When there is a tremendous disparity between partners’ sex drives, relationships can be difficult to manage. The low-libido partner may feel pushed and resentful, and the high-libido partner can feel abandoned, betrayed, rejected, and angry. While both individuals within this dynamic struggle, the higher-libido partner has unique challenges, and their perspective will be the focus of this post.
There are two types of couples I usually see who exhibit a significant disparity in sex drives:
- Couples who started out with roughly equivalent levels of desire, but after a few years of what I call “monotogamy” (monotonous monogamy), one partner — often but not always the female in heterosexual couples — experiences a drastic drop in sex drive
- Couples who had a pronounced difference in sexual desire from the beginning of the relationship, but the couple loved each other enough to either consciously (or subconsciously) dismiss or minimize the potentially destructive impact of this disparity
Each type of couple has distinct difficulties. In the first case, the higher-libido partner often feels like there has been a “bait and switch.” In their lowest moments, they may believe their partner intended to entrap them in a relationship using sex, and then “turned off the spigot” once they were committed, living together, or married. This partner feels they would not have willingly entered into a relationship where their sexual needs were not met, and they feel resentful and angry. Incidentally, in my experience working with couples, there is rarely a premeditated desire to decrease sex after commitment.
The second type of couple usually consists of individuals who minimize the importance of sex in marriage, whether this is due initially to naivete, religious backgrounds, or any number of issues. The higher-libido partner assumes they will not care so much about sex after marriage, that love will conquer all, or that the lower-libido partner’s sexuality will blossom fully after the security of marriage or monogamy. This partner usually feels less comfortable bringing up the extent of their dissatisfaction directly to the lower-libido partner. Resentment simmers in the background of their relationship.
For both of these couples, the partner with higher sex drive may feel that the rejection of their sexuality means that the partner doesn’t love them, won’t go out of their comfort zone for the sake of the relationship, or finds them disgusting. Whatever their innate and personal triggers are — whether this is insecurity about lovability, body image concerns, sensitivity to rejection, or anything else — the lack of sex will exacerbate them.
A lack of sex is a major source of shame for many people. Men who are rejected for sex frequently come to interpret this outcome as an attack on their manhood. Women, who are told by the media that men “always” pursue their partners for sex voraciously, often doubt their attractiveness and femininity. Both partners might feel too embarrassed to discuss their sexual rejection with friends or even their therapists, and it becomes a secret source of shame rather an issue to be constructively processed.
To work out these issues, the higher-libido partner can benefit from working individually with a therapist. It can be triggering to feel rejected in as important an arena as sexuality. This distress can dredge up childhood-level concerns about being adequate and lovable, and can also lead to toxic levels of anger. The conflict can also sabotage any attempts to communicate feelings effectively to a partner who might be likelier to shut down in the face of anger or passive aggression.
I highly encourage couples with a sex drive disparity to work with a couples therapist who understands and focuses on sexual issues within relationships. All too commonly, a couple will go to couples therapy and, when sex is not discussed, the partners are too shy to bring up the issue. The couple may work productively on other areas within the relationship, but they cannot truly heal because the “elephant in the room” of sex has not been explored.
If you reach out to a counselor, ask in the initial contact whether they work with sexual issues within relationships. When sexual issues are discussed and worked on openly and directly, many couples can empathize with one another for the first time, and come to a place where they both feel responded to and understood. Each partner needs to venture outside their comfort zone to work on coming together to build a sex life that can be fulfilling.