What Couples Get Wrong About Mismatched Libidos & How To Actually Meet In The Middle

Psychotherapist By Rachel Wright, LMFT
Psychotherapist
Rachel Wright, LMFT, is a psychotherapist, sex educator, and mental health expert based in Brooklyn. She has a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and her work has been featured in SHAPE, Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, and elsewhere.
I'm A Sex Therapist & This Is What Couples Get Wrong About Mismatched Libidos
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When it comes to talking about mismatched libidos, there can sometimes be a lot of shame ingrained in the conversation. Both low and high libidos can get a bad rep, but you know what? Our sex drives are far more complex than we realize.

Today, we're going to break down all the stigmas, give you the real libido facts, and share some helpful tidbits of what to do if you and a partner experience different sex drive levels

But let's start here: If you feel any shame at all about your libido, I'm here to tell you this—don't. You are valid, but you have likely been led astray. Your libido is not out to get you. You aren't weird. You aren't inhuman. You are a normal person with a normal libido, and we're going to break down why the hell you might be feeling otherwise about yours. 

But remember, you are normal. Promise.

Debunking and redefining "libido."

Our sex drive, as you may have guessed, isn't as straightforward as it feels like it should be. Our libido is most generally referred to as our sexual appetite. Though, what we don't often realize is that this appetite can be affected by literally everything

Stressful day at work? Affects your libido. Get stuck in traffic? Affects your libido. Partner didn't ask you how your day was? Affects your libido. The house is messy before bedtime? Affects your libido. On antidepressants? Most likely affects your libido. There are endless possibilities!

Along with all of these possible influences, we also tend to think libido is like a light switch we can turn on and off. The reality is that there's actually so much more that goes into how we get turned on (or not).

First things first: We need to debunk our understanding of libido. Our culture makes it feel like if our libido is low, there is something wrong with us—or vice versa—especially if our partners experience the opposite. But this just isn't the case. We aren't taught that our libidos can be affected by our love languages not being met, our communication with our partners not being strong enough, the stresses of daily life, and literally whatever small or big thing you can think of.

So we should really redefine libido as something more unique to the individual because no two libidos are the same. Think of it instead as a sensual, physical feeling in the body when we feel present and aroused—emphasis on the word present.

Obviously, we can feel sensual at stressful times as well—for some people, stress might get them in the mood! But for the sake of understanding, I want to reiterate that it's crucial to feel embodied when first getting comfy understanding your libido. 

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Desire vs. libido.

People often misuse the word libido a lot when they are actually referring to desire. Desire is what spikes our libido, and it can come from a combination of, well, everything.

Let me frame it like this: Yes, we allosexual humans are inherently sexual beings— that's true. But it's highly uncommon that daily stressors won't affect our desire. No matter how much we love our partners and may want to have sex with them, our desire can be easily affected by our kids, family, jobs, needs not being met (and not knowing how to ask for them to be met), not getting enough exercise or movement, not having enough quiet time—you get where I'm going with this?

It may seem like when someone "isn't in the mood for sex" with us, that it has to be because of us—but I can assure you that is rarely the case. Think back to the times when you haven't wanted to have sex. Did you have a rough day? Were you feeling sad or stressed or overwhelmed? Or possibly even just tired and disconnected from your body? 

We all have other needs that often need to be met or understood for sex to feel inviting and freeing.

Desire also works differently for different people: 35% of cisgender women experience responsive desire, which is when desire shows up in response to a stimulus—something sexy happens, and the body responds. On the contrary, 75% of cisgender men experience spontaneous desire, which is precisely what it sounds like—it shows up instantly, with or without stimulation. 

If this difference isn't acknowledged between two people, it could seem that they have different sex drives, aka libidos, rather than having different types of desire.

This ever-shifting desire is just one part of the libido equation, which actually looks more like a combo of your brain and body's instincts: what set of circumstances might turn you on, what set of circumstances turns you off, and most importantly, how sensitive those "let's go" or "let's not" instincts are to the circumstances happening in and around you. These instincts were dubbed by sex educator Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., as your sexual accelerator and sexual brakes.

The results from this combo are endless. Some people may have really sensitive brakes and lose that "in the mood" feeling easier than others. Some may have less sensitive accelerators but also not super sensitive brakes and just need some buildup time. Some have super-sensitive accelerators. It's all unique to each individual.

6 ways to meet in the middle.

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With an understanding of how desire and libido each work, it might be easier to understand why some partners may struggle with communicating about sex with their partners—because without the right tools, anything can feel confusing.

Here are some helpful tips to try if you and your partner(s) experience different levels of desire in your relationship— plus, how you can meet each other's needs as well as possible :

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1. Communicate.

You might be thinking, "well, duh," but hear me out. Really communicate. I mean the kind of communication where you sit down on the couch with notebooks and intentionally take time to write down the things that make you feel aroused, the things that don't, and then you and your partner(s) discuss them. This is so helpful because our needs get lost in our expectations and misunderstandings with our partners most of the time. Good sex happens when we lay it all on the table. 

2. Plan your sexy time. 

Scheduling sexy time might not sound inherently sexy, but trust me, it totally can be. If you and your partner are finding it hard to both feel sexy at the same time, planning can help build the tension and excitement and take the pressure off of both people. Think of it as setting up a container for intimacy, no matter how that looks. The person eager to have sex is relaxed, knowing they will be connecting in that way soon, and the partner who may take longer to get in the mood doesn't have the pressure of getting in the mood *in the moment* because it's on the calendar! Make it fun, sexy, and cute. 

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3. Try other forms of intimacy. 

If you and your partner have been out of sync for a while, diving back in right away might feel a bit intimidating—and that's OK. Sometimes it can be helpful to start with other activities that build intimacy instead of jumping into sex. Buying massage candles and having a massage night, doing yoga together at home, taking a shower together and washing each other's bodies, sitting in the tub together, sharing your favorite poetry together—all of these are other little ways to build intimacy together if sex feels intimidating. 

4. Take sexy pictures of each other.

I include this option for all the couples out there either experiencing differing levels of libidos or couples looking to *spice things up*. Taking sexy pics and texting them to a lover shouldn't stop after the honeymoon phase ends, in my opinion. If one partner wants sex more than the other, a great option could be for the partner who wants sex less to send some spicy pics to their lover to masturbate to. This is not only fun, but it helps the partner desiring more sex feel like masturbating is more of an intimate experience that includes their partner. Plus, it's sexy! 

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5. Talk about your relationship structure.

It's important to bring this up because our society doesn't do a great job of educating us on different relationship structures other than monogamy. If you and your partner are monogamous and have very different sexual needs, there could be a conversation about what opening your relationship would look like.

Now, I don't encourage doing this on a whim. I'd suggest doing loads of research, listening to educational podcasts, reading The Ethical Slut, and possibly talking to an ethically nonmonogamous-supporting therapist first.

There may be a chance your relationship structure cannot fulfill both of your needs. Having the freedom to discuss the possibilities together is important. One of the lies our monogamous culture teaches us is that one person should be able to meet all of our needs, and that's just not the case (ever). Talk about it—you might find you love where you are, or maybe there's another structure for you.

6. Have a weekly check-in. 

It's vital to continually check in on your libidos, what's helping you feel desire, and share that with your partner. This is also a great time to check in on the frequency and type of sex you're having and give each other ideas. Creating a weekly ritual makes it so you don't have to create the container to talk about sex and libido—it will be there weekly for you and your partner(s).

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The bottom line. 

Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more. You know when you're really excited about someone new and want to know everything about them? You ask them loads of questions and love constantly learning about them? Treat your sex life with your partner like that too, whether you've been together for one year or 50-plus years. We are continually evolving and growing, and our sex life is no different. Being inquisitive adds curiosity, spark, safety, and fun to your sex life. And who doesn't love that?

Sex only feels awkward to talk about when we don't talk about it. It will likely feel very uncomfortable first if you and your partner(s) aren't used to having in-depth conversations, and that's OK. Uncomfortable doesn't have to mean bad.

The problem most likely lies in misunderstanding each other, expectations that aren't being communicated, and lack of sex communication tools (this isn't your fault; we aren't taught these things growing up). But now you have more tools in your communication tool belt! 

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