Sex drive—or libido—is a person’s level of eagerness for sexual intimacy. A person’s sex drive is influenced by the psychological, physiological, and social aspects of their life experience, such as age, hormones, family attitudes, lifestyle, past sexual experiences, social pressures, health, and many other factors. Each of us is unique, so it’s not uncommon for people in a relationship to have mismatching libidos.
Discrepancies in sex drive between people in an intimate relationship are quite common. It would be challenging to find two people who were always in tune with one another sexually. In fact, some studies suggest that at least one in three couples experience a significant mismatch in libido.
When this happens, neither partner is satisfied. One longs for more sex and physical connection, while the other might feel pressured to have sex when they don’t feel like it or fear they are disappointing their partner. Partners settling into mismatched patterns can create stress and dissatisfaction with what many consider the core of relationship intimacy.
Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, explains that everyone, regardless of gender, is influenced by “accelerators” and “brakes” in their sexuality.
These concepts can help us understand why our sex drives vary so much. When a relationship is new, partners are exhilarated by the novelty and often experience a similar appetite for sex. But after years of partnership or marriage, let alone the challenges of parenting, that eagerness and excitement tend to wear off. If partners don’t recognise the differences between their sex drives early on, most will come to understand their sexual similarities and differences as their relationship continues.
Emily Nagoski explains that most of the time, the sexual desire we experience falls into two categories: spontaneous or responsive.
Responsive desire is a bit different. It needs to be ignited. Something sexy happens and the body responds. Creative foreplay and understanding your partner go a long way toward igniting responsive desire. Many people also need a safe environment to allow themselves to get turned on. The commitment and security of a long-term relationship often play a role here.
So, for example, a person with a more spontaneous libido who is not particularly sensitive to brakes will probably want sex often, but a person with a more responsive desire and sensitive brakes might not be interested in sex for longer periods. If two such people are partnered, they are likely to feel sexually mismatched.
Some people have a low sex drive simply because they are built that way, not because something is killing the mood. Others don’t feel sexual attraction or desire at all and consider themselves asexual. Maybe having sex once a month or even less often is more than enough for you. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. However, if your partner feels differently, it will be important for your relationship to understand and accept each other and find positive ways to fulfil your needs.
So, what if you have sensitive brakes and a slower accelerator? What might be standing in the way of a passionate encounter?
Of course, when you are busy or under pressure at work, burdened with household chores and other commitments, or worried about the kids, it can be difficult to let go of the stress and relax into sexual desire. There may also be times when everything seems just fine, but you still don’t feel like being sexual with your partner. What then? Well, you may still be feeling stress that you aren’t paying attention to. A subconscious stressor might be fear of sexually transmitted disease, an unwanted pregnancy, or shame around sex. When such concerns remain unexamined, they can wrench your love life.
To feel desire for and fully surrender into intimacy with another person, we need to trust that person and feel safe with them. If you are experiencing problems in some other aspect of your relationship, you may not realize that an unrelated conflict is also inhibiting your sexual drive. Unresolved arguments, even something that happened years ago, may still be alive in your subconscious, steering your physical reactions and putting the brakes on your desire.
While the psychology of sexual desire is crucial, physical health is important, too. Think about it this way: Do you even think about sex when you’re sick with fever or in pain? Probably not. We are eager to have sex when we are healthy and feel safe. At the physiological level, when we have sex, our bodies prepare for procreation (even if we aren’t planning to have kids and use protection). If you aren’t in good health, your body will be less proactive about procreation. And not all illnesses are obvious, especially early on. You might not have any clear symptoms, but if you feel your libido is lagging, consider seeing your doctor for a check-up.
Chronic diseases, antidepressants, hormonal contraception, and even antihistamines can lower a person’s sexual appetite. And let’s not forget that certain reproductive life events are well-known to decrease sexual desire. If you are in postpartum recovery, breastfeeding, going through hormone replacement therapy, or menopause, sex won’t be a priority.
Any event that transgresses a person’s intimate boundaries, regardless of the magnitude of that transgression, can impact their sex life. Both mind and body need time to heal from trauma. Even something like having sex with your partner when you aren’t ready can lead to further trouble kindling desire.
Most of us understand the importance of communication for any kind of relationship, but it’s not always easy to start talking about intimate matters, even when your partner is your closest person. Opening up about sexual mismatch can be challenging for both parties. The partner who wants more sex might feel rejected and resentful. The partner who doesn’t want to have sex as often might feel misunderstood, under pressure, or somehow lacking. You can’t be sure what your partner feels without talking to them.
A non-judgement policy is crucial. Both partners must be ready to listen and ready to share. Both are likely struggling with their needs in different ways. Blaming your significant other for having needs and desires that are different from yours won’t solve anything, and neither will pretending not to feel hurt. If you care enough to understand each other’s experiences and accept their point of view, you will be able to move forward together.
Compromise is easier said than done, but if you want the relationship to survive, you have to find a way to make your mismatching sex drives work. Of course, you can’t just force your partner to have sex with you, so usually the person with the higher sex drive feels they are being asked to compromise more.
But compromise doesn’t mean remaining frustrated. A partner who doesn’t get excited about penetration might enjoy flirtation and seduction or sharing other forms of sexual intimacy such as affectionate touch or even mutual masturbation. Some partners find that agreeing to abstain from sex for a while can take the pressure off and help them reset. Some committed couples choose to open their relationship to other sexual partners or find alternative ways to ensure everyone’s needs are met.
When one partner feels it is up to them to initiate sex and the other partner is hardly ever in the mood, it is easy to understand how feelings of stress and rejection can arise. If you and your partner are stuck in a frustrating or unfulfilling pattern, it’s time to look deeper. Are you worried about the future, your work, or other obligations? It might be something that doesn’t seem worth taking seriously, but it’s still there. Or maybe you and your partner have an unresolved conflict you are trying to ignore, but it keeps coming up. Any such issues ought to be addressed. Couples who are able to resolve their differences and support each other when facing challenges are also more likely to find ways to rekindle desire.
Professional help can be beneficial. A professionally trained neutral mediator such as a couples counsellor can help create an environment where both parties feel safe enough to relax their defences, express their worries, and share their needs. A sex therapist can offer insights you may not be aware of, help normalise what you are experiencing, and offer suggestions for improving your sex life together.
At the start of a relationship, when you can’t keep your hands off each other, quality doesn’t usually seem to be an issue. But as things progress, especially for women in heterosexual relationships, quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. Women in long-term relationships are more likely to experience satisfying sex simply because their partners know them, and they feel more comfortable with themselves. When partners respect each other’s needs, feelings of pressure and rejection disappear. You might start seeing sex differently. What do you enjoy? If your partner doesn’t want to give it to you just now, maybe you can give it to yourself. What does your partner enjoy? What if foreplay begins days or weeks in advance with an act of kindness, some thoughtful assistance, a lingering embrace, a delicious meal, a suggestive caress. Intimacy is a dance with your partner, back and forth, through what is to what can be. When you do have sex, make it a mutually satisfying experience that will last in your minds for days.
It’s very rare that two people will experience the same level of desire for sex and intimacy throughout their partnership. Libidos fluctuate for both men and women. So, if you find yourself on one or the other side of the sex drive spectrum, know that it happens to all of us. The magic keys to nurturing any relationship are open communication, curiosity, and patience.
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