Humans are unique in that they attach meaning to sexuality. We’ve seen that sexuality affects couples physically, emotionally, relationally, and psychologically. As a sex therapist and licensed professional counselor, I frequently see couples who are in crisis because their sex life has fallen apart.
This has been the case for years, but the pandemic has brought this conflict to a new level. My office has been busier than ever as couples in quarantine discover that their sex life is in trouble. The most common presenting conflict I see in my practice involves a sexual desire discrepancy—one partner has a higher sex drive than the other.
The Lack of Education About Sexual Desire Discrepancy
If you work with couples, you’ve probably seen the painful conflicts that can develop when one partner just doesn’t want to have sex. I’ve seen this first-hand in my practice, but it took some time for me to figure out how to best address it.
My background originally was in systems theory and women’s issues. And after attending graduate school, I found myself working with couples and families in counseling. Most graduate programs—including mine—only offered one class on sexuality. That one class tries to cover as wide a range of information in the shortest amount of time possible. That’s largely been the experience for aspiring practitioners. It’s quite rare to find classes that adequately address how to work specifically with sexual desire discrepancy.
Historically, the treatment approaches to sexuality have defined low sexual desire as an internal process. What this approach fails to account for is the complexity of sex as a social construct. I decided that this approach wasn’t working for the families I was seeing, so I went back to the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) to dive deeper into the research on sex and sexuality—and became a certified sex therapist.
After years of working with couples, I’ve noticed a pattern of conflicts around sexual desire. As clinicians, we often feel stuck when our clients start fighting about sex in our sessions. We want to respect the needs of both the high-desire and the low-desire partner. We want to help them come to a resolution that meets both their needs. When their needs seem so disparate from each other, that can feel tricky.
Addressing Sexual Desire Discrepancy Head-On
In this sexual desire discrepancy conflict, there are a lot of dynamics at play. However, the crux of the issue comes from a general lack of understanding of how sexuality works across different genders and individuals. As a society, we need to develop non-judgemental curiosity about our partner’s sexuality—and our own.
Often, sexual desire does in fact exist in the lower-desire partner, and it just needs to be discovered for its unique nature. The harder we try to force desire to be something, the further away we get from finding out what it really is.
I often ask my clients, “Do you want your partner to have sex more often? Or do you want them to be interested in having sex more often?” Doing it and being interested in it are two different things. Most of the time, my clients recognize that the high-desire partner isn’t looking for duty sex, but rather just want to feel wanted and desired. They want to connect emotionally, not just mechanically.
Sexual interest develops when positive feelings toward a partner create a desire to connect. Intimacy reduces separation and increases feelings of togetherness, both physically and emotionally. In a healthy relationship, we respect our partner’s autonomy while still enjoying an intimate connection. A high-desire partner may be looking for sex for more than just intimacy. Sex may be an effort to manage emotional experiences—such as to lower stress levels, improve self-esteem, or validate an identity.
Identifying the Dance Between Partners
A distancer-pursuer dynamic develops as the high-desire partner (the pursuer) wants more attention and the lower-desire partner (the distancer) seeks more autonomy. In this dance, the distancer’s sexual desire diminishes under the demands of the pursuer. The low-desire partner focuses on meeting their partner’s needs, instead of their own internal feeling of pleasure. Sex becomes work instead of play, an obligation to someone else’s sexual demand—another item on a to-do list.
However, as the higher-desire partner grows lonelier, their need for togetherness only increases. At the same time, the lower-desire partner continues to distance themselves. Low sexual desire is often a push for more distance in a relationship, while higher desire is often a pull for more togetherness.
The more the higher-desire partner needs sex to feel secure, the more they’ll demand it. However, the high-desire partner will be missing the acceptance they crave, as they’ll feel that their lower-desire partner has just accommodated them. As a result, the higher-desire partner will continue to crave closeness and the feeling of being wanted, and the conflict continues.
The Role of Counseling
To stop this dance, the couple needs to develop acceptance and empathy for each partner. The high-desire partner may need to learn to self-regulate some of their anxiety and need for acceptance. The low-desire partner may need to set boundaries, while still accepting their partner’s need for connection.
The low-desire partner may also need to learn to tap into their physical and emotional experiences in the moment. They must learn to express their needs, and should also spend some time discovering their unique sexual interests—and then share them with their partner.
With counseling, a couple can start to accept their partner and learn to improve their listening. Instead of trying to persuade their partner to come around to their own point of view, they can start to form a new understanding.
The general outlook on sex in relationships is changing—it’s no longer viewed as an obligation in married life—but people still want to understand the driving forces behind sexual desire in themseslves and their partners. If and when this lands them in your therapy room, having a deeper understanding of sexual desire discrepancy will help you offer them the best care possible.
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