Not tonight, honey: Dealing with sexual desire discrepancy
Most of us didn’t learn about sexuality in an informative, straightforward way. Much of what is circulating in our culture about sex, intimacy and sexuality is based on myths, misinformation, porn use, or bad school sex education. Most school-based sex education, for example, doesn’t even mention the word pleasure, or clitoris or masturbation.
Many people think they ought to know sexual issues even though they didn’t get the education. They also assume other people know. Neither feel comfortable talking about sex.
There comes a point in any long-term relationship when you have to start talking about your differences around sexual preferences. Talking about sexual issues is not the easiest for couples to do, but let’s face it, if you don’t do it, things will not get better or easier or less fraught.
At a minimum, you need to be able to discuss pleasure, desire, and arousal. When you become more comfortable with the language of sexual pleasure, you can educate yourself to become more sexually aware about what happens in a long-term relationship. If you get better at discussing your differences, your likes and dislikes, your wishes, your insecurities and fears, you may be able to shift your perspective which may lead to the end of blame or self-blame, a necessary precursor of sexual activity.
What is sexual desire discrepancy?
Sex is the adult version of childhood play. Couples are often able to play well when they first meet, but, sometimes, something happens in the second stage of the relationship and they stop playing.
Sexual desire discrepancy is one of the most common differences in couples. Discrepancy is actually not a problem per se. It only becomes a problem because of the meaning that couples attribute to the difference and because of the way they manage that difference.
After the romantic period is over, desire discrepancy is normal. No relationship survives over decades without the partners discovering some significant differences between them. In this case, the difference they experience happens to be about sex, but it’s still just a difference of preferences between two people.
Sexual desire discrepancy is no different than any other difference in couples, but it is made more fraught because it triggers sensitive feelings in each member of the couple. It can create a toxic relationship dynamic of mutual blame, anger, and resentment leading to an interactional pattern that is difficult to break.
The higher desire person feels rejected and blames the lower desire partner. In some cases, the higher desire person exerts pressure and in extreme cases, coercion. And the lower desire person blames the higher desire partner for their external pressure, and may feel some internal pressure of their own.
The higher desire person often feels like they are “owed sex” and the lower desire partner may feel that they “owe sex” or “don’t owe sex” to their partner. The lower desire person may denigrate the wishes of the higher desire partner for wanting more sex than they do.
Many partners experience shame from having high desire, or low desire, or no desire. Or they blame their partners because they think their partners are not normal for having a higher desire or a lower desire. Shame and blame are not conducive to pleasure, play or fun which are the basic elements of an intimate encounter.
The more couples blame each other, the fewer sexual encounters they have and the less they touch each other. At its best, couples seek couples therapy early enough when the damage is minor. At its worst, couples seek treatment after years of this dynamic marred in resentment and blame. The damage can be severe. The longer this dynamic of shaming and blaming goes on, the harder it is to change.
Sexuality 101 as it pertains to sexual desire discrepancy
Here is a rundown of some of the issues I discuss with the couples I work with who present with sexual desire discrepancy.
- There is no such thing as an “abnormal” level of desire. There is so much variability between human beings, and such infinite diversity in the world, that I think we are all normal.
- Couples are unlikely to feel amorous, desirous or turned on at the same time. The expectation that desire and arousal should be felt by both partners in the same way and at the same time is often how desire discrepancy first manifests in a couple.
- “Sex has to be hot, spontaneous, luxurious, and last a lifetime”. If this is how some partners think about sex, I tell them that “This is a young adult vision of how sex occurs”. This is a second way that desire discrepancy manifests itself. The belief that sex has to be spontaneous and luxurious and last a lifetime goes against the reality that sex evolves, and becomes less frequent over time. The trouble often begins when couples continue to use their young adult vision of sexual intimacy as the blueprint of what needs to happen in their relationship. A young adult vision of sex includes several ideas: Instant wetness, rock hard erections, pounding intercourse and simultaneous orgasms, among others.
- Some partners believe that kissing or other touching activity has to automatically lead to sex. When that doesn’t happen, some people feel disappointment. The disappointment of one member may lead the other partner to avoidance behaviors. They start to avoid kissing, hugging, and snuggling. Believing that once a sexual interaction starts, it cannot be stopped makes some partners to back away from kissing or snuggling because of a fear that it will “send the wrong message and mislead their partner”.
- Expecting that all their sexual pleasure should come from couple interactions, as opposed to self-pleasure leads to pressure. Pressure is not conducive to play.
- Events and feelings are difficult to control or change, but what we can control are the narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about the events and the feelings. It’s hard to recover from the negative downward spiral when people make negative interpretations about themselves or their partners. “He doesn’t like the way I look”, “she is not interested in me”, “if he loved me, he would know what I like without me having to spell it out” are some of the negative narratives people tell about each other regarding sexual behaviors.
- Most people say that what they want is to feel pleasure, and physical and emotional closeness and intimacy. However, this is not what most people focus on before or during sex. Rather, they may focus on how they look, how they smell, how they sound. Or they focus on preventing pregnancy, or unwanted activities. Or they focus on hurrying an orgasm, or maintaining an erection or enough lubrication, suppressing emotions such as being worried of not doing the “right things”, or suppressing wishes. No wonder things don’t work out when it comes to sexual desire discrepancy. Shame, anxiety and fear do not align with pleasure, desire and arousal.
What to do?
In general, to deal effectively with sexual desire discrepancy issues, the couple is going to need to become better at sexual differentiation and they will need to develop sexual intelligence.
By sexual differentiation I mean each individual in the couple needs to learn to look inward and figure out what they think, feel and want and communicate that to their partner and they need to be able to manage the disappointment of not always getting what they want. It also means that they can separate giving pleasure from receiving pleasure and become comfortable with both behaviors.
Becoming sexually intelligent means among other things, that we have the right information, the emotional skills to deal with the insecurities and an increased awareness of how our bodies respond. For example, if one partner is anxious, it’s very hard to access relaxation; if another partner is resentful, it’s difficult to get aroused. Anxiety and arousal don’t go together. Resentment and arousal don’t go together either.
Sexual intelligence also means that we need to figure how to change our perspective and it teaches us to become more authentic and more open.
In addition, you can tweak your initiation routines and your beliefs about arousal. Not all touch leads to sex, not all sex leads to orgasm, not all requests lead to rejection.
There is a menu of options. The idea of a menu may be difficult for some low desire people, or even for the higher desire person, even though they can use a menu of options when it comes to other issues. “I can stay at the party is we take an Uber home”. “I can do this or that if we get something to eat first”. Why would it be any different when it comes to sex? Can the higher desire person be more clear about what they are in the mood for? Do they want naked touch, do they want help in having an orgasm? Do they want to be watched while they masturbate? Do they have in mind a long, elaborate production or could they be satisfied with a quick sexual encounter? Can the lower desire person offer an alternative, rather than an outright rejection without a plan for scheduling a sexual encounter for when they are more ready?
It is important to separate touch from sex. Just because you are not having sex, doesn’t mean you can’t touch. You can discuss expectations, pressures, what each of you is willing and able to do in your different love languages.
There is a difference between spontaneous desire versus responsive desire. Spontaneous desire refers to sexual desire that appears seemingly out of the blue, whereas responsive desire refers to sexual desire that is prompted by signs of sexual interest: touch, flirtation, or actually starting to have sex. Spontaneous desire is more commonly experienced in the romantic, early stage of the relationship. Anyone can experience either one. Responsive desire is akin to not feeling like going to the gym, but once you start, you get into it, and when you are done, you’re glad you went. Spontaneous desire is the one that most people think when they think about desire: automatic, seemingly without internal input. It’s important to understand the difference.
When couples can begin to talk about their differences and their wishes without blame and without denigrating the wishes of their partner, they can find collaborative solutions that work for both partners.