One of the common presentations to a sex therapist is mismatched libidos. As I wrote in an earlier blog, this mismatch may not be about differences in how often the partners want sex, but what they want sex to be about.
There are, however, many couples who want similar things in sex but differ about how often that should happen. So, if a once-a-day-person is in a relationship with a once-a-weeker, it isn't surprising that some tension may develop over time. In this scenario, who is right and who is wrong? Whose needs should be given priority, and is it possible for them to find a good enough middle ground where both are happy with their sex life?
In most cases, the pressure is on the lower drive partner to lift their libido, rather than the higher drive person to decrease their libido, as typically the lower drive person is regarded as the one with the problem. This is reinforced both in popular literature and, indeed, in the mental health profession.
Culturally, there are endless articles on how to increase your libido, but none on how to reduce your libido. In mental health, while there is psychiatric diagnosis for people whose sole issue is low or absent libido, there is no equivalent diagnosis for someone with high libido unless it is associated with another mental health problem (that is, high libido on its own is not considered to be a mental health problem).
Fortunately, there is some good research that can shed some light on how often people have sex.
The Australian Study of Health and Relationships is the country's largest study of sexual activity and attitudes; in the most recent study published in 2014, more than 20,000 participants aged between 16 and 69 were interviewed on the phone about their sexual habits by researchers from the University of New South Wales, La Trobe University and the University of Sydney.
They found that in the previous four weeks, frequency of sex for people in a heterosexual relationship for more than 12 months was as follows:
I've included the full table because I think the figures provide a good reality check. In summary, what this table reveals is that approximately 70 percent of couples have sex once a week or less, 20 percent have sex two to three times a week, and six percent have sex four times or more a week. Fewer than two percent have sex every day.
This doesn't buy into the argument about what is normal, it just describes what is currently happening in our community. What it does suggest, though, is that a person with a higher drive, that is wanting sex four times a week or more, on a probability basis is going to have less chance of finding a matching partner than someone who wants sex once a week or less.
The study reported that slightly less than half of the men and slightly more than half of the women, were satisfied with their sexual frequency. Of those who were dissatisfied, pretty much all the men wanted more sex, but, shattering the stereotype that it is usually the woman who is less interested in sex, two thirds of dissatisfied women also wanted sex more often, leaving a minority of women who want less sex than their current frequency.
The result which was unexpected but which I found very interesting is that despite the figures that roughly 50 percent of people are dissatisfied with their sexual frequency, 88 percent of the men reported they were very or extremely satisfied with their physical pleasure with the current partner, and 87 percent reported being very or extremely satisfied with their emotional relationship. The figures for women were 76 percent and 84 percent respectively. This means that for many people, sexual frequency is not the major determinant in relationship satisfaction. Men in all categories of sexual frequency were more likely to express greater relationship satisfaction than women.
Differences in sexual interest are not about one person being normal and the other being abnormal. As the research tells us, some couples find ways to cope with this discrepancy.
As an exercise, I ask both partners to think about how easy or difficult it would be to change their sex drive to be exactly what their partner's preferred frequency is. Typically, each partner is offended by this suggestion, and they answer: "Of course I can't make that happen." So, if it would be hard for you to change to be like your partner, this is exactly how hard it is for your partner to either lift or drop their libido to be like yours. Trying to argue your partner into change is doomed to fail.
The place to start is not to judge each other for being different, and to begin a respectful discussion about how you can each try to meet the other's needs.Suggest a correction