So, you want less sex than your spouse does. Is that a problem? Well, it turns out that’s a question for your spouse. But if it is a problem, today we’re going to help you navigate your way through this delicate issue.
Maybe you haven’t heard the terminology ‘low desire versus high desire’. Many marriages will have sexual desire discrepancies in which one spouse desires more sex than the other spouse. Often, but not always, the husband is high desire and the wife is low desire.
If your marriage is the other way around, and the wife is high desire and the husband is low desire, that’s fine too!
There is no judgment on low is bad or high is good, we just need to be aware that in almost every marriage there is a difference in sexual desire. That is not a bad thing. It just is what it is. It can be a pain point though, if we don’t know how to handle it or we think it is a bad thing.
The spouse with low desire often wants to meet the desire of the other spouse, but feels unable to do this when they just don’t desire sex. So what should they do? That’s the dilemma…
Are You the High Desire Spouse?
The focus of this post is the low desire spouse – if you’re the high desire spouse, we have a one-page document for you because your role is critical too. Become a patron of our show today and download “Tips for High Desire Spouses” now. The three ideas in the PDF will help you get what you want more of: sex and intimacy.
Let’s start by looking at the nature of sexual desire, then the problems that sexual desire discrepancies can cause in marriage and finally look at practical ways in which the low desire spouse can move forward.
The Nature of Sexual Desire
In 2003, Levine wrote an influential article entitled The Nature of Sexual Desire in which he defines sexual desire as “the sum of the forces that lean towards and away from sexual behavior”[i]. He states that sexual desire is made up on three components:
- Drive – “a biological component which has an anatomy and neuroendocrine physiology.” This is just about how you’re made, how you’re wired, and how the chemicals in your body balance out. For example, we know that testosterone levels in men affects sexual desire. Testosterone levels, in turn are affected by things like obesity, depression and more.
- Motivation – “the psychological component” which is influenced by three things:
- Personal mental states such as joy or sorrow. Often we talk about “not being in the mood”. This is usually a reference to how our motivation is affected by our current emotional state.
- Interpersonal states such as mutual affection, disagreement, or disrespect. How well are we getting along? Or how much non-sexual intimacy are we experiencing?
- Social contexts such as relationship duration and infidelity – other factors from the circumstances of our lives.
All three of these affect our motivation!
- Wish – “the cultural component that reflects values, meanings, and rules about sexual expression that are inculcated in childhood.” This can be huge for people of faith. We hear time and again of couples where a spouse was taught for the first 20 years of his/her life that sex was bad. Then they get married and are expected to become sexually active but cannot switch the belief that “sex is bad” over to “sex is good” because they made some wedding vows.
Issues can come up in one or multiple of these areas to lead to issues in desire: drive, motivation and wish (or beliefs).
The Cost of Sexual Desire Discrepancy in a Marriage
Now that we know the nature of sexual desire, let’s look at the type of issues that come up when we’re not aligned.
A study in 2014 of 1054 married couples looked at the associations between sexual desire discrepancy and four relationship outcomes (how satisfied the couple was with their marriage, how stable their relationship was, how much conflict they had, and how much positive communication they had)[ii].
The study compared how much sex couples actually had versus how much they wanted. They called the difference a sexual desire discrepancy. The difference is what is important – the discrepancy. The results showed that:
- High discrepancy for either spouse was generally associated with less satisfaction, less stability, less positive communication, and more couple conflict.
- As a note of interest, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been married.
- Husbands were more likely to report larger discrepancies than wives.
- Not only did they report larger discrepancies, but sexual desire discrepancies in husbands, “was more likely to lead to negative marital communication compared to sexual desire discrepancies found among wives.”
Sounds to me like husbands are more likely to take this personally or else are bringing a greater sense of entitlement to the marriage. OR, could it be that wives are attempting to use the withholding of sex as a way to gain power in the marriage? Or, are we just socialized for this? It comes to some very complex social and cultural issues.
We’ll look at some of this but we just want to make the point that having a discrepancy between what you want and what you get can impact your marriage negatively. It doesn’t have to though – it is possible in some marriages, that there is a difference in desire but that both of you ARE sexually satisfied. Don’t think there is a problem in your relationship just because you have different desire levels. Ask your spouse, “Are you sexually satisfied?” (Yes, it’s a little scary, but give it a shot!)
Addressing the Three Components of Desire
The next question we want to look at is how can someone who has low desire try to meet the higher desire of their spouse when they just aren’t feeling it? To address this, let’s look at the three components of desire that we listed above – Drive, Motivation, and Wish.
Biological Factors Related to Drive
Biological factors can play a huge role in issues of low desire. Looking specifically at women who more often experience low drive, we see that desire can fluctuate under a number of circumstances. Levine (2003) lists pregnancy, lactation, menstrual cycle, menopause, fatigue, and mothering as physical reasons a woman might experience low drive. He states it is also common for desire to be affected by medical conditions and the treatment of medical conditions.
We talk about being new parents with a baby and the impact on sexuality and how to successfully navigate that in Episode 77: Parenting For the Benefit of Your Marriage. The point here is that life circumstances need to be taken into consideration, so you should cut yourself some slack if you have a baby or health issues or you’re just in a super busy season of life.
If the issue of low desire has become particularly pervasive, come on suddenly without warning, or is present when no obvious psychological or relationship factors are at play, it is worth determining if biological factors are at play. It is recommended that you see a gynecologist or even your family doctor if the problem is pervasive and ongoing.[iii]
The good news is that issues of sexual desire are often treatable when their basis is grounded in biological factors.
Keep in mind also that there are a lot of street and prescription drugs that reduce sexual desire. Alcohol, even in small quantities, can reduce sex drive.
Psychological Factors Related to Motivation
The second component of sexual desire is motivation. This is separate from drive in that a spouse can have drive – a biologically-driven desire to have sex – but not have motivation – desire to have sex with their spouse. Among other reasons, this is often due to relational factors in the marriage or individual factors in the low desire spouse.[iv]
Many of the non-medical treatments for low desire have not been extensively researched. Most knowledge on the subject comes from clinical observation and not empirical research.[v] We want to give you some ideas to consider though, and if you want to unpack them more with a therapist, do get in touch with Caleb.
Recognize Your Place of Power – It takes the agreement of both parties to engage in consensual sex, and only the refusal of one spouse to avoid sex. This puts the low-desire spouse in a “strategically powerful position.” The future of your marriage and whether it will turn in a sexless marriage rests on the low desire spouse and how he or she chooses to move forward.[vi]
If you are in the low-desire position, I would really encourage you to think about how you might be withholding sex in order to gain power. Do you need to do that in your marriage? Can you find another way to feel that you are contemporary with your spouse without leveraging that through withholding sex? This is where desire quickly becomes a relational issue. But… It’s a problem to withhold sex.
The Problem of Deliberately Withholding Sex – The low desire spouse has this place of power and determines when the couple does or does not have sex. Unfortunately, deliberately withholding sex can be what leads to the problem of low desire.[vii] McNab and Henry (2006) point out that most low-desire spouses don’t feel desire, but wish that they did. They withhold sex, oftentimes based on the belief that abstinence is normal behavior, and this withholding of sex perpetuates the issue of low desire.
In other words, you cause the low desire that you don’t want because you’re training yourself to remove yourself from that desire. That’s not what you want and it’s not helpful.
Consider the Place of Eroticism in Your Marriage – McCarthy and Farr (2012) provide a framework for maintaining desire for couples that includes three guidelines related to motivation:
- Building intimacy,
- Engaging in non-demand pleasuring, and
- Developing eroticism.[viii]
The low desire spouse should consider the place of eroticism in their marriage. “Erotic scenarios and techniques are perhaps the most confusing and controversial component of couple sexuality. The challenge is to develop erotic scenarios and techniques which build subjective and objective arousal.”[ix]
Perel (2006) recognized the importance of intimacy in marriage, but believes that too much intimacy without eroticism can “smother sexual desire…There can be so much closeness that partners ‘de-eroticize’ each other, and lose the capacity to initiate, be sexually playful, and value sexual creativity and vitality.”[x]
Briefly, here are a few items from Penner & Penner[xi] which also impact sexual motivation:
- Relationship issues: listen, husband. If you only get friendly with your wife when it’s bedtime and you ignore her the rest of the evening…you should expect a difference in sexual desire.
- Difficulty with arousal or orgasm. If one of you has troubles with arousal or achieving orgasm, this could lead to lower response.
- Rigid anti-sexual teaching. If you’ve been taught your genitals are dirty or that sex is bad, that could significantly impact your desire.
- Sexual trauma. There are many adult women that have had at least one experience that left them confused, guilty or traumatized. The self-blamer that comes with this and other aspects lead to low sexual desire.
- Sexual ambivalence: more common in women from alcoholic and dysfunctional homes where they feel a need now to show excessive control.
- Feeling sexually naive or awkward
- The entrepreneurial male: has conquered everything in his life and achieved success, including with his wife, and is no longer bothered by his own trivial sexual needs or those of his wife. He’s not against the marriage, he’s just pursuing bigger projects now.
- A lack of bonding in infancy: find it hard to be close and experience warmth associated with sex
- A husband who had a controlling, male-depreciating mother. He has grown up feeling unsure of himself and inadequate as a man and now has a wife…could be scary.
- Being homosexually oriented but in a heterosexual marriage would lead to a lack of desire as well.
The good news again is that there is help and treatment for this. Sex therapy is one area of counseling that has good success rates. If you need help, there is hope, and you can make this part of your marriage very rich. I would encourage you to reach out for that help.
Cultural Factors Related to Wish
The third component of sexual desire is the cultural aspect that leads to expectations regarding what sex should be like.
This is a good spot to stop and say, “Hey, what are the real issues here?” Instead of having an actual problem with sex drive, it could just be that there’s a problem with your perception about what your sex drive should be.
The authors cited above point out that our current culture sets up married couples to have unrealistic expectations about sex. They note that when couples watch R-rated movies or pornography, these videos set up unreasonable expectations that lead to low sexual desire when sexual encounters in real life do not match the expectations created by the happenings on screen.
So, what is the reality of married sex? Here are some statistics to reorient couples to reality.
“Our culture emphasizes mutual and synchronous couple sexual experiences – equal levels of desire, arousal, and orgasm each time…Among happily married, sexually satisfied couples this occurs in less than 50% of encounters. (Laumann et al. 1999)”[xii] Couples hit the sweet spot less than half the time!
Note that this is not among all couples – this is among sexually satisfied couples. So, the people who, in real life, are having the best sex, are not having the best sex every time they have sex. And they’re still very happy.
The researchers go on to say that “it is normal for 5-15% of sexual encounters among happily married, sexually satisfied couples to be dissatisfying or dysfunctional (Frank et al, 1978).
Again, I want to say that a discrepancy in sexual desire between you and your spouse does not have to be a problem. Perhaps you need to think about the following questions: is the difference a real problem in that one of you is dissatisfied? Or maybe both of you are dissatisfied? Or have you come to be holding some unrealistic expectations and in reality, everything is fine?
It really is a matter of perception, and if you’re both satisfied – great! So what if one spouse is higher desire and the other is lower desire? Acknowledge that desire and arousal are two different things.
Think about arousal for a minute. If you’re the low desire spouse, you may not want sex – but you could still be willing to allow your spouse to arouse you to engage in sex. That’s just about being willing and open.
If you’re the high desire spouse, you don’t have to take your low desire spouse’s lack of interest as a personal insult. It doesn’t mean you’re not attractive or unsexy. It just means there’s a difference in drive. So work on the overall intimacy of your marriage: emotional as well as physical.
If a difference in desire is causing dissatisfaction in one or both of you, then seriously consider one or more of the areas of concern that we’ve addressed here. If someone is unhappy, get help because there is good help available for this and you can make this a part of your marriage that is happy and enjoyable and satisfying rather than stressful and painful and a source of grief.
[i] Stephen B. Levine, “The Nature of Sexual Desire: A Clinician’s Perspective,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 32, no. 3 (June 2003): 279–85, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1023421819465.
[ii] Brian J. Willoughby, Adam M. Farero, and Dean M. Busby, “Exploring the Effects of Sexual Desire Discrepancy Among Married Couples,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 43, no. 3 (April 2014): 551–62, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10508-013-0181-2.
[iii] Sheryl A. Kingsberg and Terri Woodard, “Female Sexual Dysfunction: Focus on Low Desire,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 125, no. 2 (February 2015): 477–86, doi:10.1097/AOG.0000000000000620.
[iv] Levine, “The Nature of Sexual Desire.”
[v] Warren L. McNab and Jean Henry, “Human Sexual Desire Disorder: Do We Have a Problem?,” Health Educator 38, no. 2 (2006): 45–52.
[vi] Ulrich Clement, “Sex in Long-Term Relationships: A Systemic Approach to Sexual Desire Problems,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 31, no. 3 (June 2002): 241–46.
[vii] McNab and Henry, “Human Sexual Desire Disorder.”
[viii] Barry Mccarthy and Emily Farr, “Strategies and Techniques to Maintain Sexual Desire,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 42, no. 4 (December 2012): 227–33, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10879-012-9207-7.
[xi] Joyce Penner and Clifford Penner, Counseling for Sexual Disorders, Resources for Christian Counseling, v. 26 (Dallas: Word Pub, 2005).
[xii] Mccarthy and Farr, “Strategies and Techniques to Maintain Sexual Desire.”