Unequal libidos: What to do when your sex drives are out of sync
In an ideal world, we’d all be with someone who had the same sex drive as us – but real life isn’t like that.
In fact, studies show that one in three couples in Britain report a discrepancy in their libido – especially those in longer term relationships when the honeymoon period with all those ‘in love’ hormones is over.
If that's you – congratulations then, you’re entirely normal. It doesn’t mean anything's wrong, and may not even be a problem. If it’s started to cause resentment or arguments, however you may want to address it.
We asked the sexperts for their advice on this age-old problem.
Identify any underlying problems
“Often I see clients where the desire for sex is there, but there are other problems in the way,” says Marian O’Connor, sex and relationship therapist at the Tavistock centre.
There are many factors that affect our libido, from diet to hormones, to stress or even medication.
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“Things like thrush can cause sex to be sore or painful,” adds O’Connor. “Or it could the fear of humiliation from erectile problems or vaginal dryness.”
It’s important to think back to when you first started to notice a discrepancy in interest in sex between you. Has it always been this way in the relationship or did this happen recently?
If the latter is true, have there been any major changes in your life? New baby? Job loss? A bereavement? Major life changes can really affect our libido.
“Shame is also a huge passion killer,” says O’Connor. "So check your partner isn’t stuck in body-shame – especially if there’s been a recent change to their body, say after pregnancy, an operation, or weight loss/weight gain.”
Re-define ‘successful’ sex
For many couples, ‘successful’ sex means sexual intercourse and/or both partners climaxing, but this can lead to unnecessary anxiety about sexual performance.
Actually, what makes sex more satisfying between two people is intimacy and crucially, both of you enjoying it. After all, sex is meant to make us feel good, right?
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It’s really important therefore to expand your notion of what successful sex means in your relationship and to explore the full repertoire of intimacy which might include cuddling, massages, oral sex, showering together or simply just enjoying a film on the sofa.
Although sex scenes in movies would have us believe otherwise, remember that desire doesn’t just appear out of thin air, either; it needs to be ‘activated’.
“It’s a bit like you don’t have to be starving hungry to eat breakfast,” explains O’Connor. "If you know you like eggs on toast and that’s going to be pleasurable, then the act of eating it releases the appetite.”
Start small and build up. “With a couple who have unequal levels of desire, I would start by looking at what is pleasurable with sex? I’d suggest just touching and caressing at first because once pleasure is stimulated, it gathers speed.”
Stop the blame game
When we are in a relationship with mismatched libidos, it tends to go like this:
“The high sex drive person feels like a sex pest, and the low libido person feels like they’re always letting their partner down,” says sexpert Tracey Cox. However, this situation is nobody’s fault.
“The high-level person has naturally higher levels of testosterone and there’s evidence that our resting libido is genetic.”
So, besides the fact that we can’t choose our natural libido (although we can compromise of course), blaming or shaming is going to make the situation worse.
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Kate Moyle, sexpert for sexual wellness brand, Lelo says: “It’s important not to position the problem in either partner wanting ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ sex as creating feelings of guilt or shame around sex is not going to positively encourage or motivate you to want to have it.
"The gap is between you and can definitely be worked on, but attacking each other for your current position won’t help anything.”
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To schedule or not to schedule?
Scheduling sex doesn’t have to be a passion killer, it can add anticipation throughout the day which can be a turn-on. Also, it can help stop the cycle of blame and guilt that often develops for couples with mismatched desire levels.
That’s if there aren’t other serious problems in the relationship. Knowing where you are, is key.
“Say if a couple comes to me and says, 'We want to have sex because we know if feels good when we do, it’s just life just keeps getting in the way’ then making a date may work well,” says O’Connor, “because for those couples it’s just a case of making time and commitment.
"If the problems go much deeper however, then these need to be looked at first because otherwise one or both of you will come to the date and make an excuses not to do it. It will likely be excruciating and possibly do more harm than good.”
Which brings us onto…
Do the relationship work
Deeper emotional issues are more often than not at the root of couples’ sex life issues. Unhealthy dynamics in the relationship and lack of emotional connection breed hurt and resentment. The person with the low sex drive can feel like they’re being pressured and the one with the high-sex drive feels rejected and even angry.
“What’s very common,” says O’Connor, “is one partner wants to express intimacy with sex and the other person says, 'I feel sexual if closeness has been proven in other ways, like booking tickets for something, cooking me dinner, or getting home from work so we can spend some time together'.
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"Or perhaps he’s harbouring a resentment that you’ve been a misery guts with the kids.”
The bottom line is, if your sex life is suffering, it’s a very good idea to take an honest look at how do you both feel in the relationship: Respected? Seen? Supported?
Also, sex can be an uncomfortable topic at the best of times, especially when things aren’t going well, but it’s vital to be as candid as possible whilst being compassionate. Talk about likes, dislikes, boundaries, how you feel in the relationship… and above all, really listen to what your partner says too.
Really try to understand what desire and sex mean to each other
As Moyle explains, “Often libido is connected to the personal meaning having sex has for us as an individual. For some it’s connection and reassurance that their partner still desires them… for others, it might be something that happens more occasionally and they can take or leave.”
Understanding how desire works and feels for our partners, therefore, is an important part of addressing the sex gap.
Moyle also suggests unpacking the routines and dynamics you’ve got stuck in, because that’s where damaging beliefs about our sex life can occur that are not necessarily true.
“Often couples say things like, ‘You only touch me when you want sex,’ which might not be the case, but typically becomes the belief if one partner always leads sex. Talking and making an effort to understand the dynamics in your relationship can start to create a shift.”
Sex in numbers
A great way of creating empathy is for each of you to assign yourself a ‘sex number’, so on scale of one-ten with one being the lowest, how would you rate yourself in terms of interest in sex?
“By giving yourself a number and knowing your partner's," explains psychologist Katherine Wilson, “you can start to see things more objectively. This can be really helpful in preventing the mind-reading and assumptions that can occur, such as assuming that your partner never initiates because of their lack of sexual interest in you personally.
"We can use this information to make sense of patterns that have emerged: 'Of course I initiate sex more because I am an eight and he is a three!' It lowers the tendency to take things personally."
Keep in mind that the goal is not to determine who is 'right' or 'wrong' or whose behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, she emphasises. "It’s simply about trying to more fully understand your partner’s experience in the relationship. This can lay the groundwork for more compassion, honesty and ultimately problem-solving.”
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