‘Not tonight, dear’: Reconciling discrepancies in desire

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Glenn wants sex every day; Joe wants sex once a week. Heidi wants sex twice a week, while Robert wants it twice a month. Angela wants sex once a year, Paige wants to have sex — never?

Not everyone is wired the same way when it comes to their needs; factors that impact desire include age, history of trauma, issues with body image, child birth, menopause or medical conditions, just to name a few. Some of us are spontaneously interested in sex and pretty much want it anytime and anywhere, and don’t need much warming up before we’re ready to go. Some of us don’t think about sex frequently, and we can take it or leave it. Still others require special circumstances before we can have sex — a particular mood and setting, plenty of foreplay, medication to kick in, etc.

Perhaps you’re lucky enough to match with a person or persons with the same sexual appetite as you, but odds are your moods and cravings won’t always line up. Desire discrepancy is one of the top reasons people seek out sex therapy.

Unlike other disagreements, a compromise is not necessarily the solution: Asking someone to submit to more sex than they mentally or physically desire, or to repress their sex drive, hardly solves the problem. There’s no wrong way to crave sex, but knowing how to communicate and emotionally deal with saying, or your partner saying, “I’m not in the mood tonight, honey,” is where it often gets tricky.

Identifying how much sex you are both comfortable with is important — keeping in mind that, generally, the frequency of sex from the beginning of the relationship onward tends to decrease. It’s just not likely you’re going to want to jump each other at every opportunity a few months or years in; it’s not sustainable. However, you might substitute steaminess with intimacy, spending more time cuddling, massaging and bonding than going all the way.

Once the frequency of sex changes, how is that impacting you? As a low-desire partner, you might worry, “What is wrong with me?” If you’re the higher-desire partner, you might think, “Is she not into me anymore? Did I say something to turn her off? Is it because I asked her to put a finger in my butt last time, or because I’m not attractive to her anymore?”

All this while, you’re not talking to one another. Maybe you are afraid of hurting each other’s feelings or ashamed of how your body looks after having a baby. Maybe you’re just plain exhausted and have other priorities, or don’t feel emotionally connected, so why the hell would you want to be close to each other?

Whatever the reason, being willing to understand and admit what is going on is important to being able to communicate it with someone else.

Communication requires emotional skills. Many of us are not comfortable communicating because we are afraid of being criticized or don’t feel safe saying what we really want. We might know technically what to say to a partner but, as Marty Klein states in his book Sexual Intelligence:

No matter how clearly and responsibly you intend to express yourself, it’s hard to communicate well when you fear conflict or abandonment, have trouble trusting, or can’t accept that neither you nor your partner is perfect. That’s when communication is no longer about techniques and listening, it’s about the emotions that prevent us from using those techniques and prevent us from listening. To improve communication at that point, we have to deal first with those emotions.

Whether you are a low-, high- or no-desire partner, or somewhere in between, how are the differences in sexual desire within your relationship emotionally impacting it?

There are a lot of things that can get in the way of being able to connect sexually. Was there something about the sex that you weren’t into and were afraid to communicate? Could there be a medical issue impacting your interest in sex? Are you still pissed at your husband for not doing the dishes or helping with the kids, and the last thing you want to do is give him a blow job?

A low-desire partner might be blamed for withholding sex while a high-desire partner might feel frustrated or invisible. If you don’t know how to manage your emotions and communicate them to each other, not only your sex life but your relationship might be at risk. Nope, those “100 craaaazy sexual positions to spice up your sex life” will not help manage the uncomfortable emotions you’re having.

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Self-acceptance and honesty can help us move in the direction of dealing with whatever emotions are coming up. If we aren’t able to accept whatever reactions or feelings are coming up ourselves, why are we expecting our sexual partner(s) to?

But, as the performer Lizzo so brilliantly said in a recent editorial, “Self care is really rooted in self preservation, just like self love is rooted in honesty. We have to start being more honest with what we need, and what we deserve and start serving that to ourselves.”

What do you need to get honest with yourself? What are you expecting your partner to give you that you are missing? How can you give the love, acceptance or pleasure to yourself you are seeking outside of yourself, to yourself?

“Self acceptance is a key resource in unhooking from sex that’s oriented towards ‘normality’ and performance,” Klein writes. “It allows you to put your own experience in the center of your sexual decision making rather than feeling trapped by conventional societal ideas that may not suit you. It’s self acceptance that enables you to tell a partner you’d rather do X (your thing) than Y (everyone else’s supposed thing) which is crucial to enjoyable sex.”

So, if you find yourself at a point in your relationship where you’re struggling with a discrepancy in sexual desire, take a moment to reflect on what’s going on inside of you. Do you have the honesty, acceptance, humility and/or sense of humor to take a deep look down your side of the street and see what you’re bringing to the relationship — before you ask your partner(s) to give it to you?

And if you’re finding yourself hung up on what you, a partner or general society thinks you should want versus what you do, shake it off as best you can. Sexual appetite, like sexual preference, can’t be forced. Everyone from the sexually inexhaustible to the those on the asexual spectrum face judgement, but none are wrong or unnatural. Channel your inner Lizzo and do you.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 264.