Tactical ways to handle desire differential

It doesn’t have to mean the end

Written by Zoë Kors

“My partner and I are different pages as far as our desire for closeness and sex. I go through cycles of desire and apathy due to a struggle with chronic anemia. Sometimes I do not want much touch and I am content not having sex, whereas my partner is on the other end of the spectrum. Our opposing needs cause tension. What advice do you have for partners with varying desire levels?”

“My wife seems to have little to no sexual desire. We have been together for three years and when we do have sex it’s the same positions and the same routine. I make her orgasm, we have sex, and then I orgasm. I would like to introduce foreplay and other various forms of pleasure to spice things up, but every time I bring up anything about sex it starts a fight. Any ideas?”

“I’m 26, my wife is 32. She barely wants to have sex anymore. We used to have sex two to three times a night when we were dating but now that we have been married for over two years we have sex less and less. How can I get back to the way we used to be or somewhat back to the way we used to be?”

Here at Coral, we are asked over and over about what to do when one partner wants sex more frequently than the other. It’s incredibly common for couples to experience a difference in their level of desire for sex and even physical touch. If this is something you are dealing with, you’re not alone. In fact, in a recent study, 80% of people reported experiencing a desire discrepancy with their partner in the past month.

As uncomfortable as it is to talk about, making sure everyone’s needs are met is important to the well-being of each partner and the relationship itself.

Finding a way to bridge the gap requires work, patience and generosity. Here are a few tactical ways to approach the situation:

Start talking

You know how it is sometimes, the more we focus on a goal, the more likely it seems to slip away from us. When we unload the historical emotional baggage from the topic of sex, we often open up a portal to receptivity. Take all sex off the table and engage in a conversation about sex in general. Share with each other what it feels like to have an orgasm. Take turns describing the physical sensation using descriptive language and metaphors. Share with each other what makes you feel safe enough to let go. Get curious about each other’s experiences. Research shows that when couples use a dyadic approach to desire differential (read: when they talk about it instead of allowing it to become the elephant in the room) it’s less likely to negatively impact their relationship.

For more guidance on talking about sex, check out our partner exercise: Starting a conversation.

Pencil it in

If we’re judging by the movies, sex should happen spontaneously, Overcome by passion and desire, sex comes effortlessly and without any planning at all. The reality’s a different story, especially when you and your partner or a different wavelength about the frequency with which they’d like to be having sex. Eliminate the negotiation completely by putting sex on your calendar. In a survey of women in long-term relationships with men, scheduling sex was identified as a helpful strategy for dealing with desire differential.

For more guidance on how to make the most of scheduling sex, check out our lesson: Scheduling sex to help desire discrepancy.

Roll call

It’s easy to fall into patterns in relationships, from letting the clutter pile up to ordering from the same takeout place. Desire discrepancy can create a pattern in a relationship that leads to feelings of guilt and frustration. Over time, the partner with the lower desire expects to feel pressured into sex and the partner with the higher desire expects to feel rejected. The longer this pattern plays out, the more polarized the partners become. One way to break this pattern is to assign the roles of “giver” and “receiver” to each partner. The giver’s one job is to pleasure their partner without concern for their own sexual satisfaction. The receiver’s job is to wholly receive without responsibility for pleasuring their partner. Notice how the dynamic between you shifts when the transactional nature of sex is eliminated. The next time you’re intimate, switch roles. In a recent study of men and women, engaging in an alternative sexual activity, or even being physically close without having sex, emerged as a helpful strategy when navigating different levels of desire.

For more guidance about giving and receiving, check out our partner exercise: Break the cycle of desire discrepancy.

Try a little tenderness

We’re conditioned to think about orgasm as the goal of sex, but that’s not the only reason we have sex. Taking time and focusing on the pleasurable journey along the way is bonding and builds intimacy. For many couples with desire discrepancy, the struggle to take care of both our own and our partner’s needs has made sex more divisive than collaborative. Approaching sex as a way to connect emotionally through the shared experience of exploring pleasure can help get both partners on the same side of the desire equation. Research shows that experiencing mismatched desire is inevitable, but conflict doesn’t have to be.

To hear a story about how one couple made this shift and what happened, check out: My wife started surprising me.

Back to the beginning

After a dry spell, getting back into the sexual swing of things can feel a little awkward. How do we do this again? And where do we start? If making the first move towards reconnecting with your partner feels intimidating, gazing into one another’s eyes can fast-track you to reestablishing intimacy, which may just be what you need to set off a sexual spark. Seeing each other through fresh eyes, as if it were the first time, can be very romantic (and super hot).

For a guided exercise on eye gazing, check out our partner exercise: Eye gazing for desire.

Haven’t installed it yet?