What do you do when your libido doesn’t match your partner's?
The biggest recommendation I will make here is that I think almost everybody should read Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski.
It is a book primarily about how sexual desire functions in women.
But it also applies to people of all genders.
What she talks about in the book is that in our brains, we have two systems related to sexual desire.
So we have our sexual excitatory system.
That’s like a gas pedal.
It’s what increases our sexual desire.
It makes it go.
We also have this sexual inhibitory system, and that is like a brake pedal.
It is what stops things even if they are already moving.
So when you have a mismatch of libido, it can be helpful to look at are there things that are slamming on the brakes for somebody and are we able to like let up off those brakes to help them get more in touch with their desire or have a better flow of their desire.
Is there something that is slamming on the gas pedal in a way that is not helpful for one of the people?
Some folks when they are depressed or stressed or struggling, they go into a space of having a lot of increased desire where there’s like a seeking of sensation, a seeking of pleasure that is not necessarily a problem but that may mean that they are experiencing desire differently than they would otherwise and that their gas pedal is more sensitive or is kind of jammed down more than it would be at other times.
So like look at if there are factors contextually that are affecting folks’ libidos that are making this mismatch more prominent or more significant or severe.
If you can address things that way, that’s a good first place to start.
After that, the question of mismatched libidos becomes a really complicated one because the cultural narrative that we have is that the partner who has more desire, so the partner who wants more sex should just like learn to live without so much.
They should masturbate more and that should be fine for them and they should be good to go, or sometimes it is the person with less desire should just have some sex anyway like what’s the big deal?
Just have the sex.
The metaphor that a friend of mine used that I think has been really great and that I’ve used since then is if you had a marriage with someone and one of the partners in the marriage only wants to eat one meal a day and another partner in the marriage wants to eat five meals a day.
What’s the compromise?
Because there isn’t really a good compromise here where everybody wins, there are compromises where people are eating when they don’t want to eat or people are not eating when they do.
And that’s not really great for anybody.
Nobody is actually getting served by that compromise.
Nobody is happy.
Nobody is feeling much better than they were when it was a problem before.
When your libidos are mismatched, I don’t think that the person who wants less sex should feel like they are obligated or forced to have more sex.
I also don’t think that the person who has more desire should feel like they are obligated or forced to want less sex or to use masturbation as a way to fulfill them because masturbation is good but it is not the same.
When I talk to people who have mismatched desire, the desire is not just to have an orgasm.
The desire is about sex and all the things that come with it.
When we have sex, it’s not just about the orgasm for the majority of us.
For the majority of us when we are having sex, it’s about connection.
It’s about presence with each other.
It’s about the ways that we can use that special – that sexual place as play or as intimacy or exploration or vulnerability.
There’s so much that can happen within that and they want to experience that with their partner, not just have an orgasm and get off.
And so, when there is a mismatch, this is something that is a very real problem for both people.
If it is something that is not changeable then the question that everybody needs to ask themselves is, can I be OK if this is how it will be from here on out?
And if not, what are the options that I see in terms of how to deal with or cope with that?
And how do I feel about those options?
So options for mismatched libido might include like finding a way to support desire for the person who has less desire.
They might include – so to go back to the example of like a married couple, a lot of people who have kids, a lot of what impacts desire is that there is so much to be done to take care of a household and kids.
And if your partner isn’t pulling their own weight, that can very significantly impact the ability you have to access your desire for them or to be present to and act on that desire.
So is there a way to like alleviate that, to let the brakes off?
If not, can the person with higher desire be OK with a relationship where they are just not having sex as often as they want or need to? Can the person with lower desire be happy or – so OK and happy here are definitely – we will get that in a second, be happy with having sex even when they don’t really want to.
Sometimes for people, they have more responsive desire rather than spontaneous desire.
So responsive desire is that for some folks, they don’t necessarily when they’re sitting around feel like, “Oh, I really wish I could do sex things right now.”
They do however experience desire when they have something sexually relevant happening.
So like once you start making out with them, their desire comes through and they are fully into it.
So maybe the person with lower desire has a more responsive desire cycle so they are OK with trying out, with starting some sex, and seeing if that desire comes out first before saying it’s an absolute no.
Is that possible?
If not, also totally OK.
People get to say no.
But if this is a case where one person wants a lot more, one person wants a lot less, neither of them can be happy with either saying yes when they don’t really feel like it or not having sex when they really, really want or need it then there is a question here of like, how does this relationship fit for us?
I think a lot of people would expect me to say, “Then be not a monogamous,” as if that will solve the problem.
But the thing is, sometimes opening up your relationship can help with a mismatched in libido or desire but that’s not always the answer because again, it’s not necessarily just that this person wants to have sex with whomever.
Often, it’s about wanting to have that connection and that time with a particular person with whom they are already partnered.
So if it is a kind of more generalized desire for the higher desire person, then it’s like opening up the relationship or bringing in new or different partners, something that could work or that could be a good option.
If it’s about desire for this particular person then I think it’s a question of, is this a temporary mismatch in desire or is this a more permanent one?
And if it’s a more permanent one, is this relationship a good fit for everybody?
I am fully of the opinion that a lot of people need to break up more often, more early, more frequently than they do.
Breakups are not terrible.
They are not the end of the world.
They can be very painful and hard but sometimes they are the best choice we can make.
If there is a relationship where one person wants to have sex every day and one person wants to have sex once a month, and neither of them want to open the relationship or the desire that person A has is mostly or entirely for the person who only wants to have sex one time a month, I don’t know how that works over the long term because what I see when people come to me for therapy around this is that they already have years and years of resentment built up from asking and getting turned down all the time from saying yes when they don’t really mean it, from feeling badgered.
Neither person tends to feel good in that situation where there’s a huge mismatch.
And so that may be a circumstance where it’s worth looking at like is this working for us as a sexual relationship?
And if not, do we want to restructure or transition this relationship to be a different kind of relationship where we get to preserve the stuff about us that works really well or at least some of it but we let go of the pieces that aren’t serving us, that are not working, that are causing conflict and pain?
I wish I had a better answer here. I think people expect that sex therapists or couples therapists are going to have some magic answer for when people’s desires are different, when people have different libidos or different amounts of desire that they experienced, but sometimes it’s just not a good fit.
The same way that someone who wants to go out to dinner five nights a week is maybe not a good fit for someone who wants to go out to dinner once a month.
Can you make that relationship work?
I mean maybe, but for what definition of work?
So I think the question is again, is there something getting in the way of desire for the lower desire partner?
Is there something artificially or unhealthily amping up the desire for the higher partner?
Are there contextual or structural things that can or should be changed in order to help kind of free up anything that might be getting in the way of sexual connection or desire?
And if not, can either or both parties be happy in this relationship as it is?
I think a lot of people make a choice to say with the assumption that their partner will change and that’s not healthy for anybody.
You can’t stay with someone because of who you hope they will become in order to make you happy.
They are who they are to make them happy.
You get to be a part of their life and you can let them know like what would work well for you or what you might like from them but I don’t think that you get to tell people who to be just to meet your needs.
If this person is happy having sex once a month, you don’t get to say that they have to change that because you want to have sex more often.
So I think it’s important to look at, if this is not going to change, can I be happy in this relationship?
And if not, maybe it’s time to transition or restructure.
And that’s not the end of the world.
Again, I’m close friends with a ton of my exes.
I just moved to Atlanta, to move in with a former partner.
I have close friends all over the place who I previously dated and with romantic relationships with.
You can absolutely nail that landing and I think it’s easier to nail that landing if you acknowledge earlier on before the resentment has built up.
If you keep waiting and letting that resentment get like greater and greater and build up between you, it’s much, much harder to have a good breakup.
It’s much, much harder to be able to separate and part on good terms and be able to preserve the good parts of that relationship.