Help for Couples’ Number One Sex Problem
One partner wants sex more often than the other. If you’ve been involved in a relationship for more than a year or so, it’s virtually certain you’ve struggled with this issue. In surveys, long-term couples call desire differences their number one cause of sexual conflict.
After relationships’ initial hot-and-heavy period, desire usually moderates—for some, a little, for others, a lot. If both partners’ libidos subside identically, there’s no problem. But everyone is sexually unique. In most couples, desire differences eventually appear and often become challenging, even toxic. There’s no sure cure. Sex therapy usually helps, but not always.
This post discusses the conventional wisdom about desire differences and the approach most sex therapists advocate to resolve them. Part II, scheduled for posting May 15, summarizes a novel approach developed recently by Canadian researchers—eight weeks of group therapy. In a study of 45 couples, it produced significant benefits.
“You’re Insatiable!” “You Never Want To!”
Desire differences resonate with several myths about sexual relationships:
- “Men want sex more often than women.” This is often the case. But when couples consult sex therapists about this issue, in one-third to half of cases, the one who wants more frequent sex is the woman. For an intimate, entertaining view of this situation, see the film Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.
- Desire differences are inevitable. With no intervention, they’re almost inevitable, but couples who embrace the steps below can usually reach a mutual accommodation on sexual frequency.
- “Something is wrong with somebody.” Some sexologists pathologize those who want less sex as having “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” or call those who want more sex “hypersexual.” In fact, there’s usually nothing wrong with either partner. In most cases, the two lovers simply have different erotic needs. Desire differences are not pathological. The labels are cruel. Everyone is sexually unique. When two sexually unique individuals become a couple, desire differences are quite likely—and normal.
- “Desire differences signal relationship turmoil.” Possibly, but many couples who spar over sexual frequency enjoy otherwise happy, functional relationships.
- “The lower-desire partner needs treatment.” The pharmaceutical industry certainly thinks so. Ever since 1998, when Viagra was approved, drug companies’ Holy Grail has been a pill to tweak the libidos of low-desire women. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first one, flibanserin (Addyi). Alas, it doesn’t do much. One pooled analysis of many studies (a meta-analysis) showed no significant benefit. Another showed that flibanserin stimulates one additional bedroom romp every eight weeks, six more a year—statistically significant, but in reality, insufficient for many couples plagued by chronic desire differences. If you want to try it, feel free. It might help. But flibanserin pathologizes low-desire women. In my humble opinion, that’s unfair, and bad for relationships. People have every right to their libidos, whatever they may be.
Finally, desire differences impact not only couples’ sex lives, but also their relationships out of bed, particularly in the important realm of everyday non-sexual affection: kissing, hugging, and cuddling while watching television. The higher-desire partner constantly takes the initiative, hoping to get lucky. Meanwhile, the lower-desire partner shuns non-sexual affection for fear of giving the wrong impression.
One Strategy That Often Helps
Over the past 50 years, sex therapists have developed a program that helps many—but not all—couples resolve their desire differences. Some couples can implement the program themselves. Others need help from sex therapists. Its elements:
- Let go of the idea that sex should happen spontaneously. Sex happens spontaneously only during the initial hot-and-heavy period when new lovers can’t keep their hands off each other. As initial lust yields to an established relationship, spontaneity usually fades. Insisting on spontaneity means many couples remain stuck with chronic desire differences.
- Let go of the idea that sex happens when both partners are in the mood. The myth is that desire—being in the mood—is the cause of sex. Actually, for many people, desire is not the cause of sex, but its result. Over the past 20 years, a robust literature has shown that, as lovemaking begins, many people in established relationships feel sexually neutral. But if they enjoy touching and being touched, they heat up and eventually experience desire. Insisting on desire before sex means many couples remain stuck with chronic desire differences.
- Negotiate a frequency you can both live with more or less comfortably. It’s not easy, especially for those with chronic, toxic desire differences who have grown to resent one another. Still, try to come up with a compromise frequency that works for your relationship. You won’t get exactly what you want, but that’s the nature of mutual accommodation. Note: Desired sexual frequencies vary tremendously from never to daily or more. There is no “normal” frequency, just what works for you. However, as a general frame of reference, for couples under 40, the most typical frequency is around once a week, for couples over 40, two to three times a month. Start from there, and come up with a frequency that works for you and your partner. No frequency is set in stone. Try one for a few months, and then, if necessary, reopen negotiations.
- Schedule sex dates in advance and calendar them. Sex therapists almost universally recommend this. It immediately ends the bickering. The greater-desire partner knows exactly when sex will happen, and can relax and stop groveling. The lower-desire partner knows sex will happen only when scheduled, and can stop declining constant advances and feeling beleaguered.
- “But what if we have a sex date and I’m not in the mood?” If you’re ill, or there’s some emergency, or you feel you can’t be sexual for any other reason, ask to reschedule. But otherwise, remember that for many people, desire is not the cause of sex, but the result of enjoyable lovemaking. Note to the less libidinous partner: Stick to your schedule. Start slow. Kiss, hug, cuddle, fool around. Let one thing lead to another. By the time clothing falls to the floor, chances are you’ll be into continuing.
- Accept your schedule graciously. At first, scheduling feels awkward. Try to see the glass as half full. Avoid snide remarks about the huge sacrifice you’ve made. Your partner already knows—and has made a similar sacrifice. Scheduling offers two big pay-offs: it usually ends the recriminations and resentments that chronic desire differences cause, and it invites non-sexual affection to return to the relationship. Once you schedule sex, affectionate touch loses its sexual charge. Both of you can initiate and accept affection secure in the knowledge that all you’re doing is sharing kisses and hugs. That’s usually a relief. Studies show that non-sexual physical affection is a major boon to relationships. Note to the more libidinous partner: Don’t misinterpret spontaneous affection as a sexual invitation. Stick to your schedule.
- Work to restore goodwill. When lovers experience chronic conflict, they typically think the other person should be nicer and more cooperative. But you don’t control your partner. You only control yourself. If you want to restore relationship harmony, make every effort to be nicer and more cooperative yourself. Perform at least one spontaneous act of loving kindness a day.
- Savor your solution. When couples negotiate mutually acceptable frequencies and schedule sex dates, at first, both feel wary. That’s to be expected. Goodwill has eroded. Trust has been damaged. And both people may focus more on what they’ve given up than gained. But over time, assuming you both honor your agreement, tensions subside. You still have a desire difference, but its sting fades, and your relationship—and lovemaking—improves. Over time, you both realize you’ve accomplished something important. Congratulations.
- If self-help doesn’t work. If self-help doesn’t resolve things, consider sex therapy. Desire differences are one of the leading reasons couples seek professional help, so most therapists have substantial experience helping couples overcome them.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.