One of the most common complaints sex therapists deal with is low desire. Sometimes a single person brings it in, and sometimes he or she is part of a couple. In a relationship it’s often called a desire discrepancy: one person wants sex significantly more than the other.
While low desire is very real, it isn’t always a sexual dysfunction. That is, it doesn’t always reflect a pathology. The person who feels less desire than their partner might have very good reasons, whether they’re conscious or not. Before you go thinking that there’s something wrong with you or your partner (or your patient), consider these good reasons for low desire.
* Chronic relationship conflict
Most people would rather not have sex when they’re angry or sad. That’s not when we feel most generous, most flexible, or most gentle.
And when a relationship has chronic, low-level conflict, people don’t get much chance to stockpile lots of good feelings about their partner or the couple. If a couple argues in a mean way, the effects of a quarrel may last for days or weeks after people have forgotten the original issue. Desire may never get a chance to rebound after hurt feelings.
And finally, who wants to tongue-kiss someone they’re angry with? Yuck!
* Poor hygiene
Most people like to be appealing to others, and most people want a sex partner to be appealing to them. Components of that might include personal hygiene—breath, teeth, hair, skin, nails. Some people’s standards are just higher than others’. And some people seem genuinely immune to smelling their own bad breath or dirty hair.
If your partner’s personal hygiene turns you off, you’re not doing him or her any favor by keeping silent about it. Be gentle, but provide the information your partner apparently needs. And if the smell, texture, or cleanliness of your partner’s skin makes it hard for you to desire sex, say so—again, in a gentle but clear way. Your partner deserves this information.
* Battling over conception
Intercourse is the only sexual activity that can lead to conception. There are four attitudes with which people approach intercourse:
~ Wanting to prevent conception (the most common)
~ Wanting to facilitate conception
~ Indifference to the outcome
~ Choosing not to think about it (drunk, impulsive, etc.)
Note that # 3 and 4 are NOT the same: in #3, a person will accept either outcome (to conceive or not). In #4, a person either hasn’t decided what outcome they prefer, or doesn’t connect their present decision-making with future outcomes. Highly religious people, very poor people, and people from violent or crazy childhoods often fall into this last category: why think about things you (supposedly) can’t control?
A stunning number of Americans don’t use contraception and yet don’t want to conceive. Some of these couples disagree so much about it that they can’t enjoy sex together. When sex always involves someone saying “let’s use a condom” and their partner saying “this is a great chance to get pregnant,” it’s easy to see that one or both partners would start to steer clear of sex.
* Battling over the sexual menu
After people have been together for a while, they know each others’ tastes in food, movies, and clothes, among other things. After urging your wife to wear a bright orange miniskirt a few times, a guy usually gets the message—don’t bother asking anymore. In my house, it’s sushi—don’t bother asking me anymore, because the answer will always be no.
When it comes to sex, some people just don’t learn. And so it’s “Honey, how about the reverse cowgirl tonight” week after week after week. Multiply that be a bunch of things—no, you can’t put your finger there; no, I don’t want to wear that sexy thing you bought me; no, I don’t like pretending my best friend’s in bed with us—and eventually somebody just might decide that sex is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
I understand the impulse to keep asking, but at some point reality has to take over the conversation. I encourage people to say “Sweetheart, the answer is no thanks. Not just for tonight, but until the end of time. Please stop asking. If I change my mind, I promise to let you know.” And then the other person needs to do some grieving so they actually can stop asking.
* Paraphilia mismatch
A paraphilia (or fetish) is a rigid need for an object or partner’s body part for someone to feel desire or arousal. Examples are opera gloves, manicured feet, or a repetitive script where one partner pretends to be a prostitute.
The problem isn’t the paraphilia—it’s if the partner doesn’t want to participate, or even finds the whole thing gross. When one person is disgusted (or bored) by the other’s sexuality, and they can’t find a consensus they both enjoy, it’s easy to see how this can lead to low desire.
* Lack of planning or preparation
There’s an awful old joke that ends with “Honey, asking if I’m awake is NOT foreplay.”
Most adults rarely have sex if they don’t plan it. Nevertheless, my patients are always telling me that sex should be “natural and spontaneous.” To which I generally respond, “When was the last time you did anything spontaneously?” These days adults never do, which is a different malaise deserving its own discussion. But if you don’t go bowling spontaneously, and you don’t plant a vegetable garden spontaneously, and you don’t take your kid to the zoo spontaneously, why expect to have sex spontaneously?
If you approach your partner at a time when they’re tired, or have just eaten dinner, or have to get up early, or have a cold, or are worried about a sick kid (which is how they got that cold, right?), they’re going to say no. Worse, they might feel like you’re not actually paying attention to them, as proven by the fact that you’re asking for sex when you’re obviously going to be turned down.
If someone is NEVER in the mood no matter what, that’s a problem, of course. But if you have a genius for initiating sex when your chances approach zero, you may be the one with the problem. And your partner’s seeming low desire may not be a pathology at all.
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There are, of course, other good reasons for low desire.
For more on what increases or diminishes your desire, see my book Sexual Intelligence. For effective ideas on working with couples on this issue, see my CD sets (and audio downloads) Working With Couples and Love, Sex, & Intimacy.