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4 Tips for navigating mismatched libidos, according to a sex educator

It happens to even the most in-sync couples: one person wants to get it on, and the other wants to get to sleep. It’s totally normal for one of you not to be in the mood when the other one is one night, and for the inverse to be true the next morning. Or, for one of you to desire sex on a daily basis, while once a week feels sufficient for the second.  Mismatched libidos is not an uncommon problem, nor is it an insurmountable one. On the contrary, it’s an incredibly common problem that can be navigated with intention, compassion, and care. To learn how, read on. 

Here are four sex-educator-approved strategies for navigating different sex drives. Not only will these tips help you navigate a hard-to-talk-about subject, they’ll help strengthen your relationship. 

1. Talk about it!

Have you and your partner ever talked about the fact that you desire sex to differing degrees? Or is it the elephant in the room? If it’s the latter, it’s time for you to talk. (And no, passive aggressive digs don’t count as talking.) 

Not sure how to bring it up? Try starting gently. In general, sex is a sensitive topic. But it can feel especially sensitized when there’s an issue that needs sorting. 

Here are some ways you might bring it up:

  • I feel really nervous bringing this up because we haven’t talked about it before. I noticed that you’ve been turning down sex more often than usual. Would you be open to talking about it? 
  • I really love having sex with you. I noticed that I’ve been craving sex less often but I want to let you know that that isn’t a reflection of how attracted I am to you. I just wanted to say that to start a conversation. 
  • Are you open to talking about our sex during our next date night? I feel like we’ve been craving sex different amounts but we haven’t talked about it yet. 

2. Redefine what sex means to you 

Thanks to our lacking sex education, many people fall into the trap of thinking sex equals penetration. And sure, penetrative intercourse is one type of sex. But sex can include any act that inspires pleasure, including internal and external hand play, sex toy experimentation and use, oral sex, kissing, sensual dancing, erogenous zone stimulation, and so much more. Ultimately, if it feels like sex to you, it’s sex. 

If you and your partner haven’t talked about what sex feels like to you, or what sex acts you’d put under the sex umbrella, now is your time. 

To get this conversation started, try asking one another the following questions: 

  • What is the most pleasure you’ve ever felt during one of our sexual encounters?
  • What brings you the most pleasure when you masturbate? 
  • List all the adjectives that describe what sex feels like to you. 

The benefit of this activity? It helps better understand what sex acts might be on the table when one or both of you are in the mood for sex. 

3. Get honest about why you each like (or don’t like!) to have sex

Some people like to have sex because the orgasms help dull their chronic pain. Others like it because it makes them feel more intimately connected with their partner. 

On the other side of things, some people don’t always like having sex because it’s messy. Others don’t like it because it interferes with their morning and/or nighttime routine. 

It’s time you and your partner(s) talk about the reasons you’re drawn to have sex and the reasons you don’t want to

Some questions that can help usher along this conversation:

  1. Why do you enjoy having sex? 
  2. Rank the types of intimacy (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, intellectual) in order of which are most and least important to you. 
  3. What are some of the things that keep you from wanting to have sex? 

Once you know these things about one another, you’ll have the intel you need to tackle the next steps. You also know what the partner who is proposing sex really needs, and can come up with a plan b together. For instance, maybe instead of having sex you’ll take a bath together while talking about your days. 

4. Learn the difference between response and spontaneous desire

Indeed, it is possible that you and your partner crave sex at different amount. But often couples don’t actually have mismatched libidos, but instead differing forms of desire. 

Let’s explain. There are actually two different ways that the body registers an interest in sex. Sometimes the body registers an interest of sex out of nowhere, other times that interest in sex has to be sparked by experiencing or witnessing something sexual — these types of desire are known as spontaneous desire and responsive desire, respectively. 

Spontaneous desire is the type of desire we see depicted in movies; it’s kitchen-counter sex, bathroom stall sex, coat close sex. Responsive desire is the is interest in sex that comes after sexy time as already started or been put on the table, visa-vie things like kissing, massage, or joint-shower. 

Both spontaneous desire and responsive desire are totally normal. And most of us will experience both types of desire throughout our lifetime. But typically, people primarily experience one or the other. 

In relationships where one partner primarily experiences spontaneous desire and the other primarily experiences responsive desire, it is possible to think you have mismatched libidos when really you just have different primarily desire languages. 

If this is you and your partner, start by learning more about responsive and spontaneous desire by reading books like Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire And How To FutureProof Your Sex Life by Dr. Karen Gurney or Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski. 

Then, work together to learn the things that the partner with responsive desire needs in order to desire sex. 

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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