Michelle Herzog is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist based out of Chicago. She is the owner of the Center for Mindful Living, a private practice specializing in relationship and sex therapy. We are delighted to share her post on desire discrepancy and communication.
One of the most common sexual issues couples experience is desire discrepancy. And when I say common, I mean almost ALL couples experience this issue at one point (or multiple) throughout the course of their relationship!
So, what is desire discrepancy? In a nutshell, it means that one partner wants to have sex more than the other. What are the causes of desire discrepancy and why is it so common? Let’s break it down.
There is always a low desire partner and a high desire partner (Schnarch, 2010). You are two different people, which means your sexual desires will not be in sync 100% of the time. The low desire partner is the deciding factor as to whether or not sex is going to happen. The feeling of not having control can deeply frustrate the high desire partner, especially if they experience rejection repeatedly. For the low desire partner, pressure to perform can be a big issue, and may contribute to a lack of motivation to have sex. Do you see the pattern emerging? Further, because we are rarely educated about effective partner communication, let alone sexual communication, couples can get into some deeply hurtful arguments, leaving both partners feeling lonely, sad and confused.
Here’s the reality. Mismatched desires can stem from a number of emotional, psychological or physical issues in a relationship. And reasons for mismatched desires will vary by couple. An important factor to consider, and something I tell clients every day, is “context matters!” (We can thank the brilliant Emily Nagoski, PhD for writing an entire chapter in her book, Come As You Are, just on this topic).
What does context mean, you ask? It means that when intimacy is initiated (usually by the high desire partner), the environment, mood, energy level, to-do list floating in one’s mind (I can keep going) all matter! Are the kids in bed? Did the trash get taken out? Am I still pissed at you from our fight yesterday? See what I mean? All of these elements are context that matter when it comes to shutting off certain distractions and focusing on intimacy and getting physical.
What’s a couple to do? If efforts to communicate about this issue have not helped, considering an investment in sex and relationship therapy is a great start. Especially if you are both feeling confused about how to handle such a sensitive topic. We, sex therapists, know a thing or two about desire discrepant couples. We understand that barriers to intimacy are real and need to be handled effectively with empathy and understanding. Integrating intimacy-building interventions (both emotional and physical) are staples of this process. And while being caught in a relational dynamic that’s impacting the quality of your sex life can be frustrating, it’s absolutely possible to improve your sexual dynamic, if both partners are willing to show up, look at their contributions to the problem, and make appropriate changes.
Schnarch, D. M. (2010). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your marriage. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York: Simon & Schuster.