Sexual desire discrepancy in long-term relationships isn’t an anomaly, it’s built-in to the lifestyle of cohabitation, and is pretty much guaranteed to develop at some point within the first 1-3 years of a new relationship.
Desire discrepancy is normal, it’s to be expected, yet it remains one of the most painful and destabilizing challenges a couple has to face.
This dynamic wedges itself into a relationship and pits partners against each other in a battle of blame, guilt, and defensiveness. Given the reluctance most couples have in talking about sex openly, it’s not surprising that differences in sexual desire becomes a caldron of mistaken presumptions, misunderstandings and unspoken shame.
The higher desire partner feels shame about their role as sole initiator, and the lower-desire partner feels shame about their lack of desire for sex. Both become stuck in their story of ‘failing’ at sex. They’ve lost the safety and security they once had in the sanctuary of each other’s arms.
Nature giveth, and nature taketh away
New relationships are fueled by novelty and sexual intensity. Nature sets us up for procreation by pumping us with feel-good hormones like serotonin and norepinephrine.
When sex is infused with the natural high of these hormones, it can lead to unrealistic expectations that the relationship will continue with this kind of intensity and mutual desire forever. Gazing at each other through rose-colored glasses, we tell ourselves that we’ve finally found our perfect sexual match.
Between 1-3 years into a relationship, the infatuation hormones slowly fade. Sexual desires shift, sexual frequency changes, and the higher desire partner is wondering what happened to their sweetheart’s ready and willing turn-on.
The lower desire partner becomes mired in their feelings of guilt and defensiveness. Add in, the sometimes daily pressure for sex from their partner, and sex has suddenly become a quagmire of negative emotions that kills desire and builds resistance.
This initial phase of disillusionment is the time when couples need to start talking about sex in an open and honest way. Rather than accusing our partner of changing, or viewing each other as adversaries with competing needs, they can pull together and view themselves as a sexual team, equally responsible for their sex life’s health and wellness. This is where their work begins as a sexually engaged couple.
We can thank books, movies and especially porn for perpetuating the great lie. The lie that sex is always hot, spontaneous and very satisfying for both parties, that sex always includes strong, long-lasting erections, ever-ready lubricated vaginas, and end with mutual, often coinciding orgasms.
As most long-term couples will tell you, this isn’t the case. Sex is more varied than what we’re fed by the media. Real sex isn’t a performance that goes from 0-100 in less than a minute. Real sex is more relaxed, it’s authentic, sometimes awkward, sometimes messy, and all of this makes real sex more vulnerable than anything you see on a screen. It’s not performed to entertain, or even hold the undivided attention of anyone watching.
A more realistic expectation is reflected in statistics that tell a more accurate story.
40-50% of sexual encounters in long-term relationships are mutually satisfying, 25% are better for one partner than the other, and 15% will be unsatisfying for both.
More realistic expectations allow couples to relax when they don’t quite hit their high bar.
If your relationship is nurtured with regular non-sexual affection and loving gestures outside of the bedroom, you’ll feel more relaxed when sex occasionally falls short. Couples with a healthy and open relationship to their sexual life, can let it go, or even laugh it off, and accept that sex isn’t always going to meet the mark, and that’s ok.
The plight of the lower-desire partner
Unlike the higher desire partner, whose objective is focused on having sex, the lower desire partner has to contend with resistance. Resistance isn’t always easy to understand, even when it’s our own.
Talking about sexuality, sensuality, and intimacy is key. Shame-filled silence will keep us hidden in our self-doubt and self-judgment. The silence of shame will keep us armored and invulnerable to our partner.
If the lower-desire partner assumes the burden is on them alone to figure it out, guilt, shame and resentment will drive any potential for desire underground.
When we approach sex as a team, the challenge around desire is shared by both partners. When sex is blame and guilt-free we feel open to exploring, to trying new ways of being intimate together, and experimenting with solutions that meet both of partner’s needs.
Desire moves in mysterious ways
It’s helpful to understand that desire presents itself differently to different people.
Higher desire partners may experience desire in a more spontaneous way, where the idea of having sex descends upon them.
They may start to feel aroused physically, or sexual desire will infiltrate their thoughts out of the blue. They may find themselves lost in a sexual fantasy. Desire will present itself, and they’ll feel moved to have sex. It’s easy for them to think desire moves in everyone like this. These are people who wonder if their partner desires them, if they never initiate sex.
(You may also want to read another Passion Blog, You Can’t Argue Someone Into Loving You.In this post, I write about the higher desire partner’s predicament and frustration in trying to find solutions to this age-old push and pull dynamic.)
Lower desire partners may experience desire quite differently. Their desire may present itself in response to stimuli that arouses them.
If you were to ask them if they’re interested in having sex, their response may initially be ‘no’. But once they open themselves to arousing stimuli, whether that’s in the form of touch, or visuals, or seductive words, once the invitation is made in a way that attracts them, then responsive desire starts to move in them. These are the people who will admit to not wanting sex initially, but enjoying the sex once things get rolling.
Owning what turns you on and what turns you off
If resistance plays a role in your sexuality, it’s time to do some investigation and identify the things that turn you on to the idea of having sex, and the things that turn you off to the idea of having sex.
Often conditions play a big role in our yes and nos. You may be surprised to see what’s on your list of turn-on’s, like:
having transition time between work and play,
knowing the kids are out of the house and won’t knock on the door,
after you go for a run and feel energized,
listening to certain music,
dancing and being silly together
reading an erotic story etc.
Your turn-offs may be:
having sex after a big meal when you’re feeling full and tired
jumping into sex without emotionally connecting to your partner first
feeling too rushed to find your own pleasure
the lights being too bright, the room being too cold
worrying that your body won’t work the way you want it to, etc.
Make a list of 5 -10 of your own openers and closers, so you can see them all on paper, and share it with your partner. They’ll better understand how desire works for you. Give them your list so they can support the conditions that help you open to sex.
Breaking the habit of resistance
Resistance is sneaky. It’ll move in even before you’ve given sex much thought. It may have messages that are based on fears and insecurities like:
My partner doesn’t find me attractive anymore
I take too long to orgasm
I’m a boring lover
My kids will walk in on us
I’m afraid to ask for a certain sexual experiences from your partner
I’ll lose my erection
I’ll never meet my partner’s need
Needing to drink or get high before sex
Fear of painful or dysfunctional sex and not doing anything about it
Pressuring myself to be someone I’m not in bed
Start to observe what the thoughts are behind your resistance, and question if they are true or not. Talk to your partner about the negative beliefs that contribute to your resistance. If you’re working as a sexual team, your partner will appreciate you sharing.
Ask them to help you rewrite your negative thoughts into positive affirmations that feed your self-confidence and self-esteem.
No means no, as well as ‘what else could we do’?
Saying no to our partner’s initiation is hard on both people. ‘No’ is a door closer, it leaves little room for any other thoughts or solutions.
If you’re a ‘no’ to sexual intercourse, as a pattern, ask yourself what you might be a ‘yes’ to?
Get curious about what you are open to, and learn how to deliver your ‘no’ in a way that doesn’t slam the door in your partner’s face.
Couch your ‘no’ with a statement of appreciation, like, I’m too tired to have intercourse right now, but I appreciate your desire to be close. Would you like to have an orgasm another way?
Or, I’m looking forward to being sexual with you. Can we set a date for tomorrow rather than tonight?
Before you answer your partner’s request for sex with a defensive ‘no’ , feel your partner’s own vulnerability in their request, and ask for what you want from a place of connection.
Come together as a sexually empowered team to keep sex alive and well, FOR REAL
The most effective and long-lasting way to embrace this new perspective around desire discrepancy, and avoid relapsing into old unhealthy patterns, is to find a sex and relationship coach who can guide you through weekly sessions and homeplay.
Weekly sessions insures the creation of new patterns in your relationship to sex, and ongoing growth as a couple.
Being accountable to a process and working as a team will set you on the path toward a lifetime of sexual empowerment and enjoyment.
Confirmation bias. We all have it. We experience it every day in the news, in our politics, in our workplace, and most directly in our relationships, where partners can suffer the consequences of confirmation bias on a daily basis. When it comes to our relationship it makes sense then that our brains are far more skilled at noticing what’s wrong with our partner, than what’s right.
Vulnerability is actually a gift that descends upon us when we stop pretending to have it all together and admit to our human flaws and fragility. It’s a gift we give to ourselves and our partner, because it shifts our state from one of closed-off superficiality, to one of feeling and deep sharing. When one partner in a couple opens the door to vulnerability, they create space for their partner to join them there, and it’s in that space of shared vulnerability where hearts connect and intimacy is experienced.
Sex is probably one of the hardest things to talk about with a partner. It’s easy to take things personally because sex is deeply personal. Confessing your desires and asking for what you want takes courage and trust that your partner is going to hold your feelings with care. If sex is difficult for you to talk about the best thing to do is to start talking, but do it in a way that keeps you both feeling heard and understood.
One of the most defining moments in my life was losing a brother when I was 14 years old. One day he was there, and the next day he was gone. Life's big lessons are irrefutable, and usually hold within them great wisdom. When you lose a family member, you never forget that impermanence is built into existence, and with every loss comes a second lesson which is equally important to understand. Here’s the confronting truth about life that’s hard to avoid, but easy to ignore. You’re going to lose everything and everyone you care about in life.