How to Manage Mismatched Sex Drives in a Relationship

            By: Cassie Finegan, MFTC

One of the most common challenges that couples face in a relationship is mismatched sex drives, or libidos (also known as SDD or Sexual Desire Discrepancy). This happens when one partner desires more or less sexual intimacy than the other. This differing sex drive can remain constant over the course of a relationship or can fluctuate individually from week-to-week based on what might be going on within a partner’s body, mind, and other external factors impacting sexual desire.

Sometimes this difference is so minuscule that it may not significantly affect a relationship, however, sometimes it can also create tension and conflict within a relationship. For example, partners with a higher sex drive who may make bids for sexual connection might experience rejection over time when turned down by their partner which can lead to low self-esteem or even resentment towards a partner.

In contrast, the partner with a low sex drive may end up feeling guilty, ashamed, overwhelmed, blamed, or pressured by the partner with a higher libido, ultimately creating an uncomfortable or tension-filled relational dynamic. Discussing physical intimacy and sex can be a very sensitive and personal issue for some individuals and couples, and therefore requires a gentle nudge at times to open a conversation on the topic. 

            Many couples feel that when they start discussing and bringing awareness to their differences in sex drive it can only lead to an inevitable breakup, that this difference is just too big to overcome. But the opposite is true! Opening up to a partner, allowing this type of vulnerability to take space within your relationship and being understanding and empathetic with a partner about their experience can truly strengthen the relationship. In other words, talking about it rather than ignoring it is key (crazy, I know right?!)

Let’s talk about Sex, Baby

            Before you start to problem-solve for the differences in sex drive, you need to first understand how each other feels about this difference in general. Is your partner feeling insecure, rejected, feeling inadequate, or that they aren’t enough? Do they feel like their identity is being whittled down to their ability to provide sexual favors? If so, that’s all okay, these are common experiences for all partners to feel, but it’s important to understand how your partner is feeling about themselves as a participant in the relationship before starting to find a solution. Most importantly, meet your partner with empathy; do your best to truly gain an understanding without judgment of their experience and their point of view in the dynamic – this alone can foster further emotional intimacy which can impact your physical connection positively.

Discuss the Roadblocks

            Talk about why you’re not in the mood; rather than turning down a sexual advance and risking your partner feeling rejected, let them know what barriers may be in place. This can range anywhere from medical factors such as fluctuations in hormones or side effects of medications (common in anti-depressants), stress and fatigue from a long work day, feelings of low confidence or self-esteem, relational satisfaction, or even perceived gender expectations from society. No matter the reason (and all are valid and should be respected), let your partner know what they are so they can better understand what’s happening for you in those moments.

Redefine “Sex” Itself

            Next, redefine sex itself. Many people assume “sex” means penetrative sex that leads to orgasm, but sex can mean whatever you want it to mean! Maybe sex can mean oral sex, mutual masturbation, phone sex, fingering, use of sex toys, or even just kissing. At the end of the day, sex is really just whatever gets you feeling physically connected and increases your sense of intimacy.

Find Compromise

When you can expand your definition of sex, this also means that you can expand your discussion of your desire to engage. For example, in the past, when the partner with higher sex drive makes an attempt towards sex or expresses this desire, its possible that the lower sex drive partner declined due to a definition in their head that was limited (saying no to penetrative). By expanding this definition, you can discuss the possibility of compromise: if the lower sex drive partner doesn’t want to engage in penetrative sex, would they still be open to kissing, oral sex, masturbation, or even just cuddling? This is an opportunity for compromise for both partners!

Get to Know Yourself

            Maybe before you get there, you first need to get in touch with your own body’s desires and stimulation. Rather than relying solely on your partner to provide arousal and/or orgasms, explore yourself and what brings you pleasure on your own. This can not only allow the higher sex drive partner to get their physical needs met but allows the lower sex drive partner to explore what compromises they may be comfortable with in the future that don’t just include penetrative sex.

What’s Worked in the Past?

            Sometimes it can get too heavy constantly discussing what isn’t working. If you feel this conversation becoming dreadful or consistently negative, maybe switch gears and discuss what has worked in the past. What conditions led to successful physical intimacy in the past, what time of day have you most enjoyed this intimacy, and where? What were you doing that made those moments so steamy and enjoyable?

Schedule Sex

            Sex and intimacy don’t always need to be spontaneous and exemplify “throwing caution to the wind”. Once you can identify what has worked best in the past and/or what you may be interested in trying to compromise on in the future, it may be best to schedule time for your intimacy. The spontaneous route doesn’t always work, it’s hard to be on the exact same page as your partner at the exact same time. In the same way, we schedule date nights, special dinners, or activities together, sex and physical intimacy are sometimes best scheduled as well. This can allow you to find a time in your busy schedules that works, a time without any other competing demands, and it can also allow you to both build excitement/anticipation and ensure you’re mentally, emotionally, and physically ready.

To Sum it Up

At the end of the day, it’s not going to look perfect and know that it’s rare that you’ll ever be on the exact same page with your libidos (especially in long-term relationships). But with open communication, a little (or a lot) of vulnerability, willingness to get creative and explore, and most importantly empathy and respect, a mismatched libido can be less of a problem and more of a project for your relationship.


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