Libido Differences in Relationships

Published on
June 3, 2021

Do you feel like your partner wants sex all the time? Or perhaps you’re the opposite and feel incredibly rejected because your partner never wants sex. Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle where one of you may want sex 3-4 times a week and the other wants it 3-4 times a month. What you may not realize, given that many people don’t talk about sex, is that libido differences are incredibly common.

What we find for most couples is that during the honeymoon phase of the relationship (which can last up to 18 months), sex is typically higher in frequency than normal. Once you move past the honeymoon phase, people tend to return to their normal libido states. For the folks with higher libidos, they can sometimes feel like this was a bait and switch by their partner; however, it’s important to remember that when you’re first in a relationship, all of your hormones are heightened. Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin… all the hormones that make us feel good and help us to want to bond are in overdrive. Eventually as we get acclimated to our partner, our brains start to return back to their normal hormonal states - that’s not something your partner is intentionally doing, it’s biology!

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Master’s and Johnson’s original model for sexual desire which demonstrates spontaneous desire

Typically when libido differences exist, it’s because sexual desire models are different for each person. Dr. Rosemary Basson posited that desire isn’t exactly linear as we once thought. One of the early ideas was that sexual response went like this: desire -> arousal -> plateau -> orgasm (or two) -> reduction. This tends to be considered the “spontaneous desire” arousal model. We now know that this isn’t true for everyone. Folks who have responsive desire (which means they can’t simply get turned on by the flip of a switch) have more factors at play that impact their arousal system. Aspects like willingness to become receptive, various life stressors (i.e. chores to get done, children horseplaying in the background, work to take care of, etc.), emotional state, etc. can all influence a person’s desire and receptivity for sex.

Basson’s model of responsive desire
Basson’s model of responsive desire

So, when you have a couple where one person is spontaneous desire (i.e., you can just give them a look and they are ready to go/sex is possibly a way that they cope with stress) and the other is responsive desire, libido differences occur. This means you each have to put in a little effort to make sex happen, and that is normal! For folks with responsive desire, you want to examine what turns you on and also what keeps you from being receptive to sex. Take some agency for yourself and find ways to decrease the stressors or do an activity that actively turns you on (i.e., put on an outfit that makes you feel sexy, have someone watch the kids for an evening, take a nap, etc.) For folks with spontaneous desire, take some agency and help decrease the stressors in your partner’s life that are keeping them from being receptive to sex (i.e., take care of the dishes or dinner that night; offer a back massage; play a game together to build connection). This is a very simplified version of how to cope with different response models and each person is going to have their own turn ons/stressors that impact responsive desire. Dr. Emily Nagoski in her book “Come As You Are” describes this in a lot greater detail and I highly recommend the reading. She even has some excellent worksheets that can get you started on exploring your turn ons/stressors here.

Once you start to understand each other’s response models, you can then make plans accordingly to be intentional about increasing the frequency of sex to a place that feels like a good compromise to you both. Plenty of folks schedule sex to ensure they have it at least a few times throughout the month and then try and initiate some spontaneous sex in between. This can allow you both to pay attention to actively decreasing stressors on certain days and puts sex on the brain so that you are feeling more available for it in the evening. For more ideas on how to explore turning a person on, check out this blog.

So, take some time to figure out what type of response model you most often align with. From there, make a plan for how you can take responsibly for getting yourself in the mood (either by decreasing stress or adding some turn ons into the mix) and talk about this with your partner(s). Give them ways that they can also help you feel more receptive and turn you on so that you both get your needs met. And for the spontaneous desire partner, actively think of ways to help increase receptivity to sex through paying attention to stressors/opportunities to turn your partner on. While you may not ever fully align on the amount of times in a day/week/month/year that you have sex, this is a way to help you get much closer to a happy medium.

(Thumbnail image photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash because puppies can show desire too! Even if it’s just for pie)

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