How to deal when your partner wants it more or less than you.
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One person is distressed over not having enough sex. They initiate but feel rejected constantly. The other is overwhelmed and feeling nagged; making sex less appealing.
Neither person is broken, dysfunctional, or abnormal.
Our broader cultural narrative assumes that desire should be spontaneous. But this is untrue of the human condition. Remember, variability is the norm.
When it comes to sexual desire, we can experience different desire styles.
Some people experience arousal, and sexual desire follows shortly after. They are spontaneously interested in sex. This is called spontaneous desire, and occurs for around 75% of men, and 15% of women.
These people are the type to think, “I’m hungry, I’m going to eat pretty much whatever, right now!”
For other people, sexual desire isn’t immediate, it requires erotic stimuli and affection. This is called responsive desire, and it occurs for around 30% of women, and 5% of men.
Responsive people will think, “Yeah I could eat, but what’s on the menu?” And after describing the options, they think “now I’m hungry!”
And then we have almost half of women and a small group of men that experience a combination of both. In some circumstances they feel spontaneous desire, and in others they experience responsive. For these people, it is context-dependent.
When I’m working with couples who complain of desire discrepancy, there are several ways we aim to manage it.
Firstly, I will educate them on the above desire styles. And encourage them to see it much like personality traits of introversion, and extroversion.
These are characteristics of people that can be influenced, sure, but are otherwise permanent. And one is not better than the other.
In this stage of understanding desire, the couple is encouraged not to pressure the other to change. But instead, to be receptive to ideas.
Secondly, I will review exactly how people are initiating affection or sex. Usually there’s a routine from the spontaneous partner that triggers the responsive partner to think “oh crap, they want sex and I’m not in mood, better shut this down fast.”
We will identify how one partner is initiating too broadly, while the other is making assumptions of what is about to occur.
Thirdly, the couple establishes initiation behaviours that both feel safe and comfortable with. This requires communicating what does, and does not contribute to building a sexy context for desire to grow.
At first, many couples prefer to establish clear boundaries; “when I initiate a kiss, I’ll ask to feel you up. But I want you to know I will stop there. I am not expecting sex when I kiss you.”
This helps to reduce anxiety about the initiation, and make it less of a chore and opportunity for rejection.
Lastly, all parties agree to go slow, and commit to the boundaries established.
Identify your desire style, and share your observation with your partner. Discuss how these are intrinsic traits, and how they’re all natural. If they don’t believe you, show them this article.
No matter what desire style you have, it’s worthwhile learning about the sexy contexts that help your desire grow. You can do that through this worksheet from Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are.
Stress is the number one desire killer. If you’re struggling to feel aroused, or experience desire at all, I recommend checking in with your stress levels. Consider the external stressors (work, household, relationship, family, health, finances, socio-cultural pressures), and internal stressors (self-criticism, body image concerns).
If you’re the hornbag in the relationship always initiating - stop nagging for sex. You’re making it a stressor which is shutting down your partners desire.
Ease into intimacy with small and achievable behaviours like a massage, or a make out session. Manage your partners expectations by reminding them it isn’t going to lead to sex.
If you’re the overwhelmed partner rejecting initiations - start to think of alternatives that feel comfortable. Like a massage/make out/shower together/mutual masturbation. Every initiation doesn’t have to lead to sex, you can define what it looks like.
If you’re arguing about sex, sex is unlikely to be the issue. Check in with each other emotionally. Emotional connection can be a hell of an aphrodisiac! If you get stuck here, consider couples therapy for more support.
Desire can be a tricky space to navigate, but this is a great place to start improving your communication around your sexual relationship. It’s important to be patient with the process, and work together as a team.
As always, if you’re feeling stuck it’s great to seek support from a sex-positive couples therapist for support.