A Simple Reason Many Couples Deal With Desire Discrepancy, From A Sex Coach
Most people who've been in a long-term relationship are familiar with the concept of desire discrepancy, which is when two partners aren't aligned about when and how often to have sex. One study found four in five couples dealt with desire discrepancy1 in the last month.
But desire discrepancy isn't always about one person wanting sex more often than the other does. Sometimes, according to holistic sex coach Pamela Joy, M.A., it's actually just a matter of two people having different types of desire—aka different ways of accessing turn-on.
The other kind of desire discrepancy.
There are two models of sexual desire: spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire means you'll just spontaneously feel like having sex at random or in response to a stimulus (aka seeing a sexy person walk by), whereas responsive desire means you only feel like having sex once you're starting to get into some sexy acts.
"Culturally we tend to think there's just one model, and that's I get sexual stimulus, and I'm totally ready for sex. That model is called spontaneous desire," Joy explains. "It just means I'm like, oh! The visuals or somebody asked me to have sex and, yup, I'm ready. You kind of go from zero to 100 right away."
In comparison, here's how Joy explains responsive desire:
"This is someone where it's a really slow ramp-up to totally being ready for sex. You can think of the analogy like going to the gym. There's kind of like two types of exercise people. There are people who wake up in the morning, and they're just like, 'I'm ready to go to the gym! I'm so excited!' They're spontaneous gym people. And then you have the gym people who are like, 'I know it's good for me, and I know after the workout I'm gonna feel good. But when I'm actually ready to work out might be like in the middle of the workout.' And that's what responsive desire is like in sex. It's like I know the last time I had sex I enjoyed it.... It might take a little bit for my body to get into it."
When two people in a relationship have different types of desire, Joy says, that can produce desire discrepancy. It may feel like the issue is that one person wants sex more often than the other, when in reality it's simply that one person has responsive desire while the other person has spontaneous desire. They both have sexual desire, but it just comes up in different ways.
The problem arises when the couple makes comparisons between each other and judges the person with responsive desire for not having spontaneous desire.
"They don't work like you," Joy says. "If your goal is to have them want sex, you might need to let that go."
What to do about it.
Step one is to stop trying to make the person with the responsive desire be more like the person with the spontaneous desire. Responsive desire doesn't mean you have a lower libido. It's just another healthy, normal way to experience desire that requires a different approach to sex than what spontaneous desire folks are used to.
For the person with the responsive desire, Joy says the main thing to do is to figure out how to access your turn-on (with or without your partner). You don't get turned on spontaneously like your partner does, so what does turn you on?
"Maybe I feel good about my body when I exercise. Maybe it is not having stupid underwear but having cute underwear. Maybe I need 30 minutes of cuddling before I even start to think about being sexual," Joy says. "Maybe I need my husband to do bedtime with the kids, and I need to take a bubble bath." She also suggests listening to erotic audio stories for women (there are apps for that!) or even watching steamy shows like Outlander before heading to bed. Whatever works for you!
When you know what turns you on, you can access it whenever you want rather than waiting for sexual desire to spontaneously show up for you—because your body might just not work that way, and that's cool. Different strokes for different folks.
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.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter