Have you seen that hit romantic movie where the couple locks eyes across the room, the music swells, they’re in each other’s arms… and then one of them says, “Sorry, I’m just not feeling it right now.”
“Oh,” says the other one. “That’s totally fine, I know you’ve had a stressful week at work. Do you want to talk about it, or would you rather spend some intimate time cuddling and watching a movie?”
… yeah, me neither.
This is probably why sex therapists aren’t Hollywood screenwriters. It is hard to understand what one person wants.
The fact is, we’ve all been conditioned to think that romance must be fiery, passionate, and spontaneous to be sexy and fulfilling. But anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship knows that between partners, sex drives simply don’t always match perfectly. In fact, they rarely do. No matter if it’s between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a women and a women, it can happen to all of us.
What to do when you and your partner have mismatched libidos?
Managing mismatched sex drives is important, and studies prove it. In 2015, a data analysis of six different sex studies came to the conclusion that 39% of men and 27% of women say they’d leave a relationship if their libido didn’t match their partner’s. If one person wants one thing while the other might not feel the same.
The good news is there are ways to manage mismatched sex drives and save relationships before unequal libidos become a deal-breaker.
What can cause mismatched sex drives?
In order to understand what we can do to solve the issue of mismatched sex drives, it’s important to identify and understand the potential causes.
The most fundamental thing to understand: there’s no right level of sexual interest. Despite societal hoo-rah around virile manhood, libido is personal, flexible, and most importantly: never wrong. People are individuals and have their own needs and desires.
Just like who you’re attracted to, when and how much are also up to you to determine, without pressure or shame. Thankfully, there’s been increased awareness recently around different sexualities, including asexuality and the demi-gray spectrum.
Life circumstances can also have a huge impact on sexual interest. Any of the following can reduce libido in both males and females:
- Sleep problems or disorders
- Depression and anxiety
- Hormonal imbalances
- Erectile dysfunction
- Physical injuries
- Body image/Eating disorders
- Drug or alcohol use
- Shame around sexual desires or sexuality
- Relationship dissatisfaction
And how many of these are influenced directly by your partner? That’s right: only the last one. So it’s important to identify root causes and talk it out before self-consciousness and resentment take hold.
What happens when libidos and sex drives don’t match up
In a relationship, you’ll usually have one partner with a higher sex drive, and one with less interest. But here’s the catch: that’s only a problem if it’s a problem. Mismatched sex drives become an issue when that discrepancy is having a negative impact on your relationship and well-being.
For a couple with widely varying libidos, it might devolve like this.
One lover has a high libido. Their top love language is physical touch, and they love when that physical touch leads to acts of sexual intimacy. They feel spontaneously horny a couple times throughout a normal day, and in an ideal world this would always lead to sex.
The other partner has a lower libido. They find their partner attractive, but due to a stressful work life, they’re distracted and rarely aroused. Their top love language is quality time, and they value partnership that provides good conversation and emotional intimacy.
Partner A is either shut down when initiating sex, or can tell Partner B is usually not in the mood. Partner A ends up feeling guilty or ashamed that they're adding extra pressure to Partner B’s life. They also grapple with feelings of rejection, frustration, and questioning their own attractiveness and self-esteem. They may feel that Partner B is not meeting their basic priorities in the relationship, but worry that caring about sex is somehow shallow.
Partner B ends up feeling pressured when Partner A initiates sex. They would rather spend their limited time away from work decompressing, and Partner A’s higher libido makes them feel like they’re only a sex object. They may feel broken, guilty, or not up to society’s standards of virility. They may also feel pressured when sex is initiated, and not end up enjoying the experience.
It’s easy to see how things can devolve from here.
What’s the solution when your libidos don’t match?
Working through mismatched sex drives is delicate… but never impossible. Like all other parts of a healthy relationship, it simply takes communication and compromise.
In the above scenario, there was no mention of how the partners were communicating about this discrepancy. Does Partner A know how stressed out Partner B is at work? Does Partner B know that Partner A values them for more than their body and sexuality? And are they actively trying to solve it?
The foundational rules for solving mismatched libidos are:
- Be honest with one another. Trust yourself and your partner.
- Both partners need to be willing to compromise. You can’t do it alone.
- Finding a solution is about nurturing the relationship, not one partner’s libido.
- Both partners need to be equally invested in a solution.
Step #1 - Figure out what you both need
Resentment comes from unfulfilled, unspoken expectations. Being brutally honest about your desires and needs, no matter how embarrassing that may feel, is the start of a solution, it is very helpful. This can also help introduce new levels of sexual pleasure into the relationship.
One helpful technique is to give yourself a number. Rate your sexual interest on a scale from one to ten and share with your partner. If there is a huge discrepancy in these numbers… ding ding ding. That’s the start of an important conversation.
Be honest about what kind of intimacy you’re hoping to have as well. Frequency is one thing, but different levels of sexual engagement can mean different things to partners. How kinky do you want to be? Do you want to have more sex? Is there something new you want to explore sexually?
Step #2: Figure out what worked in the past
Finding ways to connect intimately may not always involve sex, but looking at times when you were super in the mood in the past is a great starting point.
Mind blowing sex on vacation? Look at the root cause. Maybe it was the lack of stress. Maybe it was the exotic situation. The lower-libido partner is rarely rejecting their partner, but the circumstances. So figure out what circumstances you can recreate, or what barriers you can eliminate.
Step #3: Set the mood
Once you’ve had those first all-important conversations, you may find that Partner B simply has a flightier libido that Partner A. Maybe they’re in the mood, but it gets knocked aside as soon as they get a text from work. Maybe they’re willing to have sex, but since they’re not feeling spontaneously horny they need more extended foreplay.
Setting a mood where sexual intimacy is a possibility, but not an expectation, can be a flirty, fun way to reignite passion. Foreplay should be an all-day activity. The mind is the most powerful aphrodisiac of all, and creating a mood of sexuality, though fun texts, date nights, massages etc. is not only good for leading to sex, but just baseline positive for a healthy relationship.
Step #4: Be flexible
After conversation one and two take place, you may find that different types of sexual intimacy can still be fulfilling to both partners. Sex doesn’t always have to mean penetration: it’s about fulfilling a need for intimate connection. So if one partner is feeling it and the other isn’t, masturbation (with help) can be a great compromise.
If there’s resentment built up, it’s important to cultivate a low-pressure environment where the expectation is that you are both trying to honestly connect to one another. If you’re not feeling it tonight, be honest about why. If you’re super horny, share that fact without pressure. Take responsibility for your own feelings.
Compromise means that both parties can find a mutually agreeable middle ground, most of the time. Sounds like a relationship to me.
Step #5: Schedule
It’s not the sexiest solution, but it works. Though spontaneity is often seen as the root of true passion, anyone in a long-term relationship knows this is not always reasonable.
Scheduling intimacy shows that it is a priority for both partners. It also allows for that extended foreplay mentioned above and cultivating the right atmosphere for Partner B.
Step #6: See a doctor or therapist if necessary
If you think a lower sex drive is the result of medications or hormonal imbalance, seeing a doctor can help you better understand your sexual health. They may be able to run laboratory tests to locate the root cause, or alter your medications.
If the conflict between partners with mismatched sex drives is too triggering of an emotional issue, a couple’s therapist may also be necessary. Sometimes these arguments have been going on too long, and feelings are too hurt. A neutral third party who can create healthy dialogue and an action plan may be exactly what you need.
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Solving mismatched libidos is all about communication.
Finding a compromise that’s satisfying to both partners is vitally important before resentments build up. And the root of this will always be honest, open communication with your partner.
Though the temptation may be to maintain the mystery and spontaneity around your sex life, that rarely leads to long-term sexual fulfillment. So as that romantic music swells, take a deep breath, turn to your partner, and break the ice: “Let’s talk about sex, baby.”
Open up that honest dialogue — before it’s too late.