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As a relationship and sex therapist who specializes in working with couples who have low-to-no sex relationships, I see many couples who struggle with desire discrepancy.
Desire discrepancy? It’s a fancy term that basically means you and your partner have different levels of desire for sex. Specifically, your partner wants it a lot and you only want it a little (or not at all). It probably feels like an unsolvable problem that is completely overwhelming your relationship.
Want to hear an interesting fact? Desire discrepancy is the #1 presenting problem for all sex therapists! I happen to specialize in this pesky problem, but even sex therapists who have different areas of focus report that mistmatched libido is by far the most common complaint shared by couples who sit on our sofas.
You’re in good company. Or terrible company, depending on which way you want to look at it.
Feeling emotionally and physically connected are vital components to healthy, long-term relationships. When we’re fighting about sex or avoiding each other so that we don’t have to talk about sex, our deeper emotional connection begins to erode.
Luckily, it is possible to overcome this discrepancy by co-creating a loving and pleasurable sexual relationship that works for both of you! Here are three steps you can follow to heal the damage caused by mismatched desire and begin to create a positive sexual relationship:
Create a foundation of empathy and compassion
The first step out of this destructive relationship pattern is to stop blaming and criticizing each other for struggling with desire in the first place!
Your partner with higher desire is not sex-crazed, unfeeling, or selfish simply because they crave sexual contact. You are not broken, defective, or selfish because you do not crave sexual contact. Neither one of you is defective or wrong for feeling the way you feel. The longer you stay stuck in this destructive you’re-right-I’m-wrong tug-of-war, the more difficult it will be to find your way back to each other.
In this situation, we could all use a prescription grade injection of empathy and compassion!
Instead of viewing your partner as defective, can you try to understand the emotional pain they are feeling? There is always emotional suffering lingering beneath the surface for both partners when struggling with desire discrepancy.
Your job is to excavate beneath the conflict and avoidance to understand exactly why you’re both hurting and what deeper needs are not being met in the relationship.
Now that you understand why your partner is suffering, you can approach each other with compassion. Compassion does not equate to acceptance or complacency. Compassion is simply an expression of understanding that the person you love is hurting, and that you care enough about them to understand their struggle.
Approach this problem with curiosity instead of shame, frustration, and avoidance
You’re finally meeting each other with empathy and compassion around your sexual struggle! Now you’re ready to begin solving this problem. First things first, we have to assess all of the sources that may be causing or exacerbating our struggle with sexual desire.
It’s unlikely that this problem exists solely because you have low sexual desire. Our sexual relationships are impacted by every facet of our lives! We can leave no stone unturned when we’re trying to understand the root of sexual disconnection with our partner.
Embracing this philosophy and creating space to explore the different causes of our desire discrepancy requires openness and curiosity. The energy between you should be warm, loving, and compassionate.
Here is an ideal example of how this conversation might begin:
“I know it is so hard for you not to have weekly sexual intimacy with me in our relationship. I understand that leaves you feeling worried and alone. I want to solve this problem together. Can I ask you some other questions so we can fully understand what is happening here?”
Compare that statement to these non-ideal examples of how to start this conversation:
“I am so tired of you pressuring me for sex all the time. You are really selfish and need to leave me alone!”
“This isn’t right - you used to want sex every week and now you never want it - what is wrong with you? You need to figure out how to be sexual with me again because I can’t keep living like this!”
If you find that you cannot engage in this conversation with warmth and respect, I would encourage you to seek out a qualified sex therapist to help you navigate this important conversation.
If you are ready, here are four areas for you to consider as you’re trying to understand all of the variables that are impacting your sexual relationship. You can use these questions as a guide to begin exploring the roots of your desire discrepancy dilemma.
Biological - How is your overall physical health? What is happening in your body that might influence your sexual desire? Are you on any medications that have sexual side effects?
Psychological - How is your overall mental and emotional health? Do you have any depression or anxiety? How high is your stress level and how busy are you each day? We know that our brain is our largest sex organ, so any mental/emotional struggles you are having should be given strong consideration as a reason why you’re struggling with sex.
Social/Cultural - How does your culture tell you you should feel about sex? What messages did you internalize from your family about your sexuality that might be showing up for you now? Overall, how do societal expectations impact your sense of sexual well-being?
Relational - What other problems are you having in your relationship that might contribute to your sexual struggles, both emotionally and sexually? Do you feel safe with your partner? Do you share your deepest feelings and needs with each other? What other sexual problems are you dealing with (sexual pain, inability to orgasm, difficulty with erections or ejaculation)?
You can only overcome desire discrepancy when you understand all of the barriers that are blocking you from easy, pleasurable, and loving physical connection.
Collaborate with your partner to co-create a sexual relationship that works for both of you
It takes two to tango (aka it takes two to have good sex). Now that you have empathy and compassion for your partner and understand the different variables that are contributing to your sexual struggles, you can create a plan to rekindle the loving sexual relationship you once had.
I wish there were three simple steps I could offer about how to do this part, but I don’t want to minimize the work that goes into cultivating and sustaining a long-term sexual relationship. Instead, I want to point you in the direction of some resources that will help you and your partner work together to overcome your desire discrepancy.
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski - This book will help you understand the ins-and-outs of sexual desire. There are actually different types of sexual desire! Understanding your desire type is crucial to understanding how to meet your partner’s sexual needs.
Rekindling Desire by Barry & Emily McCarthy - This is a comprehensive how-to guide to overcoming desire discrepancy as a couple. There are exercises that you’ll do solo and together, all with the goal of helping you collaborate to create your ideal sexual relationship.
Sex Without Stress by Jessa Zimmerman - This is a new book written by a wonderful Certified Sex Therapist about overcoming the cycles of avoidance, stress, and disappointment that keep many couples stuck in desire discrepancy. She also has online courses you can take in conjunction with her book.
Find a Certified Sex Therapist near you using this directory - Remember, there are many professionals like me all over the country who specialize in helping couples overcome this specific problem. Don’t be afraid to reach out to ask for support - we’d love to help you.
Remember, you are not alone in struggling with desire discrepancy. Almost all long-term couples will struggle with this dilemma at some point in their relationship. The struggle can be complicated, and there are no quick fixes to overcoming sexual distress. But with empathy, compassion, curiosity, and collaboration, I truly believe you will find your way back to each other soon.
Maegan Megginson, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and founder of The Center for Couples & Sex Therapy, is a relationship and sexuality expert who specializes in helping couples in low-to-no sex relationships find their way back to each other through pleasure, eroticism, and deep emotional connection.