Mismatched Sex Drives in a Relationship — Is it Normal?

by | May 24, 2023 | Let's talk about Sex

You’re busy. You’re exhausted. You’re stressed. And the last thing on your mind is sex. Yet your partner wasn’t taking your signals. I get it. Audrey Chow delves into the topic that is bothersome to many.

“Why aren’t you kissing me back?” April Lau’s boyfriend asked while pulling away from their kiss. Shoot, was I zoning out again? She thought to herself. She muttered a ‘sorry’ and kept her mouth shut, despite finding herself losing the spark, again, for wanting him. She looked up from her fidgeting hands, only to meet the disappointed eyes of her partner. She felt a pang of guilt but didn’t know what to say.

April and her boyfriend Josh have been together for two years. After the first year of being together with him, the willingness and the sexual craving to be with him has gone down the slope, ending up with Josh overthinking and April, on the other hand, puzzled and blaming herself.

April admitted that there were times where she would drown in the thought of whether this two-year-long relationship is coming to an end. “I feel like I’m always the one pushing him away, and I go into this vicious cycle of feeling frustrated with myself, then trying to get my sex life back on track but ending up not liking the whole idea of sex even more,” she said.

“You have this obsessive phase in a relationship when you can’t keep your hands off each other. And when that honeymoon stage ends, you think, oh my god, what’s wrong with me? Why don’t I enjoy sex with him anymore?” she added.

This is known as low sex drive, also described as a low libido, and it’s more common than people realise. One in four people who are in a relationship don’t share the same level of interest in sex as their partner, the last NATSAL UK-wide study shows.

If you’re thinking, am I having enough or too much sex? Honey, there’s no correct answer. Murray Blacket, UK psychosexual relationship therapist said, “There’s not a set sexual appetite that you could merely label as too big or too small. It also can’t be measured when comparing with friends, or even with previous sexual partners.”

Image of Murray Blacket

There will be times of mismatched libidos where one of you has a higher libido than the other and your sexual kinks will change, this is all normal!

While It’s crucial to note that sexual desire naturally fluctuates throughout the courses of your life for men and women, research has found that women naturally have a lower libido and think about sex less often than men.

Relationship researchers Jim McNulty and Andrea Meltzer tracked young couples’ sexual activities from wedding to five years into marriage. The answers were fairly clear: five years into marriage, the husband’s sexual desires were about the same as when he walked down the aisle. The wife’s sexual desire had dwindled substantially.

Australian journalist Bettina Arndt concluded in her book that documented dozens of couples’ diaries of their sex lives, women “go off sex” after they settle into a stable relationship. Roy Baumeister, well-known social psychologist, said that lesbians have the lowest frequencies of sex out of the various types of relationships.

Is low sex drive a problem?

So, is low libido a problem? Ruth Ramsay, UK adult sex educator and coach, argued that frequency of sex is higher early in the relationship and it declines steadily over time. As a relationship moves beyond the six-month-mark, our arousal style shifts from ‘spontaneous’ to ‘responsive’ — we need an erotic stimulus for our desire to respond to.

Ruth Ramsay’s advice on how to have a revitalised sex life

Roy also noted that low sex drive itself is not a problem, but the sexual discrepancy that it brings. “The bigger the difference, the bigger the damage to the relationship. Dissatisfaction arises because the two spouses blame each other for what is happening with their relationship.”

One person may feel rejected, and the other may feel like a failure. That suggests that the dwindling sex drive can take a real toll on your relationship, even if only one has a low sex drive. Roy said, “However, this pattern does not signify a problem with your relationship. It is a puzzle for both to solve together.”

The lack of physical intimacy can have a knock-on effect on your relationship. To avoid this, the first step is to pinpoint the culprits that put your sex drive in the slow lane — which are numerous, and it determines how you should deal with it.

What can cause low libido?

Stress is a biggie. Passion killers on the psychological end of the spectrum include mental issues like anxiety and depression. The side effects from certain medications, such as anti-depressants and contraception contribute to low libido as well.

Self-esteem, body image and stress are all interlinked with sexual desire. This is proven by men avoiding sex due to their prior performance issues, rapid ejaculation or erectile issues, Roy explained.

One of the strongest factors impacting libido are relationship-based, be they long-standing unresolved relationship issues and resentment, being in a long-term relationship, or sexual boredom, can be a huge stressor.

Cultural aspects of a person’s upbringing, such as religion and subtle messages that lived decades before us can be a menace in the bedroom. Rachel New, UK dating coach and educator explained that some cultures almost indoctrinate people from a young age with beliefs that say sexual desire is wrong or immoral, which easily affect one’s perception of sex.

What can you do to help?

Once you’ve identified what lessens your desire of sex, you can treat low libido depending on the underlying issue. Rachel recommends you reach for the low-hanging fruit first — communicate with your partner. Your partner isn’t a mind reader and you’ve got to open a window of opportunity for communication rather than shy yourself away. Having a mindset of realizing the situation is normal and no one is at fault helps take the pressure off.

Prepare the ground by appreciating your partner and think of existing common resentments, such as you forgetting to take out the bins or clear up the kitchen, and make sure you’ve done those. Your partner will be more receptive to listening to you. Make sure to talk about what sexual intimacy means and what stopped you becoming intimate.

“Listen carefully and mirror back. Start with ‘So you’re feeling…, is that right?’ Feeling heard is essential for them before they can listen to your needs,” Rachel said. Gently request a small change from them and make the request you make to your partner to be about ‘us’ and ‘our sex life’, and not you and ‘your problem”.

Moreover, don’t be ashamed to reach out to professionals. Seek a doctor to discuss possible physical causes. Once this is ruled out, don’t be shy to talk to a sex therapist to explore underlying issues.

Murray said that humans are not very good at solving our own psychological issues, especially when it comes to sex. “Therapists are the best people that would give solutions that take in the wider context of the relationship that we overlook — not the part about sex — and would give tailor-made suggestions,” she added.

If the pressure to be sexually intimate gets too overwhelming, why not take sex off the menu for now and redefine intimacy? Truth is, you don’t need a hot and steamy tangle in the sheets to reap the benefits of a close physical relationship. Rachel said, “Sexual arousal is not the only way to strengthen bonds. Cuddles or simply locking hands releases oxytocin too.”

Our bodies need to connect to keep the emotional connection going, even if it’s non-sexual touching. Chances are, you’ll enjoy the intimacy once you get started, and your love for each other may be reignited. On the other hand, if you’re in a long-term relationship, too much togetherness can dampen passion. This is how you know a change of routine is needed.

Sometimes, according to Rachel, it takes more than a bubble bath, nice candles, and jazz music to get into the mood of sex (which is what most magazines would tell you to do). Studies pointed out this advice is aimed at heterosexual couples and gay couples don’t resonate with this.

Finding out what your ‘brakes’ and ‘accelerators’ are just as important. Ruth said: “We tend to ignore brakes or turn-offs to feeling desire and obsess with accelerators or turn-ons. But if our brakes are being hit, we won’t feel our accelerators.”

Some people naturally have more brakes and are more sensitive to them. Those people might think they have low libido, but it’s just their brakes being hit. If they take the pressure off the brakes, their libido is just fine.

Roy said that typically, women tend more towards the ‘responsive’ desire style and tend to have more ‘brakes’. Hence, they won’t feel desire as easily as men, especially if a partner is trying to activate their accelerators and not addressing their brakes.

Ruth explained, “She’s not ‘low libido’, they’re just not approaching sex the right way.” Lowering their stress levels, getting more sleep, or their partner helping with household chores more, these are ways to address the stressors.

In the book, “Come as You Are”, the author Emily Nagoski also explains we all have unique sexual “accelerators” and we should be inquisitive about what makes you feel most horny and what shuts down your sexual desire, which ultimately leads to easier sexual satisfaction.

At the end of the day, don’t worry too much if your unprompted desire goes missing for a while. But it can be concluded by experts such as Murray that the longer this is left or not spoken, the bigger the issue — for both sides of the relationship.

Edited by Caitlin Hart

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