Awkward: How do you navigate different sex drives in a relationship?

By Summer Hoagland-Abernathy, Copy Chief

Sedona Steffens

Before your partner closes their laptop after a long day of work and moves from their workspace to your bedroom, you pull out all the stops to help them unwind.

You have roses on the bed, lavender in the air and chocolate-covered strawberries on the nightstand—oh, and don’t forget yourself and a 12-pack of ribbed Trojan condoms.

But when your beloved finally slumps into the room, instead of flinging their arms around you in a moment of passion, they grab one of the strawberries, plop down onto the bed and grab the TV remote. They don’t even notice the Trojans! Although, they do thank you for the relaxing scene you’ve laid out.

This has happened a few times now: You really want to have sex, and you make this clear with your actions, but your partner does not reciprocate this desire.

This might be the last straw before you blow up on them, but first, stop and think about how you can better connect with them on the issue of differing libidos.

The Chronicle spoke with sex and relationship experts for advice on how to deal with a “desire gap” between you and your main squeeze.

I’m bringing sexy back (yeah):

Alexandra H. Solomon, clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, said there are healthy ways to fill the “desire gap.”

“Within a couple’s relationship, there are actually three sexualities: my sexuality, your sexuality and our sexuality,” Solomon said. “Masturbation sometimes is a really healthy way to fill up the gap in desire, … so even if a couple is very much in love, they still have a sexual relationship within themselves.”

Solomon, who published a book in 2020 about owning your own sexuality and communicating desires titled “Taking Sexy Back,” said having differing sex drives within a relationship is normal.

She said “vulva-bodied people are very often on the short end of the orgasm stick,” and sometimes a desire gap is fueled by unhealed trauma. So if one person is not getting as much out of sex as the other, partners should talk about how they can make sex better for that person.

A peaceful negotiation:

Hollie Schmid, marriage and family therapist at Relationship Reality 312, said finding and communicating your deal breakers, or non-negotiables, as well as your areas of flexibility with your partner, is important.

For instance, if your partner wants to have sex one time per week, and you’re okay with that, then the issue is settled. But if they want to have sex five times per week, and you only want to have sex two times per week, figure out where you can compromise. Would three times per week be okay? Would two times penetrative and one time oral be okay?

Schmid suggests starting with your deal breakers and working toward where you may be flexible, because if one partner is more flexible, this could lead to resentment from the other.

Help me help you:

Talking about what you and your partner’s needs are can also help, said Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart, relationship researcher and assistant professor at the University of Iowa in the Department of Communication Studies.

Do not accuse, try to solve the problem right away or get defensive, or else the conversation could shut down. Instead, explore to find a middle ground.

Societal images for what a sex life should look like are dangerous, especially for men who are “supposed to” want sex all the time, Mikucki-Enyart said, so find a soft conversation starter to open up communication about what you’d like your sex life to look like in your relationship.

Solomon said to not shame or blame your partner for wanting or not wanting sex often, but instead, try a sexuality podcast or book to learn how others talk about sex in a healthy way.

“Couples who can talk about sex have better sex,” Solomon said. “Desire discrepancy is not something that can get fixed. It’s something couples can navigate with a bit of levity and a lot of compassion and a lot of respect, and you get there by becoming better and better about talking about sex.”