EROTIC MAGAZINE FOR WOMEN AND COUPLES » Sex Articles » Navigating mismatched libidos in a long-term relationship

At the beginning of the relationship, sex is often intense and abundant. People engage in sexual activities that might not be their favourite in an effort to please new partners. As a result, it can be really difficult to tell just how compatible you are within the first six months of the relationship. During this honeymoon period, people don’t usually complain about mismatched libidos.

What is a mismatch in libido?

Between six months and two years, couples tend to move into their long-term relationship pattern. It is at this point, that a mismatch can become more apparent. What is a mismatched in libido? Simply, it is when one person desires sex more often than the other. When couples experience a discrepancy in desire, partners may look at other couples and imagine them as having amazing, active sex lives and see themselves as the only couple that is not. This could not be further from the truth. A study conducted by Dr Amy Muise in 2015 noted that in a 30 day period, 80% of couples reported at least one incident where one partner wanted sex and the other didn’t.

How to deal with mismatched libidos?

A myth suggests it is women who desire sex less often, but in my practice, as with many other therapists I know, at least half the time it is the men who desire sex less often. To start looking at mismatched libidos, Cyndi Darnell invites her readers to explore the meaning of pleasure as a starting point for examining desire and then to explore (and uncouple) the meaning of desire and love.

Desire is not as straightforward as you might think. Desire can be spontaneous, e.g. without a particular stimulus. It can be responsive, e.g. in response to mental or physical stimuli. Desire often has a tension inherent in it that is related to the excitement of wanting without knowing if we will get it and, if we do get it, without knowing how long we will have.

At the beginning of the relationship, the unknown, the mystery adds fuel to excitement and motivation to desire. We want to know all there is to know about our partner. Once we get past this phase, there appears to be no more left to learn. At this point, our sex can become perfunctory. We have traded security and a new level of intimacy for the excitement.

Mismatched libidos is one of the most commonly reported issues in relationships lasting more than three years. For some couples, libido has always been mismatched and for other couples the problem arises during the course of their relationship as levels of desire change. There are a variety of responses people have to a mismatch in desire. Some couples simply move into a relationship phase where they do not have sex as frequently or at all. In some couples, the person who wants sex more often seeks out others to have sex with—either with consent or by having an affair. Some couples go for therapy with a view to working out what is happening and finding a solution.

Why does our sexual desire decrease?

Reasons for decreased sexual desire are varied. One myth is that desire should be natural and a corollary of that is if you love your partner you will desire them. Desire is influenced by a variety of physical factors, including fluctuations and balance in hormones, physical health and also a variety of psychological factors such as self-acceptance, feelings towards a partner, mental energy, and vulnerability. Desire is also influenced by the perceived attractiveness (physical, emotional, social behavioural) of the partner.

Most people think that desire is necessary for great sex but this is not true. Sometimes, physical arousal can come before wanting. There are hormonal issues that can cause a loss of libido but when people affected by these engage in activities that produce physical arousal, the resulting sex is great. In this case, the desire follows the physical arousal instead of preceding it. There are a wide variety of medications that negatively impact libido. With clients who are taking these, I often suggest starting some sexy activities and seeing if they want to continue. It is important to tell your partner if you are going to do this and to let them know that you might want to say stop if you are not enjoying yourself. However, often just starting physical stimulation will bring enjoyment and then the motivation to continue.

Another reason for people struggling with initiating sex is the expectation that sex needs to be ‘spontaneous’ in order for it to be ‘good’ or ‘real’. These people will often talk about the beginning of their relationship where they were having sex all the time, in odd places and they could not keep their hands off each other. After the honeymoon phase, spontaneity often becomes extremely difficult as people settle into daily life routines. Relationships become more complicated as well as people sometimes decide to move in together, get married or even have children. People interpret the lack of spontaneity as a partner being less interested or finding them less attractive. This makes approaching a partner for physical intimacy even more difficult.

Finally, a negative cycle can begin where one partner refuses sex and this is perceived as a personal rejection by the other partner so they refuse sex when their partner requests it. This cycle can become very difficult to break. Often when desire is out of sync, physically affection also decreases which adds to the couple feeling more distant from each other.

Frequently the partners will still engage in solo sex and use pornography and erotica as turn-ons. This can be misinterpreted as well with a partner becoming angry because mutual pleasure is being refused and the assumption is that the refusal is personal. Solo sex, including the use of erotica does not indicate sex drive as it is often being used for stress relief or as a sleep aid.

How to talk about a mismatched libidos?

To navigate when desire is out of sync, the first thing to address is how you communicate with each other about sex and intimacy. If you are having communication issues, this often has a strongly negative impact upon sex. If you are not expressing your feelings, especially feelings of anger or resentment, this often leads to a lack of desire.

Most couples go through periods where sex decreases in frequency and also sometimes in importance. If this is one of those periods, increasing communication around expectations, needs, wants and feelings can be enough to work through any issues and help partners to get what they need.

As I said earlier, a negative cycle can develop when one person is responsible for requesting or initiating sexual activity and there are repeated rejections. To turn this type of situation around, exploring consent in more detail as it relates to touch is helpful. Dr Betty Martin created the Wheel of Consent. There are two axes to look at: doing to or done to and giving and receiving. This highlights that the person doing the touch may not be the person doing the giving and the person who is receiving the touch may not be the person who is being pleasured. We are invited to look at who is doing it and who it is for. For example, I might give a partner oral sex in the hopes of getting them to give me oral sex rather than because they have asked me to do so. Looking at consent on a deeper level can help us to bridge the gap in our actions and intentions leading to at least understanding a mismatch in libido if not to solutions to begin to bring us closer together. Learning to engage in this way takes practice and Betty Martin provides some easy exercises on her website and in the book.

If you have been experiencing desire out of sync with your partner for some time and are finding it difficult to engage physically without fear of conflict or rejection, I recommend spending focused time together in activities that are non-contentious. Being present with each other will decrease distance. This can be a time to introduce light physical affection that is non-contentious.

How to talk about mismatched libidos

If you have been struggling with these issues for a long time and you have tried to talk them through on your own but only ended up talking in circles, this is the time to get some professional help. Working with a therapist or coach will help you to communicate effectively, clearly identify the contributing factors and learn effective emotional and communication skills.

Desire, libido and pleasure are complex layered responses within each individual. Adding another person’s complex patterns and expecting everything to magically be in sync and stay that way forever is unrealistic. Expecting that at times things will be in sync effortlessly and at other times, you will have to work to understand your own patterns and the pattern you create together is far more likely to bring about intimacy that is hot, exciting and frequent enough to meet both your needs.

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