Out of Sync: How to handle mismatched libidos

Sex can be hard to talk about. We seem to live in a paradoxical society where sexual imagery and connotation is ever-present and pervasive, and yet for many of us there is also a sense of discomfort, embarrassment, and even shame around this topic. This can start from an early age due to experiences growing up (for example, if sex was treated as a taboo topic), or develop later in life, once we start engaging in sexual interactions. Either way, sex can be an uncomfortable topic for couples at the best of times, and it can be particularly difficult when things aren’t going well.

Many, if not most, of the couples that I see have some issue with their sex life. It many cases, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that the core issue is not to do with sex, per se, but more to do with their emotional connection. If a partner feels disconnected from, hurt by, resentment towards, etc., their partner, this will likely affect their desire* for sex with their partner. Most often, this means less sex (and/or less enjoyable sex), but it can also sometimes mean more frequent sex, if it’s used as a strategy to avoid talking about deeper issues in the relationship (under the disguise of connection and intimacy).

Given this, if your sex life is suffering, it’s worth taking an honest look at the quality of the relationship with your partner: how have you been feeling in the relationship lately? Do you feel connected with your partner? How about respected, supported, and appreciated by them? It’s also important to think about when you started noticing a discrepancy in the interest in sex between you and your partner; has it always been this way in the relationship, or did this happen recently? If the latter is true, have there been any life changes for the two of you recently (e.g. new baby, job change, a death of a family member)? Have you or your partner been under increased stress? Are either of you feeling self-conscious about a change in your body (e.g. weight loss/gain)? Have you lost interest in sex in general, or is it specific to sex with your partner? These questions are important to ask yourselves, and each other, to begin clarifying the issues in your sex life.

So sometimes, the issues in a couple’s sex life are more symptomatic than causal, and in working on and improving the emotional connection with each other, the sexual side of the relationship will likely improve in turn. However, it can also be the case that two people have a genuine difference in their interest in sex that is largely unrelated to the quality of the relationship. This can be a tricky topic to navigate, and without intervention it can be very detrimental to the relationship.

So what can you do? One of the most effective ways of working on this would likely be with a couples therapist who has some training in sex therapy. However, here are some things to think about and strategies to try at home:

1. Give yourself a number

For the record, the vast majority of couples will have some discrepancy in their libidos, especially long-term couples past the “honeymoon stage”. It’s very unlikely that two people will be so perfectly matched that they will never, ever, have a difference in their desire for sex. However, if this discrepancy persists over time, it can start to cause problems, such as dissatisfaction, hurt feelings, and resentment.

One of the most simple, but effective, ways to start to make sense of this with your partner is to assign yourself a ‘sex number’ (as described by Dr. Seth Meyers here). Basically, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself in terms of sexuality and interest in sex? How does your partner rate themselves? If there is a big difference between these two numbers, we can use this information to start to make sense of the patterns that have developed; such as, “Of course, I initiate sex more often – I’m an 8, and they’re a 3!”. By giving yourself a number, and knowing your partner’s, you can start to see things a bit more objectively, and this can be really helpful in preventing the mind-reading that can often occur: for example, assuming your partner isn’t initiating because of their lack of interest in you specifically, or, that your partner is persistently trying to initiate with you because all they care about is sex. It may be worth noting here that while stereotypically we might assume that the man in a (heterosexual) couple would always have the higher number, this is not the case; in many instances, it is the woman who is initiating more, and the man who has less interest in sex.

Another thing to keep in mind: there is a tendency for people, including health professionals, to assume that the person with the lower sex drive is the “problem” in the relationship, and that if you have a libido on the lower end of the scale, that there is something to be “fixed”. This is in part due to the culture that we live in, as there tends to be an implicit assumption that you should want to have sex often (whatever that means), or there is something wrong with you. And sometimes, there might be something going on, medically or psychologically, that is lowering your sex drive and addressing this might be warranted. But do your best to not subscribe to the mentality that a higher sex drive is necessarily a healthier sex drive. What constitutes a “normal” sex drive is relative; if two ‘1s’ are together, then their sex life will likely be perfectly acceptable for both of them, even if that means very infrequent sex.

2. Empathize with each other

Determining your ‘sex number’ can be a really helpful first step to understanding how your partner thinks about and values sexual intimacy in the relationship. In doing this, you can also try to introduce some empathy for each other; meaning, imagine how it might feel to be the other partner in the relationship. Imagine switching roles with each other: “What would it be like to be said ‘no’ to most times I try to initiate sex… can I imagine that I might feel rejected? Or, “What would it feel like to always have to say ‘no’ to someone… would I maybe feel not heard, or disrespected?”. Keep in mind that the goal is not to determine who is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, or whose behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it’s simply about trying to more fully understand your partner’s experience in the relationship. This can lay the groundwork for more compassion, honesty, and ultimately problem-solving.

3. Redefine successful sex

For many couples (particularly heterosexual couples), ‘sex’ is synonymous with ‘intercourse’, and a successful sexual experience means both partners orgasm. If a sexual interaction between you and your partner doesn’t fall within these narrow parameters, it’s easy to feel let down, like a failure, and inadequate. This can lead to anxiety about your sexual performance, especially if you, or your partner, are unable to achieve orgasm (even that wording, sexual “performance” and “achieving” orgasm, exemplifies how we tend to view sex as a means to an end). But the fact is, what makes sex enjoyable between two people is often way more to do with intimacy than it is to do with physical gratification. Given this, it’s important to expand the definition of what successful sex means in your relationship, and this is particularly true for couples that have a discrepancy in their interest in sex. As Dr. Carol Rinkleib Ellison describes, “Intercourse and orgasms are choices, not requirements, for successful lovemaking.” (Sexual Choreography, p. 143).

Try discussing what other intimate activities you can include in your sexual repertoire, so when one of you is not up for ‘sex’ (read: intercourse), you can still perhaps engage in an activity that brings intimacy, closeness, and perhaps sexual arousal as well. This might mean cuddling, massages, showering together, etc., or even sexual activities other than intercourse, such as mutual masturbation or oral sex. Of course, having these conversations means that sex won’t always look like it does in the movies: where both people are so overcome with passion that with absolutely no discussion, they seem to know exactly what the other person wants (and in the movies, this often means having intercourse within 30 seconds of starting). In real life, sex doesn’t have to be any less romantic if you talk about it ahead of time; in fact, in can really increase intimacy and closeness between two people to be able to have frank, honest conversations about sex.

Improving your sex life

4. Quantity vs. quality

In addition to considering the frequency of sex with your partner, it is worth thinking about how enjoyable you find your sexual interactions. We often assume that just because we’ve had sex and an orgasm that the experience was fulfilling and satisfying, but that’s certainly not always the case. Reflect on the typical, recent sexual interactions with your partner: Did you enjoy the positions? The time of day? Was there any discomfort or pain? Would you have liked the duration to be longer or shorter? Did you feel present, or rushed or distracted? Were there fantasies or turn-ons that were incorporated into the experience? Etc., etc. If the sexual experience with your partner is lacking for you, then it’s unlikely you’ll be looking to hop in the sack at every opportunity.

This is another important conversation to have with your partner (you might have noticed that’s a bit of a theme here). Ask yourselves and each other, “what makes sex worth having?”, and go from there. Talking openly and candidly about likes, dislikes, preferences, boundaries, etc. is critical for both partners to feel fulfilled by the sexual experience. It can also lead to revelatory conversations, which can add some interest and novelty to your sex life.

5. Schedule sex

I’ve saved what is probably considered the least sexy suggestion until the end: scheduling sex. In my experience, scheduling sex tends to be a controversial issue. There is a huge emphasis put on spontaneous sex, to the point that I’ve heard people say that if you have to schedule sex, then you might as well give up now. As discussed earlier, this is largely contributed to by what we see in fictionalized relationships: two people locking eyes, and suddenly in perfect unison they fall into what appears to be the most satisfying sex of their lives. In real life, things don’t typically go this way; whether it’s because there are a million and one life stressors that get in the way, or because two people have very different libidos and their feeling ‘in the mood’ doesn’t often overlap.

When you think about it, you probably started out scheduling sex without even realizing it: for example, when you didn’t live together, you’d have to plan dates, and since these dates likely included sex, you were de facto scheduling sex! There may have also been some anticipation or excitement about the prospect of being intimate, which probably influenced how you behaved towards each other, and this probably enhanced the experience. So, was the sex really as spontaneous as it seemed? As Dr. Ellison puts it, “…spontaneity actually is the outcome of a series of incremental steps in which one thing leads to another.” (Sexual Choreography, p. 151).

So, scheduling sex doesn’t have to be a bad thing: it can actually add some anticipation throughout the day, which can be a turn-on for a lot of people (the adage ‘foreplay begins when you get up in the morning’ rings true here). And best of all, it can help in avoiding the cycle of hurt, guilt, and resentment that can often develop for couples with mismatched libidos.

Ultimately, the best way to approach any issue in your relationship, mismatched libidos included, is to do so in an open, honest, empathetic way, that will give both of you a chance to feel heard, understood, and validated. If you are struggling to have this conversation with your partner, couples therapy may be a good avenue to explore.

*For the purposed of this article, I use the terms (sexual) desire, drive, interest, and libido mostly interchangeably. There can be some distinctions between these terms, particularly in sex therapy research and practice, however discussing these differences is beyond the scope of this article.

References and links

Rinkleib Ellison, C. (2012). Sexual Choreography. In P. J. Kleinplatz (Ed.), New Directions in Sex Therapy, 2nd Edition (pp. 141-160). New York, NY: Routledge.