Louise Bourchier is a sex educator who teaches sexual health, sexual pleasure, and relationship communication skills both through workshops and online. Sexpression was lucky enough to host her as a panelist us in our 2020 event “Ask a Sexpert.” She has a Masters of Public Health, and is currently doing her PhD looking at the sexual health needs of older people.
“My partner is so much less interested in sex than me and I find it really hard not to take it personally. How do you deal with mismatched libidos in a relationship?”
Thank you for your question. You’ve brought up an issue that affects a lot of people and
relationships. Mismatched sexual desire is one of the most common sexual problems faced by couples. Sometimes the situation is temporary, perhaps due to changes in health, work, or life circumstances, and for others the mismatch is an ongoing challenge. In heterosexual relationships there is a common perception that higher libido partner is the male partner and the lower libido partner the female partner, but this is not necessarily true, and of course same sex couples and those with non-normative gender are not included in these stereotypes. The reality is more complex and every relationship dynamic is different.
First, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as “normal” sexual frequency or a normal level of sexual desire. Some people want sex daily (more than once if possible!), while others are satisfied with once a week, once a month, or may never desire sex (people who rarely or never want sex may identify as demi-sexual or asexual). When partners have mismatched libidos it is important not to get into an argument of how much sex it is “normal” to have. If the relationship and your sexual connection is important to you, you will need to work out a balance that works for both of you. Strong communication skills, honesty, mutual respect and empathy are essential, as well as a genuine desire to make the relationship work.
In your question you say that it is hard not to take it personally. Indeed, it is common for the higher libido partner to feel rejected and not desired, and this can take a toll on self-esteem. Additionally, with desire discordant couples, non-sexual intimacy like hugging can become a casualty as well, because the lower desire partner may be reluctant to touch or kiss for fear it might lead to sex. This lack of affection can also leave the higher desire partner feeling rejected or unloved.
There is no quick fix. Be ready to try different things, to communicate and to experiment. Some experiments won’t work, and that’s fine, some will help you learn more and hopefully get you closer to a sexual and intimate life that works for both of you. Here are some suggested starting points:
1) Schedule sex. It may sound un-sexy, but putting a date in your calendar can take the
pressure off. The higher desire partner is assured that sex will happen, even if they
have to wait a bit. The lower desire partner knows they will not be under pressure to
have sex before the scheduled time, which might even allow them to anticipate and
prepare for it.
2) Take the pressure off “the breaks”. In her book “Come As You Are” Dr. Emily
Nagoski explains that sexual desire, like a car, is controlled by both an accelerator
and a break. Lighting a candle, putting on the right sort of music, watching porn, or
wearing sexy lingerie can press the accelerator, but, like a car, if there is too much
pressure on the break then sexual desire won’t happen. The break is pressed by everything else in life that can distract you from sex, like work stress, family
demands, or something as simple as the room being too cold. What this means is
that taking pressure off the break can help the lower desire partner get to a place of
feeling desire. This might involve making sure the bedroom is tidy with no laundry on
the floor, that both of you have showered, that the bedroom door is locked, or that
you have resolved any earlier disagreements. If the conditions are not right, the
break will remain activated inhibiting desire, so pay attention to creating an
appealing context for sex.
3) Focus on quality. When you do have sex try and make it sex that is worth having.
This is advice given by Canadian sex therapist Peggy Kleinplatz. Turn your phones off,
kiss and caress each other to get into the mood, set aside enough time to get
aroused, to explore each other’s bodies. Put less focus on orgasm, and more focus
on the erotic connection. This is likely to leave both partners feeling better about the
encounter and more positive about next time.
With mismatched libidos being such a common problem, a number of therapists and sex educators have written books on the topic to try and ease the struggles faced by so many couples. I can recommend the following resources:
Two excellent books by Australian sex therapist Dr. Sandra Pertot “When Your Sex
Drives Don’t Match” and “Perfectly Normal: Living and Loving With Low Libido”.
As mentioned above, “Come As You Are” by sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski is a
fantastic book explaining the science behind desire. She also has several TED talks
and other videos that are worth exploring.
Sex therapist Esther Perel’s “Mating In Captivity” looks specifically at the challenges
of maintaining sexual connection in longterm relationships.
If you feel you need extra support it may be worth seeing a sex therapist. They are highly experienced in helping people navigate these difficulties and can give you tailored advice for your situation. Good luck working through these challenges.
Thank you so much Louise for your wonderfully insightful response!