One of the most common problems couples face in relationships is a mismatched libido. This happens when one person has a higher sex drive than the other person (or people). It’s a normal imbalance which can stay relatively steady throughout a relationship or change week-to-week, depending on what’s going on in the bodies and lives of the people involved.
Sometimes, it’s no big deal and couples find ways to adapt to each other’s sexual needs and boundaries as they fluctuate over time. In other cases, it’s tougher to handle — mismatched libidos can lead to tension and confusion about things like how often a couple should have sex, what type of sex they should be having, and how important of a priority physical intimacy should be in their relationship. Because sex is such a sensitive and personal issue — and because it can say so much about a person’s identity and the health of their relationship — working through these issues can, understandably, take some finesse.
Thankfully, it’s a solvable problem.
“It’s a difficult situation, but it’s totally possible to work around,” says Jamila Dawson, a Los Angeles-based sex therapist who helps couples with mismatched libidos find satisfaction and understanding amidst their differences. “The most important thing to know is that it doesn’t mean there’s a problem with either person in the relationship. Rather, it’s a more general imbalance that can be improved through experimentation, collaboration, and working together.”
The first step towards doing so, she says, is to cultivate a healthy sense of empathy for your partner and what their point of view might be like in your dynamic. This can help you better understand their needs so that you can work together more effectively.
For example: higher libido people tend to feel guilty or ashamed about how often they want sex — especially when they’re female or femme — and are often prone to feelings like rejection, low self-esteem, and frustration when their partner doesn’t want to or isn’t capable of meeting their desires. This is something Dawson recommends they try not to take too personally, though.
“Usually, when someone doesn’t want to have sex, it’s not because there’s something wrong with their partner,” she says. “It could be any number of factors from health to medication to stress to different problems in the relationship that have nothing to do with how attractive or worthy their partner is.” Because of that, it’s important for lower-libido folks to be clear about the reasons they’re not in the mood so their partner doesn’t think it’s them they’re rejecting.
Meanwhile, lower libido partners often report feeling like they’re only good for one thing, or like their partners are overlooking all the other great things about them and their relationship. They don’t understand why “everything has to be about sex,” and sometimes feel pressured to have it when they’re not really in the mood, which is never a good thing. That’s why Dawson suggests that higher libido folks make a conscious effort to appreciate and acknowledge not only their partner’s boundaries, but their non-sexual qualities, too.
“Let them know you notice all that they do for you,” she says. “Try to adore their mind, personality, sense of humor, kindness, and ambitions as much as you do how desirable they are to you.”
Next, she recommends couples slow down and try to focus on the experiences that have worked for them in the past. Under what conditions did both people feel aroused enough to have sex? What were they doing that was so hot?
“Focusing on the things that have been successful, then trying to translate them into the current situation can really help,” says Dawson. “Put your positive experiences to work for you.”
Likewise, getting in touch with your own body as opposed to relying on your partner for physical stimulation can be important. Dawson recommends both partners explore themselves and their own pleasure zones on their own — that way, the higher libido person can benefit from the arousal and orgasms they crave while the lower libido person can explore ways they might feel comfortable being touched or being sexual without necessarily having to have sex.
Respecting each other’s bodies and boundaries is a huge part of navigating a libido mismatch, too. No one should ever have to do anything they don’t want to and everyone has a right to say no, but there are also times in which collaborating and communicating about what would work is a better idea than shutting someone down with a flat-out “Not tonight, honey.” For example: If one person wants to have penetrative sex, but their partner really isn’t feeling it, would it be okay for them to masturbate together while making out? Or, if one of you is too far tired to have sex after work during the week, how would each of you feel about giving it extra effort on the weekends or, have sex in the morning before the stress of the day kicks in? Whatever the desire is, there is usually a happy medium that can be reached.
Expanding what each of you mean by “sex” can be helpful in reaching that medium. Sex doesn’t always have to mean penetration — it can be anything you want it to be. Kissing, oral sex, holding hands, using toys, BDSM; it’s whatever increases intimacy and makes you feel connected. If the person with the higher libido can compromise with a type of sex the lower libido person is comfortable with, it’s possible for each person to get most of what they want, most of the time (which, if you think about it, is a pretty realistic expectation.)
At the end of the day, says Dawson, it’s both partner’s responsibility to collaborate and communicate about how they can maintain a sexual connection in a way that works for both of them. It won’t always be perfect, and libidos are rarely equal (especially in long-term relationships), but with a little consciousness, creativity, empathy and an open mind, a mismatched libido can be more of a project than a problem.