libido who attend counselling report that committing to initiating sex, even if they’re ‘not in the mood’, frequently results in sexual activity that’s fulfilling for both partners.
Finding the middle ground with your partner – negotiating the frequency of sex in your relationship and meeting each other’s sexual needs – is the key to a mutually rewarding sex life, and a healthier relationship over time.
If you and your partner would like some support to address desire discrepancy in your relationship, specialist couples counselling with a focus on improving your sexual intimacy is a step in the direction of long-term relationship rewards and sexual satisfaction.
Desire discrepancy research resources
Dawson, S. J., & Chivers, M. L. (2014). Gender differences and similarities in sexual desire. Current Sexual Health Reports, 6(4), 211-219.
Frost, D. M., McClelland, S. I., & Dettmann, M. (2017). Sexual closeness discrepancies: What they are and why they matter for sexual well-being in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 1-12.
Girard, A., & Woolley, S. R. (2017). Using emotionally focused therapy to treat sexual desire discrepancy in couples. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 1-16.
Mark, K. P. (2014). The impact of daily sexual desire and daily sexual desire discrepancy on the quality of the sexual experience in couples. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 23(1), 27-33.
Muise, A., Kim, J. J., Impett, E. A., & Rosen, N. O. (2017). Understanding when a partner is not in the mood: Sexual communal strength in couples transitioning to parenthood. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 1-14.
Sprecher, S., Cate, R. M., Harvey, J. H., & Wenzel, A. (2004). Sexual satisfaction and sexual expression as predictors of relationship satisfaction and stability. The handbook of sexuality in close relationships, 235-256.
Sutherland, S. E., Rehman, U. S., Fallis, E. E., & Goodnight, J. A. (2015). Understanding the phenomenon of sexual desire discrepancy in couples. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 24(2), 141-150.
Willoughby, B. J., Farero, A. M., & Busby, D. M. (2014). Exploring the effects of sexual desire discrepancy among married couples. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 43(3), 551-562.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.