Desire for What?

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Every January I look back over the previous year’s cases. And while some issues come and go, one thing is consistent year after year: I always see a lot of couples in conflict about each other’s sexual desire.

Last year, for example, I saw many couples in which one partner was upset at the other for not wanting sex enough. Apparently, some people expect that expressing their anger will motivate their mate to want sex more. Then they’re surprised when their anger results in less sex, rather than more.

Some of the lower-desire partners were on the fence, possibly open to more sex under the right conditions—but their partner’s periodic anger simply never allowed those conditions to emerge. In other cases, the lower-desire partner used the higher-desire partner’s anger as the perfect excuse: “See—what do you expect? Who could have sex with a person who’s always criticizing?”

You might be surprised at the number of people who ignore their partner’s emotional needs for days or weeks (or pretty much all the time), and then approach that person for sex–who typically declines. Many of these decliners seem to me like they really do want sex, and are regretful or frustrated when they say no.

Their partner frequently thinks they’re just not sexy, or just have a low libido. The person who’s chasing is surprised when I go out on a limb and say “Actually, I think your partner really wants sex, but needs more non-sexual attention or emotional connection in order to accept your invitations.”

Why is that still such big news?

It’s true that some people, more or less independent of circumstances, are horny and want frequent sex. Other people need to feel connected first. Neither version of sexuality is better than the other. But when you put one of each type together, you have the equivalent of a mixed marriage. Each one tries to convince the other that their way is better, and no one ever succeeds at doing so.

In my experience, people who want affection or connection before sex are not going to change that. Anyone who’s waiting around for a partner to change this is going to be frustrated. In my clinical experience, on the other hand, people who don’t need such a connection can learn to enjoy creating it with someone. Then they get more sex as a bonus. When these cases resolve successfully (not a huge proportion), that’s often how.

Desire also raises the question of the quality of the sex that people think is available. Although Lenny Bruce famously said that most men are so generically horny that they’ll “have sex with mud if necessary,” most men and women want more than that from sex. Even if someone doesn’t crave emotional connection as part of sex, most people who desire sex want something more than simple passivity in a partner, or a partner who won’t look at or kiss them.

Many lower-desire people complain that when they do agree to sex, their partner charges ahead full speed. These lower-desire people often say they feel their partner is having sex with their body, but not with them. “If he were actually connected with me during sex,” a patient once said, “he wouldn’t go too fast or get that far ahead of me.”

Desire for what?

When I talk about desire in my 2012 book Sexual Intelligence, I ask, “Desire for what?” Again, some people desire “just sex,” and if there’s no deal-breaker present (such as lack of privacy, a current quarrel, or someone has a cold), they’re in the mood easily and quickly, regardless of the kind of experience they expect.

On the other hand, many people say that if the sex that’s available is with someone who doesn’t bathe much, or kisses too roughly, or is impatient and easily annoyed, their desire is low. While some (including their partners) call such people “low desire,” I wouldn’t. Unless, of course, they anticipate that every sexual experience will be unpleasant (and therefore unwanted), regardless of circumstances.

Some people have inhibited desire because they’re anxious about “performing.” They may believe that if they can’t deliver lubrication or erection on demand, their partner will be upset (and they’ll be embarrassed, of course). In fact, many people of all genders and orientations are concerned that if they don’t have an orgasm their partner will interpret this as a criticism or reflecting their lack of attraction. Some women go further, feeling insulted if their partner can’t climax inside their vagina.

These desire cases may be slightly easier to resolve, because frequently there’s desire there, it’s just being constricted by anxiety. Of course, not all anxiety can resolve easily. Some people require medication. This is often successful, but ironically, it can inhibit libido or arousal, and so there may be no net gain. And some people are anxious as a response to trauma, which can be famously difficult to resolve.

Too simplistic

So dividing people into two categories—high desire and low desire—is way too simplistic. Therapists and physicians do this, and shouldn’t. In fact, most people do it, describing themselves or their partner as low desire or high desire. When I have to use something, I say higher– and lower-desire (emphasizing the comparison); I’m not entirely comfortable with this, and always follow with lots of explanation (as I’ve done here).

When comparing/contrasting a pair of sexual partners, we should be categorizing other dimensions as well—such as higher-connection/lower connection or higher gentleness/lower gentleness. Of course, that would acknowledge that things are more complicated than we wish they were.

Finally, a word about people who “need” frequent sex. Sorry, no one does. Some people want frequent sex, and I have no quarrel with that. But when people tell themselves the story that they “need” frequent sex, and just can’t help being a poor parent or partner or worker when they don’t get enough, that’s problematic. Besides, few people want to be the remedy for this kind of sexual “need”—essentially being the medicine that their partner requires in order to be a responsible grownup.

What might lie behind the story that someone believes they “need” frequent sex? It could be they want continuing reassurance that they’re desired or loved; it could be they get anxious when they feel separate, and sex makes them feel connected, reducing their anxiety; it could be they fear their partner’s abandonment, and like the reassurance of frequent sex. People express a wide range of unconscious emotional needs using a sexual vocabulary.

Helping people work through why frequent sex is so important often reduces the urgency of their drive. That can lead to their partner being more interested in sex, thus connecting the two partners in ways that weren’t available before.
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Contrasting sexual desire between two partners is famously difficult for therapists to resolve—particularly if we don’t believe in the “just close your eyes and do your marital duty” model. But with careful evaluation, we can identify the cases that are more likely to respond to treatment, and choose treatment strategies that can help. It’s crucial for professionals to see beyond the simplistic idea of simply increasing the “low” desire partner’s libido. Couples need that broader perspective, too.
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