Different libidos: discussing desire in long-term relationships

How do you solve a problem like different libidos? What happens if your partner wants more sexual activity than you do, or vice versa? The first thing to recognise is that this isn’t an uncommon problem! It would be very rare indeed for any couple to match perfectly in terms of the exact amount of sexual play they’d like, and when you’re in a long-term relationship you also need to take into account the natural fluctuations that can occur over time.

But just because it’s a common problem doesn’t mean it’s easy to ignore. If you’re feeling frustrated or sad because you and your partner have very different libidos, there are lots of ways you can address this.

1. Remember that sexual desire isn’t fixed, and sex is not compulsory

The first thing to remember when considering mismatched libido is that sexual desire isn’t something which stays the same throughout your life. You may have some periods of time when you’re raring to go at any available opportunity, and others where you simply don’t want to get frisky. The same is true for your partner. As sex educators Meg-John and Justin put it when they were answering a reader question on their excellent podcast:

“it’s important to acknowledge the spectrums of desire and that it’s perfectly okay for somebody to move around on those over time, and/or stay in an asexual place.”

It’s great advice because you don’t want to begin a conversation about sexual desire from a place of expectation – “here’s how often we should be having sex” – and put pressure on your partner or make them feel as if their level of sexual desire is somehow ‘wrong.’

2. Avoid gendered assumptions (and ANY assumptions)

In our society, we are often taught that men will always want sex, and women should expect to have much lower sex drives. No matter what your or your partner’s gender, it’s important that you avoid falling into this trap. For a start, this assumption isn’t true. I can tell you this from personal experience as a woman who has had a much higher sex drive than boyfriends in the past, and also from the authoritative perspective of sex therapist Esther Perel.

In this blog post on challenging our gendered scripts, she explains that:

“In my practice, I frequently hear stories from patients that indicate these gender myths make us lose sight of what is actually happening. Saddled with these narrow ideas of sexuality, we suffer through unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs. And our relationships pay the price.”

3. Discuss how often you do want to have sex (and the kind of sex you want!)

When you’re ready to discuss this with your partner, it helps to begin by talking broadly about how often each of you want to have sex – and how you define sex itself! Clarifying terms isn’t just for starting GCSE essays – it’s a really helpful way to make sure you’re both on the same page. If you want to tell your partner that you’d like to have sex more, define ‘more’ – once a week, twice a week, once a day? And what kind of sex do you want to have? Are you looking for more quickies, more oral sex, trying out new kinks like bondage, playing together with vibrators, or something broader like more closeness and intimacy?

Many relationship experts – including Meg-John and Justin, mentioned above – have recommended the idea of writing a ‘sex menu’. That involves writing down the kind of things you like, and your limits, as something to refer to when you discuss this with your partner – read the blog post on sexual communication to find out more. Seth Meyers suggests coming up with a sexual scale, where you rate how sexual you are on a scale of 1-10, and asking your partner to do the same.

The aim of this isn’t to cement what you want or your desire levels – be clear to yourself that both your menu and your number can change over time! The aim is to give you a way to quantify and communicate your own needs, to make it easier to discuss with your partner.

4. Embrace a range of practical possibilities!

When I first started blogging, the answer to the question ‘what do we do if we have different libidos?’ was frequently answered in a very straightforward, simplistic way: masturbate more often. The partner who is hornier just wanks more, right? Well that’s certainly an option, and embracing masturbation – with a range of sex toys if you like – can be a valuable and rewarding part of your sex life. Personally I find masturbation to be an excellent complement to the sex I have with my partner, and he does too: we like enjoying our fantasies and sex play alone, where there is no pressure to perform and we can explore our desires in a way that works perfectly for each of us.

But that’s not the only option if different libidos are getting you down. Hopefully by this point you’ll have explored your own thoughts and feelings, and had the chance to talk to your partner about exactly what each of you wants and needs. You may find that what you’re craving isn’t sex itself so much as intimacy, in which case building in time for different kinds of intimacy may well do the trick. Whether that’s erotic massage, cuddling, talking about your fantasies, or whatever you put on your sex menu that your partner responded well to.

There is also the option of having sex with other people – if your needs are not compatible but you enjoy your relationship together, there is no rule that says you have to be monogamous. Plenty of people find that open relationships allow them to explore their needs in a way that puts less pressure on a partner who may not want the exact same thing. As with all of the suggestions in this piece, this isn’t a universal rule for everyone, but it is worth remembering that every relationship is different, and so the methods you use to ensure happiness in yours will depend on what works best for both of you!

Different libidos: communication is key

Hopefully this article will have given you some useful advice to think about how you deal with different libidos in your relationship. As with any relationship question, the key is communication: that means listening as well as articulating what you want. Communication – as I have to keep constantly reminding myself – isn’t a skill that most of us are innately good at. It takes time and practice, and there is always room for improvement. If you’d like some help communicating about this, or any other relationship issue, with your partner, I really recommend Meg-John and Justin’s website, or if you would like some practical support the counselling charity Relate is a great place to start.

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