Couples often find that sexual desire is quite robust in the early stages of their intimate relationship—they’re kissing, touching, and having sex constantly. Then, sometimes to the dismay of one or both partners, they realize it has faded over time. Just knowing that it is normal for sexual desire to ebb and flow in an intimate relationship can go a long way toward helping couples shift their perspective. When a couple encounters this change, it is helpful for both partners to ask themselves: “To what degree are we thinking that something is wrong with me, you, or us instead of understanding that changes in sexual desire are normal and expected?”
In sharing her relationship history, a new client of mine shared that she had just broken up with her boyfriend. She said, “In the beginning, our sex life was great, but after a while, we stopped having it as frequently. I just believe that when the sex goes bad, the relationship goes bad, so that was a big part of our breakup.” She took the fact of decreasing sexual frequency and attached to it a fear-based story: This must mean we are not right for each other.
Her story makes total sense in a culture that runs on romanticized notions that if love requires effort, it means you’re doing it wrong. I wonder what might have been different for them if someone had whispered in her ear that sexual desire shifts with familiarity and commitment and that couples need to work together to cultivate desire over time.
Sexual desire problems are often desire discrepancy problems—one partner wants to have sex more often than the other. The chances of two partners always experiencing the exact same levels of sexual desire are slim to none, but any point of relational difference holds the potential to become a point of relational tension and pain. In the face of desire discrepancy, it tends to be easy to stick a “high-desire partner” label on one member of the couple and a “low-desire partner” label on the other.
Being the one who initiates intimacy again and again can stir feelings of loneliness and rejection. Being the sexual gatekeeper can stir feelings of resentment and shame.
As with any label, we must proceed with caution. A label can normalize and validate something that feels upsetting or confusing. But a label can also make something complicated appear deceptively simple. Declaring, “I am the high-desire partner, and you are the low-desire partner,” can put a couple at risk of slipping into stories full of shame and blame:
- If you loved me, you’d want more sex.
- If you loved me, you’d stop expecting so much sex.
- You’re frigid/repressed/depressed.
- You’re a sex addict.
- I must be frigid/repressed/depressed.
- I must be a sex addict.
Shame- and blame-loaded stories only know how to do two things: make me right and you wrong or make you right and me wrong. They are boring dead ends! And these narrow stories create relational loops that tend to amplify: The more I tell you that you should want more sex, the more you’re going to pull away, and the more you pull away, the more I’m going to persist. Couples therapists call this a “pursuer-withdrawer dynamic.”
We break the cycle by remembering both partners need and deserve compassion. Being the one who initiates intimacy again and again can stir feelings of loneliness, rejection, and inadequacy. Being the sexual gatekeeper, declining or avoiding your partner’s advances, can stir feelings of resentment and shame because it’s hard to disappoint the people we love.
We also break the cycle by remembering that all sexual problems are couple problems. Use the Golden Equation of Love (my stuff + your stuff = our stuff) to keep the desire discrepancy framed as a “we” issue. Stand shoulder to shoulder, looking together at the problem. Ask yourselves and each other this question: “What are we going to do to nurture sexual intimacy in this relationship?”
Sexual intimacy is a we-thing, and, at the very same time, sexual intimacy is a me-thing. Sexual intimacy stirs our internal worlds deeply—our old stories, our wounds, our longings, and our needs. With that kind of complexity, it’s wholly unsurprising that most couples encounter a sexual challenge of one kind or another. The shift from a shame-loaded or blame-loaded story to a story that holds compassion for yourself and your partner opens new possibilities for how to address the problem.
Here are a few questions to keep in mind if you’re experiencing this issue as a couple:
- What are some peak sexual experiences we have shared together? What are the factors that led to our enjoyment? How might we bring those elements back into our relationship?
- What keeps us from scheduling sex? How might scheduling a sex date help us navigate our desire discrepancy?
- What I most enjoy about our sex life is….
- What my partner most enjoys about our sex life is…
- What I struggle with most about our sex life is…
- What my partner struggles with most about our sex life is…
- What helps me get in the mood?
- What helps my partner get in the mood?
- What blocks my sexual desire?
- What blocks my partner’s sexual desire?
- What I wish my partner understood about my sexuality is….
- What I wish I understood better about my partner’s sexuality is…
This piece is an excerpt of Alexandra Solomon’s new book, Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want (February 2, 2020; New Harbinger).