Dealing With Differences In Desire

Here’s a question that came my way that I think a lot of people will resonate with.

My partner (male) and I (female) have mismatched libidos and this has been very hard for both of us because of the cultural garbage that we are fed about the different roles of men and women in sexual situations. Even though our relationship is doing fairly well on an emotional level, we are not having sex that often. I have stopped initiating because I feel horrible when I am almost inevitably turned down. I accept his response but I feel incredible shame and sadness.

I’ve shared my disappointment and I don’t want to make him feel guilty. I know that I have no right to his body. Causing someone to feel guilt for because they don’t want sex is bad behavior and manipulating someone into sex does not do it for me. I feel that sex with an unenthusiastic partner is worse than no sex at all.

One thing that has been particularly hard about the mismatched desire is that cuddling is something he enjoys very much. It makes him feel loved. I get turned on, though, and when he indicates that he’s not interested in sex, I don’t want to touch him anymore. The touch doesn’t feel good to me. I still feel desire, but now it’s combined with powerful shame. So I move away from him so we’re not touching and so we can both go to sleep. I feel guilty about that, like I should be able to take the “no” and still give physical affection. But it hurts too much and it keeps me from falling asleep. I respect his boundary and stop the sexual talk/touch. I wonder, though, is it wrong to set my own protective boundary and not touch him at all? Am I being an asshole? I’m not doing it to hurt him, I’m doing it to keep myself from hurting.

I would really appreciate any advice that you may have regarding this particular flavor of disparate desire. Do you know of any good resources?

Differences in desire (also known as desire discrepancy) can be a big challenge in any relationship. Whether it’s because of medical concerns, emotional shifts, how much energy each person has, or simply because libidos vary, it can put a big strain on people. And it’s quite common for there to be a lot of frustration on both sides of the dynamic.

I’m glad that you mentioned wanting to respect your partner’s limits. I’ve seen a lot of folks get pushy (or worse) when it comes to this sort of thing and that often leads to resentment and disaster. Unfortunately, magazine advice columns often suggest doing things to seduce a partner and although that can be lots of fun in the right situation, it can also feel disrespectful of someone’s boundaries. So I’m glad you’re not doing that.

At the same time, I totally hear you- it’s hard to feel rejected over and over. Even though unavailability isn’t the same as rejection, it sure can feel that way. And when your sexual desire gets linked to rejection and shame, it’s hard to stay connected and present with each other. That seems likely to make things more difficult for you when your partner wants to cuddle. After all, if you’re already having a shame reaction around sex, why would you want to engage in something that’s going to leave you frustrated and feeling guilty? On the other hand, you also want to stay connected with him. So it’s no wonder you’re feeling stuck.

In my view, you totally have a right to your own boundaries. If cuddling ends up leaving you feeling bad, you have just as much room to set limits as he does. But I think you’d both do well to consider setting some guidelines around physical contact as a short-term thing while looking for some answers that work better for both of you. I find that the best way to come up with a win-win solution is to stop triggering each other so you can get some perspective. So think of it as a temporary thing while you explore alternatives. To do that, here are some questions to consider:

Is is libido consistently like this? If it’s higher in the beginning of a relationship, that might give you some good information to work with. Or if it was higher with other partners or when he had sex in particular ways, that can also give you something to work with. Or if it used to be higher and it shifted, that might indicate a medical issue or an emotional concern that has made itself known. Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about having a lower libido. But it can also be a marker of something that needs attention, so looking at that can be helpful.

Along those lines, was this is the pattern from the beginning of your relationship, or is this something that developed over time? It’s pretty common for these kinds of situations to emerge in response to various emotional and relationship dynamics. I think that Schnarch’s book Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships has a lot to offer, though it’s heavily focused on married couples.

Are there other ways he can receive your care and love besides physical contact? In his book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman offers these different modes of doing that: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Acts of Service, and Gifts. While I find his insistence on heterosexual, monogamous marriage in a Christian context rather limited and limiting, I like his suggestion that when we’re full up on love (or close to it), we can usually give and receive all of them. But when we’re angry or stressed or feeling alone, we usually have a preference for which one we want. So are there other ways for the two of you to stay connected that don’t leave you feeling rejected and frustrated? Is your partner willing to try something less familiar in order to make room for your needs, just as you are?

Also, what about rethinking what sex means? One way that people deal with things like physical limitations or health issues that limit what sexual activities they can do is by finding other ways to enjoy erotic contact. I think the same thing can sometimes work for situations like yours. If he’s not interested in receiving sexual contact or if he doesn’t want intercourse, how about having him kiss and caress you while you masturbate? Given how many fun toys there are for that, you have a lot of possibilities. And if you think that solo sex is boring, may I suggest taking a look at Tickle Your Fancy?

I think it’s also worth considering the possibility of building an open relationship. I generally think it’s easier to do that when things aren’t as difficult since there are a lot of moving parts to manage and that’s harder when there’s a lot of charge around sex. But a lot of people find ways to get their different needs met by different people (my partner and I are two of them) and it can be a really great solution. There are lots of books on the topic. I tend to prefer Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships since it covers many different kinds of open relationships and offers more possibilities than some of the other guides.

Lastly, there’s always the question of whether having a sexual connection is a dealbreaker for you. I know that some people will suggest that that’s not ok, but I think it’s just as valid a reason to leave a relationship as having different desires around having kids or money or work or religion or anything else so influential over our lives. Some of the best and closest friendships in my life and the people I know grew out of romantic/sexual relationships that didn’t work well. That doesn’t have to mean the end of the connection. In fact, it can lead to an even deeper relationship because you can let go of the pieces that don’t suit you.

All of these questions are worth looking into. But it can be really hard to do that if things get heated or if either (or both of you) get triggered. I’m a big fan of working with a couple’s therapist in those situations. Sometimes, it helps to have someone else keep you focused and who can help you find the words you need to say that your partner can hear. Having been in therapy on my own and with my partner a few times, I can tell you that it makes a big difference.

Whatever you and your partner decide to do, I hope you can find a path that meets both of your needs. It sounds like you’re feeling stuck in this situation, but remember that there are possibilities available to you.

If you have questions about sex or relationships, drop me a note. I’m always happy to offer what I can and to connect you with the resources you need to make your sex life happy and fun!