What To Do If Your Sex Life Is Out Of Sync

Your relationship need not get kinky because your libidos are mismatched.

05/08/2016 5:51 AM AEST | Updated 05/08/2016 5:51 AM AEST
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"Not tonight, honey."

A difference in sexual wants and needs is a common issue that brings couples to a sex therapist. Typically, the problem is described as one person wanting sex more often than the other, which is causing distress in the relationship.

However, libido is much more than the frequency in which a person wants to have partnered sex. It also includes factors such as the importance of sex compared to other parts of the relationship, the meaning of sex for each individual, what turns people on and, importantly, what turns them off.

Certainly, some people are aware of a regular need for sex, whereas others feel they wouldn't care if they didn't have sex again. However, two people can want sex at the same frequency but can, for example, differ in the meaning of sex (is it about emotional intimacy or hot activities?) or what is pleasurable. This mismatch in style of sexual interest and appreciation can lead to one partner gradually withdrawing from sex.

Although we acknowledge that there is a wide range of individual differences in human sexuality, we don't seem to talk about them very much. We tend to expect our partner to be like us and to enjoy sex in the same way we do, yet logic says that just as there are, for example, personality differences, there must great diversity in sexuality as well.

All the possible combinations of the range of sexual wants and needs give us an incredible variety in normal sexual individuality, and from this I developed the concept of libido types. Two common types I identified are the sensual libido type, who values emotional connection above sexual performance, and the erotic libido type, who wants sex to be intense, prolonged, varied and passionate on most encounters. Another type I propose is the disinterested type, who rarely feels the need for sex. These libido types are not scientically validated, but are shorthand ways of describing -- not judging -- individual differences in preferred sexual style.

Some individuals may be a mix of types. For example, a sensual libido type may desire erotic sex some of the time, and the libido type can change over time, for example an erotic type may become disinterested after a major milestone, such as the birth of a baby.

When a couple differs in ways that have significance to one or both partners, they often misinterpret these differences, causing confusion and distress in their relationship. For example, some people feel unattractive or unloved if their partner does not regularly initiate sex in a hot, can't-keep-my-hands-off-you way, which may confuse the partner who believes they show their love in other ways.

The hurt and frustration that is caused by such misinterpretations gets in the way of the couple finding other ways of getting their needs met that are acceptable to both. One partner may then avoid sex if they feel they are expected to act sexually in ways they don't enjoy, and maybe even find irritating.

While sometimes the differences between the couple are so vast that it is difficult to find a mutually satisfying compromise, often there is much you and your partner can do together to develop a sex life that may not be ideal, but is certainly good enough. Mismatched libidos is a couples problem, it is rarely the "fault" of one partner. I use an "equal but different" framework, that is, each partner has the right to be who they are, apart from cases of abuse or intimidation.

This means, for example, that an individual has the right to place sex down the list of relationship priorities, just as another has the right to give it a high priority. Some may say that sex is the most important part of a good relationship, but for others, respectful and positive communication, shared domestic and family responsibilities, non-sexual affection, shared interests, or family time may be more important. Arguments about who is right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, rarely resolve mismatched libidos.

Understanding and respecting each other's point of view is the beginning of finding a solution. Encourage each other with generosity and gentleness to say what is true for each of you. Don't be surprised or defensive when your partner says something that you disagree with: listening to another point of view doesn't mean that you have to agree with it.

Talk about what you think the differences mean. Do you worry that your partner doesn't care about you? Ask your partner questions such as: "What do you think it means when I say no to sex so often?" or "What do you think it means that I try for sex so often?"

Then, one exercise I suggest is that you each describe what you would want your sex life, and your relationship in general, to be like if your partner was well matched with you. Talk without criticism about the similarities and differences between your views: what would you most like your partner to do to meet your needs and help you feel loved and accepted, and then consider your partner's scenario.

After this, the conversation moves to what each is prepared to do that goes toward meeting the other's needs, as described. What is the first action you can take that will help build a mutually satisfying sex life? Don't wait to see what your partner does; you can only change your own behaviour. If you both take responsibility for change, focussing on meeting your partner's needs rather than only concentrating on your own, you may discover new depths and strengths in the relationship that make the struggle worthwhile.

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