As a sex therapist, I work with couples every week in which one partner wants more sex than the other. In heterosexual couples, about half of the higher-desire partners are female, and about half are male.
When it’s a small disparity people generally work it out. But when one person wants sex twice a week and other wants it twice a year, many couples simply can’t cope. And indeed, this is a difficult problem.
Ideally, couples would struggle over this together: what are WE going to do about OUR problem?
What’s more common, unfortunately, is that each partner sees themselves as having the primary pain: one person struggles with feeling unfulfilled, rejected, and resentful. The other person struggles with feeling abandoned, judged, and resentful.
Each one feels the other’s sexuality is problematic. And each person looks at the other and says what are YOU going to do about MY pain that YOU’VE created?
I see how couples collapse over this. Sometimes the higher-desire person attacks the lower-desire one. Believe it or not, that doesn’t put the lower-desire in a sexy mood.
Sometimes the lower-desire criticizes or withdraws from the higher-desire. That doesn’t make the higher-desire feel understood, and it doesn’t encourage the higher-desire to self-soothe or to connect with the lower-desire in non-sexual ways.
As I often do with couples, I start by talking about the context of the problem more than the problem itself. So I invite people to talk about what they want as an alternative to their dreadful situation. Common responses are: to feel desired, to feel loved, to feel attractive, to feel important, to feel connected.
People are also eager to tell me what they don’t want: to feel used, coerced, demeaned, guilty, awkward, or physically uncomfortable.
If they haven’t mentioned it, I suggest that people in this situation often feel abnormal, inept, and lonely. Both the higher- and lower-desire partner typically agree. Helping people realize that both they and their partner feel similarly is an important part of the work.
I typically suggest that one of our main goals is to arrange for people to feel more of how they want to feel, and less of how they don’t want to feel. Of course they agree (although sometimes warily). “Note how different that is from ‘let’s have more sex’ or ‘let’s you accept we’re not going to have more sex,’” I say.
But what about sex? The higher-desire invariably asks how we’re going to arrange for more sex. That is going to be one of our goals, right? More sex, right?
Here’s where the work really gets interesting. “You’re not just interested in more sex, are you?” I ask. “I mean, I think you want a different kind of sex, right?” The higher-desire often looks at me, not sure where I’m going with this.
“The issue here isn’t just more sex,” I say, “it’s that you want to FEEL different—whether it’s more loved, or more attractive, or whatever, right? For years you’ve assumed that more sex will get you that, but it won’t, will it–not more of the sex you two have been having. You don’t want to settle for a bigger amount of what doesn’t really nourish you, do you?”
“You’re not ambitious enough,” I gently tell the higher-desire. “Personally, I don’t actually care how much sex you have—I want you to feel great about the sex you do have. Oh, and I also want you and your partner connecting physically, besides sexually, in ways that you both enjoy. That OK with you?”
Practically every higher-desire eagerly signs up for that. And that helps us get away from the simplistic goal of more-sex-that-neither-partner-enjoys.
Because the higher-desire doesn’t just want more sex—they want more enthusiasm, more engagement, they want a partner who pursues sexual satisfaction for themselves. That’s why so many higher-desires also complain “my partner never initiates.” When initiating sex is a stand-in for “I really want to be doing this with you,” people start keeping score. That always ends badly.
At this point in the therapy the lower-desire has started to have a little hope—maybe the entire focus of sessions won’t be on ramping up their desire for sex they don’t especially enjoy.
But they may also feel concerned. Because instead of talking about the quantity of sex (which they’re sick of discussing), now we’re talking about enthusiasm, authenticity, and a bunch of other stuff that my feel burdensome: “It’s not enough that I do it once in a while, now I have to smile and chat, too? Or initiate sex I don’t really want?”
Some lower-desires don’t want to want more sex. That’s a special problem, which I’ll discuss in a subsequent article. But many lower-desires are genuinely distressed about their partner’s distress. More importantly, many lower-desires would like to enjoy sex more—a crucial piece of information which typically has gotten lost along the way.
That’s what I get them to talk about. Interestingly, the higher-desire partner is often skeptical about this. “If you want more sex, let’s just do it!” But as the couple’s life has unfolded (a miscarriage, a sister-in-law issue, parenting conflicts, weight gain, where the dog sleeps, etc.), it has become more complicated than that.
Frequently, the lower-desire wants more emotional connection on a day-by-day basis. Or they want their partner to do more household chores, or use a different approach to parenting, money, or the in-laws. Sometimes the lower-desire wants sex with someone who hasn’t been drinking or criticizing them relentlessly. Sometimes the lower-desire wants sex that doesn’t hurt, which the couple simply hasn’t been able to create.
Getting the higher-desire to notice the actual eroticism of a partner who seems apathetic or unresponsive can be quite a challenge. “Yes, he/she has seemed uninterested,” I say, “But I don’t think they’re uninterested in all sex, under all circumstances. I think your partner is describing special situations under which sex isn’t appealing, and over time those situations have become more and more common—to the point where they’re almost always part of your relationship.”
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So while higher-desire is indeed struggling with not enough sex, they really need something else. And while lower-desire does spend a lot of energy inhibiting the sexuality in the relationship, they really want something more than just discouraging the sex they don’t like, the demands for it, and the complaints about the lack of it.
Getting people to talk honestly about what they want—not just “more sex” or “less pressure”—is a crucial step toward getting a couple re-aligned erotically AND emotionally. Difficult discussions about how the couple lives (budgeting, timeliness, tidiness, personal hygiene) are often necessary as well.
What certainly does NOT work is making your partner feel bad about themselves:
criticizing, shaming, diagnosing, manipulating, avoiding, or punishing.
This may sound obvious, but every week I see couples in which people are doing exactly these things, hoping they will resolve the struggles over sex.
They never do.
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Clinicians: for much more on this subject, check out my webinar, at