Most romantic relationships start off pretty well in the sex department. The thrill of discovery, and the fun of getting to know someone new, can even help couples coast through their first few months together without much conflict at all. But over time, most people find, the sexual intensity that inaugurates their relationships will begin to fade. They’ll find that differences exist between themselves and their partners: the type of sex they prefer, the frequency, even the time of day (or week, or month). Most often, however, it’s the level of desire for sex itself that turns out not to match. One person — male or female, it doesn’t matter — is very likely to want sex more often than the other. Arguments may ensue, with one partner feeling harassed and the other feeling rejected. In many marriages and long-term relationships, mismatched levels of sexual desire can cause significant frustration or hostility.
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THINKING ABOUT SEX
If you and your partner have a sexual-desire mismatch — that is, if one of you is a highly sexual person, and the other is not — it’s important to remember that neither of you is wrong. There’s no such thing as a “normal” amount of sex to have, and there’s no abstract ideal toward which you should be striving. In matters of taste, there can be no dispute; sexuality is highly individual, and you cannot be faulted for wanting what you want. Similarly, if your partner is less interested in sex than you are, and this leads to your being repeatedly turned down, try not to take your partner’s refusals personally. First of all, you may need to come to terms with the way sexual relationships normally change over time. (It’s also fair to say that while sex can be a very healthy and satisfying part of a good relationship, not every couple needs to have sex to be happy together.) In making an adjustment to a partner’s reduced (or naturally lower) desire for sex, another part of your task is to understand your partner’s view of sexuality, and to accept that he or she is different from you. Despite the frustration of being repeatedly turned down by one’s partner, remember that this can lead to a “catch-22:” such refusals can make you feel angry, which can result in resentfully pushing your partner away — which, in turn, can make it even less likely that your partner will want to be intimate with you. This refusal-resentment cycle is a pattern that needs to be identified and broken. Once you’re aware of it, you can try to be more loving with your partner as a way of escaping the pattern.
TALKING ABOUT SEX
When the amount of sex in a relationship causes problems, it’s essential to open up a dialogue about it. The best place to do this is outside the bedroom, in a comfortable setting. Have realistic expectations; in other words, when you begin this challenging conversation, don’t imagine that the issue will be resolved all at once. Take your time and revisit it over a few days. It’s not always easy to talk about sex with your partner, or to feel comfortable discussing exactly what you like in the bedroom. You’ll have to gain comfort with this over time, as you talk about what you want and what your partner wants. Be open-minded, as well; don’t assume that you and your partner want to do the same things, in bed. Take the “menu” approach by talking more openly about the various possibilities of sexual intimacy, and by listening carefully.
If you are the high-desire partner, you’ll also want to know whether some aspect of sex has become uncomfortable, so that you can avoid triggering this discomfort. For that matter, it is equally helpful to find out what your partner does like, and what sex means to him or her. For many people, sex is not just about physical pleasure. It is a way of experiencing deep intimacy, communicating affection, or solidifying a partnership. If you and your partner can be open about what sex means to you both, you may be able to find ways to accomplish these goals without having the kind of sex that triggers conflict or discomfort. And lastly, while the conversation about sex is ongoing, try to introduce physical affection into your relationship without relying on sexuality. Cuddling, or massage, or simple touch can bring about many of the emotional experiences that some people reach for during sex. Affectionate physical contact can do a lot to reaffirm a relational connection.
It’s also true that in some cases, discrepant approaches to sexuality cannot be fully rectified. Infidelity may result, as one member of the couple may feel as if he or she has become desperate. If this is the case, you may have arrived at a moment that calls for real honesty. If you really believe you are frustrated enough to break your promises to your partner, he or she deserves to hear what you are contemplating, and why. Explain that you have been unhappy and that you really do not know what else you can do. In some cases, couples may come to terms by reconsidering monogamy; it’s sometimes possible to sustain a relationship by meeting one’s sexual needs elsewhere. You may also be able to seek solutions in couples therapy, or find help in sex therapy with an accredited specialist. But at the very minimum, your partner deserves honesty, even if the relationship as it is cannot continue.
If you and your partner do not have the same level of sexual desire, try reconsidering your approach when you try to initiate sex. Remember that sexual satisfaction doesn’t necessarily rely on intercourse. Perhaps your expectations are putting pressure on your partner; perhaps by changing them, you can still find a way to be satisfyingly intimate, together. Also, while it is never OK to coerce someone into sex, sometimes a low-desire partner may actively and affirmatively choose to have sex despite feeling ambivalence, as a way of pleasing his or her partner. At such times, initiating more slowly can help to awaken sexual desire, which can take a little while to develop. Also in such situations, the higher-desire partner must be especially aware of the danger of putting pressure on his or her partner — for instance, by becoming annoyed if the experience doesn’t match his or her expectations.
The higher-desire partner may also want to consider the way he or she is initiating sex, if he or she is being turned down frequently. Perhaps something about this is going against the grain for the other party, or simply failing to turn him or her on. Be sure to respect your partner’s needs, and conform to the circumstances that he or she says are necessary (such as a shower, or darkness, or a certain time of day). Also, the lower-desire partner may simply need more time before responding to a sexual overture. It’s important to take interpersonal pressure out of the equation, so that the lower-desire partner can ease into it and, if things go well, start to feel more receptive. What’s more, the decision to have sex doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing one, either. If you and your partner can be open to multiple options, rather than simple intercourse, the lower-desire partner may feel more comfortable saying “yes” to some kind of physical closeness or sexual activity — whatever it might be.
As I’ve said, every sexual relationship is different: there is no “normal,” and nothing “correct” to strive for. Every couple with differing levels of sexual desire needs to manage the discrepancy individually. With open communication, a commitment to compromise, a flexible approach to sexual activity, and full respect for the other’s rights and needs, each couple can find a unique solution.