How To Support A Partner Who's Dealing With A Low Sex Drive
Most couples at some point find themselves in a situation where there's a desire discrepancy: One partner wants more sex than the other person does. This situation is so common that I regularly have people coming to my sex therapy practice looking for solutions. The good news is that there are many!
Research has found many reasons some people might be or become less interested in sex, from the psychological to the physical to the relational and situational. Most conversations around mismatched libidos focus on helping the partner with less sexual desire find ways to get turned on again, and while that can certainly be part of a couple’s path toward a satisfying sexual life together, that strategy on its own can sometimes add more stress and pressure for that less libidinous partner.
If you're someone whose significant other or spouse has a lower libido, your focus should go beyond just trying to find ways to turn your partner on. As a sex therapist who supports couples with mismatched libidos, I recommend a more holistic approach. Here are a few key ways to support a partner dealing with a low libido that's causing them distress:
Be very attentive and considerate of your partner's insecurities.
It's really important to know that the person dealing with desire difficulties is probably judging themselves. They may think that something is wrong with them or that they're "broken" in some way. So the partner who has the relatively higher desire needs to be kind and sensitive. All couples should approach their sex lives as a project that they work on together. They should talk about what they each need out of their sex lives to feel connected.
Use the framework of curiosity.
Oftentimes, the partner with seemingly lower desire is misunderstood. It's not that they have low or no desire; it's that the right circumstances haven't been in place for their desire to be able to show itself. Approach your partner with curiosity. What kinds of contexts do they need to feel desire? What blockages get in the way of them feeling desire? If you don't know, what dynamics could you experiment with?
It's OK to keep initiating.
You're always allowed to ask for what you want from your partner. And your partner is always allowed to say what they want in response. I do encourage partners with the relatively higher sex drive to keep initiating.
The pattern I typically see is that the partner with the higher sex drive will stop initiating. They're either hurt from being turned down, wanting to feel desired by their partner, or wanting to not pressure their partner. But not initiating feels even more stifling, so the partner with the relatively higher desire starts to feel resentful. The partner with the lower desire can sense that resentment, and it makes them pull away even more.
Remember that your partner doesn't owe you anything.
I hear various forms of this question being asked: Is the person with the lower libido responsible for agreeing to sex every now and then to satisfy their partner?
We have to be really careful about the word "responsible." You never have to do anything with your own body that you don't want to do. You never "owe" your partner anything. That being said, in relationships, we often do things for our partners that we don't necessarily want to do or love doing. If you feel fully allowed within your relationship to say "no" to sex, you may find that you sometimes have the space to be open to being intimate with your partner, even if you weren't originally in the mood.
Celebrate and honor your partner's no.
As I mentioned above, if you give full permission to say no to sex, you'll find that more space actually opens up for intimacy. One of the best ways to support a partner with a lower sex drive is to truly and fully give them permission to say no. Keep reminding them over and over again that you don't want them to feel guilty, and you don't want them to feel any pressure. If you take the teamwork approach to your sex life that I mentioned above, that also really helps. You take the energy you would normally waste feeling guilty and instead turn it toward creative problem-solving, together.
Prioritize your intimate relationship with yourself.
You can handle some of your own sexual needs! We should each have a relationship with our own sexuality, separate from our relationship with our partner. When your partner is the only outlet for your sexual needs, that puts a lot of pressure on them. You having a joyful relationship with your own body and being able to take care of yourself makes a big difference to your partner. They may even be open to keeping you company while you take care of yourself!
Creating an environment of safety, support, and curiosity—rather than pressure, stress, or resentment—will go a long way toward helping you and your partner develop a mutually satisfying sex life.
Vanessa Marin, M.S. is a sex therapist and licensed psychotherapist and writer living in Berlin, Germany. She has a bachelor's degree in Human Sexuality and Sociology from Brown University and a master’s in Counseling Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Marin runs Finishing School, an online course that helps women learn how to orgasm on their own and with their partners, and has helped thousands of clients have a better sex life. She has over 15 years of experience working in sex education, research, and therapy, and she has been featured over 1,000 times in major publications like The New York Times, CNN, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Real Simple.