How Couples Can Deal With Mismatched Sex Drives, According To A Sex Therapist
One of the most common problems faced by long-term couples is desire discrepancy—one partner wants more sex than the other. It's a frustrating place to be for both parties: One person doesn't feel sexually satisfied or desirable in their relationship, the other feels pressured to have sex they don't really want, and both usually feel guilty for putting their partner in this position.
One excellent way couples can deal with the issue is to see a sex therapist, who can work with them in building a new, mutually satisfying intimate life together. How does sex therapy work? A new paper published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy gives us a pretty good picture, describing one treatment approach for desire discrepancy developed by certified sex therapist and clinical psychologist Barry McCarthy, Ph.D.
Here are the most important steps for dealing with mismatched sex drives, according to McCarthy. Don't worry—you can get through this.
1. Team up.
One of the most important steps of dealing with desire discrepancy is to stop viewing each other as representatives of opposing sides.
"In the first session, the task of the therapist is to confront the self-defeating power struggle over intercourse frequency and replace it with a new dialogue about the roles and meanings of couple sexuality," write McCarthy and Tamara Oppliger, M.A., co-author of the study and clinical psychology Ph.D. student at American University, in a draft of the paper shared with mbg. "No one wins a power struggle; the fight is over who is the 'bad spouse' or 'bad sex partner.'"
Stop trying to make one person out to be the enemy. You're a couple—you're on the same side of the table, looking over a shared problem that's hurting your relationship. Come together to make an agreement that this is a journey you're going to undertake together.
And by the way, your goals for this journey should be clear—and it should not be about making sure you have sex a certain number of times a month. Sexuality is about much more than how often you do it. "The goal of couple sex therapy for desire discrepancy is to reestablish sexuality as a positive 15 to 20% role in their relationship," the authors write. "It is not to compensate for the past, to declare a 'winner,' or to reach a goal for intercourse frequency."
In other words, your goal is simply to make intimacy a positive force in your relationship, something that feels good to both people.
2. No pressuring another person to have sex, ever.
"Sexual coercion or intimidation is unacceptable," McCarthy and Oppliger write. That kind of behavior can be terrifying for the person getting intimidating and can lead to someone saying yes to sex they don't want. Any sex that's only agreed to because of pressure is going to feel more like a violation than anything else. There's no faster way to kill desire and make sex feel toxic.
3. Prioritize desire, not intercourse or orgasms.
When a relationship involves a man and a woman, couples often fall into the trap of using intercourse (i.e., putting a penis in a vagina) as the definition of sex. They believe sex is only sex when intercourse happens, and how often you have intercourse becomes a pass-fail measure of your sex life. One of McCarthy's key points: "When it is intercourse or nothing, nothing almost always wins."
No matter what genders you and your partner are, stop trying to use any one act like intercourse or penetration as the only marker of whether you've had sex—and while you're at it, forget about having orgasms too. All these things can be great parts of a healthy and satisfying sex life, but they're by no means the most important or crucial parts. All kinds of touch can be pleasurable and connective.
If not intercourse or orgasms, what exactly should you be striving for in your intimate life? "Desire is the most important dimension," McCarthy and Oppliger write. Desire is the key to sexual energy and excitement, and it's often what we're truly seeking when we pursue sexual gratification. "Satisfaction means feeling good about yourself as a sexual person and energized as a sexual couple."
4. Not all sex needs to be earth-shattering for both parties.
"The best sex is mutual and synchronous," the authors write. "Yet, the majority of sexual encounters are asynchronous (better for one partner than the other). Asynchronous sexuality is normal and healthy as long as it's not at the expense of the partner or relationship."
For example, sometimes one partner might just go down on the other so she can have a good orgasm, and then the two cuddle as they fall asleep. Both people don't need to get off every time, as long as the pleasure balances out and is satisfying for both parties over time.
5. Start with touch.
Not sure where to start? After assessment, one of McCarthy's first suggestions is for couples to begin with getting reacquainted with touching each other again. Those touches don't need to be a whole sexual act—they can be as simple as holding each other in bed or rubbing each other's backs. "The focus is using touch as a way to confront avoidance and build a bridge to sexual desire," he and Oppliger write.
In other words, the more you get comfortable with touching each other and sharing skin-on-skin contact, the more your desire will eventually build up. (Past research shows desire is indeed buildable, with having a spark of erotic energy one day leading to more of it the following day, even if you didn't have actual sex.)
6. Connect, even when things don't go as planned.
Listen, even the most sexually satisfied couples regularly have sexual encounters that don't always pan out or that dissolve midway through. The key is handling those situations with a sense of good humor and love.
"A crucial psychosexual skill is to turn toward the partner rather than blame or apologize. By its nature, couple sexuality is variable, which includes that it is normal for 5 to 15% of encounters to be dissatisfying or dysfunctional," McCarthy and Oppliger write. "Even among the most loving, sexual couples, there will on occasion be desire discrepancy. The key to successfully dealing with desire discrepancy is to focus on the couple sharing a pleasurable connection and be involved whether in a sensual, playful, erotic, or intercourse manner. This confronts embarrassment and blaming. They remain intimate and erotic allies and turn toward each other whether the experience was wonderful, OK, or dysfunctional."
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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