Let's chat about one of the most common challenges, which is sexual desire discrepancy.
If you didn’t yet read the post where I went into some detail about what sexual confidence really is, one of the things I shared was that sexual confidence can change as you get to know yourself more deeply over time and it can ebb and flow through various times of your life:
Like in a new relationship
After the loss of a relationship
After weight gain or loss
During or after pregnancy
After an injury or illness
And so many other times
The same is true for desire … it can ebb and flow at all of those times … which segues into what I want to talk about today.
I want to explore sexual desire discrepancy a little bit because this has been THE key thing for me in my relationship and it’s often said to be the number one reason that people and couples seek sex therapy or coaching.
And it’s really the main thing I support you with.
So, let’s dive into this complex topic a bit.
First, what’s sexual desire?
Sexual desire is usually thought of as:
A feeling of wanting to have sex, whatever that might mean to you
A common definition is that sexual desire is the experience of sexual thoughts, fantasies and urges to engage in sexual activity.
But just like with most things we’ve talked about on the blog, sexual desire isn’t about one definitive or narrow definition.
It may involve biological factors like hormones, physical arousal or illness.
It may involve psychological factors like personal characteristics, emotions, motivations, expectations and preferences.
And it may involve socio-cultural factors like relationship dynamics, societal influences, life circumstances, beliefs and past experiences.
There are many reasons that you may have sex. In fact, one study showed that there may be as many as 237 reasons. Things like wanting to:
Get closer to God
Give to another person
Get back at a partner
Give in to pressure
And many more
There’s no one way that sexual desire appears.
There’s no “normal” level of desire.
And it can increase or decrease over time and continue to ebb and flow throughout life.
To add to the complexity, there’s something called spontaneous desire and something called responsive desire.
Spontaneous desire means that you want to have sex randomly or in response to something you find sexy.
Responsive desire means you don’t want to have sex until you start engaging in sexual activities.
So, the way that many people view desire as needing to be evident before having sex, is actually inaccurate and can contribute to viewing things as an issue where there really isn’t a problem.
Expecting all partners to experience spontaneous desire and be at the same level of desire in order to have sex is an unrealistic expectation.
As well, it’s thought that there are two systems at work in each person and in each situation. The balance of these systems impacts whether or not sexual response and arousal occur.
The systems are the sexual activation system and the sexual inhibition system and the balance varies depending on multiple factors like whether or not the kids are going to walk in or the argument you had with your partner the night before or what your childhood religion said about sex.
So, what’s important to note is that the message I shared in the first episode of the podcast applies, which is that there is nothing wrong with you.
Second, what’s sexual desire discrepancy?
First, I want to mention a few different terms that mean the same thing. So, you might hear sexual desire discrepancy referred to as sexual dysfunction, differences in libido, desire discrepancy, sexual desire discrepancy, mismatched libido, mismatched desire, mismatched sex drive or sexual incompatibility.
And basically, it refers to differences between partners in any relationship structure in terms of levels of libido, desired frequency of sex, or different desires, interests and kinks. So, one partner is lower or higher in desire in relation to the other partner or partners or partners have different interests.
A definition that I like is:
"When the sex each of you wants doesn’t match within your relationship, causing anxiety or distress."
And it’s the anxiety and distress that’s key because if you're fine with how it is, it's not an issue. Right? There’s no normal or standard or expected amount of sex because each person and each partnership is different.
But something to consider is, “What’s causing the distress?”
Is it because of unrealistic expectations?
Is it because of conditioning that it should be a certain amount or in a certain way?
Is it because of misunderstandings?
Or is it because there’s an actual discrepancy between what all the partners really want?
Food for thought.
Speaking of misunderstandings, there are a couple of things I want to mention here.
One key aspect to consider is that a decline in sexual desire is often viewed negatively, but it’s normal for desire to decline over time in a relationship, and actually, it ebbs and flows over time.
A second key aspect to consider is that sexual desire discrepancy has typically been viewed based on the binary of low and high desire.
The problem is associated with the lower desire partner, rather than as something that develops in the context of a relationship and that involves multiple factors.
As well, the solution becomes about increasing sexual frequency or increasing the low desire rather than looking at what sexual desire means within the couple or what sex even means or what the partners even actually want.
And a third key aspect to consider is that the quality of sex can vary widely from day to day. It’s not about some perfect standard of sexual performance. It’s about pleasure, intimacy, enjoyment and awareness that there are many purposes and varieties of sex.
Third, what causes mismatched libido?
Sexual desire can fluctuate over time for MANY reasons and it’s normal and common for this to happen. Some of the reasons are:
Kids and lack of privacy
Illness, whether physical or mental
Stress and its impact on mindfulness and presence
Caring for aging or ill parents
Substance use or abuse
Time or schedule conflicts
Relationship satisfaction, tension or issues
Attraction to your partner or partners
Lack of communication (we don’t learn how to talk about, so we don’t; but not talking about it increases the problem)
Body shame or shame in general
Different desires/fantasies/wants/ kinks/interests
Not feeling satisfied and not communicating about it
Inaccurate expectations for sex/amount of sex
Prior life experiences from childhood or the past
And other societal influences like I addressed in some earlier episodes
What influences you and impacts your sexual desire or desires?
And many things can impact whether sexual desire discrepancy involves distress. Things like:
And the idyllic pursuit of perfectly performed or great sex that we hear about constantly (this can be the source of dissatisfaction and distress because it amplifies fears of inadequacy, creates disappointment and doesn’t take into the account the fact that sex is a multifaceted, interactive, varying thing)
Fourth, why is it an issue?
Well, like I mentioned, it may be an issue because of societal perspectives that it should be an issue.
However, it also may actually be an issue.
And when it is, it can have a profound impact on relationships and individuals. According to some researchers, when couples report high sexual satisfaction, it accounts for 15% to 20% of their overall relationship satisfaction. However, when couples report low sexual satisfaction, it contributes 50% to 70% of their overall satisfaction with their partner. That’s huge.
Some effects that you might experience are things like:
Increased relationship stress
Feeling like there's something wrong with you
Frustration from not knowing what to do to change things
Worry that a partner will go elsewhere
Feeling shitty from forcing yourself to have sex
Feeling guilty for avoiding sex
Feeling guilty for saying you want sex
Lack of connection and intimacy with partners
Fear of initiating sex because the rejection hurts so much
Despair or feeling hopeless about things ever changing
Anxiety from wondering why things are the way they are
Resentment from having sex when you don’t really want to
Questioning yourself or your relationship
Feeling conflicted because you want to end things but feel like you can’t
And so many more
Finally, what can you do about it?
That list of effects that I just shared might feel huge and overwhelming. But the truth is that there are things you can do.
And it goes back to the core of what I do and the foundations I operate from in my coaching. For example:
Discovering who you uniquely are … your pleasure profile as I call it.
Working through what gets in the way of that at the deepest levels.
And expressing and communicating who you are in your sex life.
The most common strategies are:
Engaging in a different type of sexual activity
Communicating (e.g. asking questions about what you want and need)
Having sex anyway
And not having sex at all/doing nothing
But I have ten other strategies you can use and these include:
Discovering and accepting all partners' uniqueness (e.g. discovering your desires, opening up about your fantasies, creating your sexual vision, clarifying your sexual values, exploring things that fit with your personality, learning your love languages and reinventing what sex looks like for you and what it means for you … like not just orgasm-focused or penis-in-vagina sex)
Shifting expectations that we’re conditioned to have (what sex is, how many times it should happen, what it should lead to, how you should feel, etc.); Jessica Maxwell found that people’s expectations for their sex lives might be out of whack with sexual reality and expecting higher sexual frequency or higher sexual satisfaction might set them up for disappointment; she also found that people with more realistic expectations for sex tended to stay more constant in terms of desire over time
Figuring out and dealing with the reason underneath (e.g. relationship conflicts, interaction patterns, unmet attachment needs, trust, past trauma, stress)
Creating time and space for sex (e.g. going to a hotel, scheduling sex while also being flexible)
Going deeper with different types of sexual activity (e.g. mutual masturbation, ethical porn, new sex toys, playing a sex game, incorporating erotica, practicing erotic or non-erotic touch and sensation activities, cuddling, increasing emotional intimacy, increasing presence in the moment, increasing mindfulness, opening up your relationship if that’s something you agree about and boosting anticipation through things like sexting, teasing and foreplay)
Learning (e.g. normalizing having sex without direct, initial desire)
Building sexual confidence
Jessica Maxwell also found that cultivating a sexual growth mindset (i.e. belief that sexual satisfaction can change and needs to be worked on and that sexual differences can be resolved) vs. a sexual destiny mindset (i.e. sexual chemistry is fixed from the start and quality of sex dictates relationship satisfaction and quality) can be effective
Using technology (e.g. Rosy app at meetrosy.com is education based on an initial assessment and a library of erotica)
Hiring a sex coach like me (I’ll put the link below in the notes)
Some studies have found that partnered strategies are associated with higher levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction than individual strategies. But all can be effective.
What’s important though is:
To not just put a Band-Aid over underlying issues.
To look at things holistically.
And to treat each individual, couple or partnership as unique because everything about sex, desire and satisfaction is unique.
DISCLAIMER: It’s important to consult a healthcare provider if what you’re experiencing is more aligned with a medical condition like HSDD.
Sexual Desire Discrepancy: A Position Statement of the European Society for Sexual Medicine, Dewitte Marieke et al., 2020.
Strategies for Mitigating Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Relationships, Laura M. Vowels and Kristen P. Mark, 2020.
Let’s Think About Sex: Applying Social Cognition Concepts to Sexual Relationships, Jessica Maxwell, presentation to the Sexual Health Alliance, February 2022
The Impact of Daily Sexual Desire and Daily Sexual Desire Discrepancy on the Quality of the Sexual Experience in Couples, Kristen Mark, 2014.
The Relative Impact of Individual Sexual Desire and Couple Desire Discrepancy on Satisfaction in Heterosexual Couples, Kristen P. Mark, 2012.
Psychology of Sexual Response, Chiara Simonelli.
Using Emotionally Focused Therapy to Treat Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Couples, Abby Girard and Scott R. Woolley, 2016.
Emily Nagoski from Sexual Health Alliance curriculum
A Simple Reason Many Couples Deal With Desire Discrepancy, From A Sex Coach, Kelly Gonsalves, 2020.
What is Sexual Desire Discrepancy and How it Affects Your Relationship, Sophie Browness, 2021.
Hi! I'm Leanne. I'm a teacher, certified sex and mindset coach and creator of the Sexy brand, Your Pleasure Profile and the SEXY System. I'm passionate about helping you know who you uniquely are without all the stuff that says who you "should" be so you can be in your power, worth and confidence and express your authentic sexual desires without shame. I specialize in sexual desire discrepancy (a mismatch in the amount or type of sex that you and your partner/s want), sexual communication and shifting what keeps you stuck so you can create the sex life that you really want. You can learn more at https://sexysexualconfidence.com.
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