One partner having a higher sex drive than the other is one of the most common issues that people have to deal with in coupled relationships. It can create a lot of stress and conflict within the relationship and sometimes leads to very long periods where no sexual play is engaged in at all. Studies have found that 10% of couples that have been together for 5 or more years haven’t had “sex” in a year. Additionally, 20% of couples that have been together for 10 or more years haven’t had “sex” in 2 years. So the question becomes not only why is this happening, but how can it be fixed? It’s important to note that many couples are completely content with this arrangement and nothing needs to be resolved. However, that is not the case for most.
One aspect that is crucial to focus on is the quality of sex. So many people focus on the quantity and just keep track of how often they’re sexual with their partner (or how long it’s been since they were last sexual together). But here’s the thing; why would anyone desire sexual play if they weren’t actually enjoying it? Many individuals with low sexual desire will have sex quite frequently with their partner just to keep them off their back about it. They don’t enjoy it one bit, and usually that means their partner also doesn’t enjoy it all that much either. So instead of always keeping track of sexual activity, focus on ways of making it as pleasurable as possible for both of you. Sit down and have an open, honest discussion about what each of you do and do not like about the sexual activities you’re engaging in. Talk about what activities you would like to try and talk about what activities you would like to put on hold for at least the next little while. Lastly, discuss any obstacles that are preventing either of you from really enjoying the sexual experience (e.g. unwanted sexual pain, discomfort with sex/sexuality in general, attraction towards one another, etc.).
Sometimes the person with the low libido will say that they have never experienced sexual desire. Unless they’re asexual, that is rare to truly be the case. Talk to them about what it was like before they had ever been sexual in any way with another person. Did they daydream about kissing someone, or having someone they were attracted to touching their body? What kinds of thoughts gave them that “tingly” feeling of desire and maybe even arousal? Try to figure out what can give them that feeling now. Maybe you need to bring it way back and only engage in mutual touching of one another’s bodies, excluding the genitals for a while. Learn how to experience intimate, physical pleasure with one another again, then slowly start adding genital touching back in and then the acts that you are BOTH comfortable with.
Another aspect to discuss includes any personal or relationship issues you’re experiencing. Talk about the stress, depression or conflict that you may be dealing with, either on your own, with your partner or just with life in general. What is your self-esteem and self-confidence like? Are there any issues with body image that you need help with? Do you even still like one another? What non-sexual issues in your relationship need to be addressed? Do you have any fantasies that you’ve been hiding or holding back from your partner? Are you questioning your sexual orientation?
Low sexual desire can also be physiological in nature. This includes: low thyroid or hemoglobin, elevated prolactin (usually from taking antipsychotics), recreational drug or alcohol use, disability or chronic illness (usually presenting as low libido due to fatigue), poorly managed pain, medications (SSRIs, all psychiatric drugs, hormonal contraceptives, etc.), radiation/chemotherapy (affects desire and sexual functioning), or infertility treatment. If you’re involved in infertility treatment, it’s common for everyone involved to end up having mechanistic sex and losing touch with internal cues of desire and arousal. You need to make sure you set aside at least one time per month where you have sex purely because you want it.
Alcohol is actually the most common organic reason for lack of desire, inability to orgasm and sexual dysfunction. You don’t have to be an alcoholic for this to happen. It’s cumulative, so as it builds up in your system it affects you more and more over time. It affects erection/lubrication and the orgasm reflex. If binge drinking a few days a week, it can cause chronic sexual problems.
In terms of antidepressants, SNRIs kill desire and SSRIs kill desire and functioning (some are worse than others though). Effexor, Pristiq and Celexa are all horrible for desire and the first 2 numb you out, making it difficult to reach orgasm. Zoloft is bad for desire, orgasm and function, but not to the same extent as others. Paxil tends to be murder on orgasm but not sexual function. Wellbutrin (an SNRI) is the best antidepressant for not affecting sexual function and desire.
Lastly, couples usually experience a big drop in sexual frequency after they’ve moved in with one another. A big reason for this tends to be people’s conceptualizations about sexual play and how it’s supposed to be spontaneous. News flash; sex is rarely ever spontaneous. Think of what happened before you moved in together. Or even when you just started dating and were having sex all the time. What were your rituals? Chances are, when you knew you were meeting up with them you had a shower, shaved, changed into special clothes, did yourself up (hair, perfume/cologne, makeup/aftershave, etc.), cleaned your house/apartment/living space, and got ready for that date. This was you preparing to have sex. Now that you’re living together, that’s harder to do. Or it just becomes more obvious that you’re prepping for sex. In no way does this make it less romantic or exciting. It’s just a different mindset that you need to adopt. And now you get the fun option of doing it together (shower sex anyone?).
So let’s say you’ve now discussed all this with your partner over the last week or so. Now what? If one or both of you were dreading sexual play, you need to find a way to replace that feeling with anticipation and excitement. Usually this is done by focusing on the quality of sex and working together to have the best sex of your life (you may want to read through my previous article on how to have fantastic sex for tips on how to do that!). Many couples will also polarize each other and view each other at separate, opposite ends of always wanting versus never wanting sex. If this is the case with your relationship, you both need to stop viewing each other this way. Make things more realistic and bring things back to a middle ground. No blame language, no feelings of resentment and no talk about being dysfunctional in any way. You work together in a positive manner to get yourselves on the same page sexually, and find a compromise where everyone involved is happy and satisfied.
Finally, here are some agreements both partners can make in progressing towards a more fulfilling sex life:
- You will be completely honest with one another. In addition to many other benefits, this allows you to trust that neither of you will say “yes” if you aren’t really in the mood. On a side note- having sex when you aren’t fully in the mood is termed “maintenance sex”. As long as you aren’t averse to being sexual at the time, having maintenance sex no more than 15% of the times you engage in sexual activity can actually be a healthy part of being in a relationship.
-There are an infinite number of ways to create pleasure together, and when you decline to have sex you are not necessarily refusing to have intimate contact. You are literally, just declining to have sexual play, intercourse, or reach orgasm. You can talk further about what it is that you would like to do.
-In responding to a sexual invitation, you will clearly state your interest level. If you are not interested at the moment, you will, if you can, suggest other mutual activities in which you might be interested in or provide information about when you might want to have sex or spend time together.
-Have a nightly ritual, even if it’s only a minute or two long. You can call it “weeknight sex” and just involve a minute or two of facing each other, legs wrapped around each other, cuddling or caressing each other’s bodies and/or genitals and saying “I love you” without intention of peaking arousal or of orgasm. Or you can lie in a spoon position and synchronize breathing. Or it might be one partner holding and caressing their partner while the other brings themselves to orgasm. Or it might include just joining together in a form of intercourse, lying that way a few minutes, perhaps with a few gentle strokes. Talk about what both of you are okay with and make a concerted effort to do it every night.
-Go on a date once a week just to create good feelings.... no griping allowed.
-Have a gripe session or life maintenance session once a week.