How to Balance Mismatched Sex Drives In a Relationship
Leah, a bubbly personal trainer, was 29 years old when she met Trish, a reclusive writer who came to one of her classes in New York. For the first few months, Leah was convinced that nothing could ruin their connection—this, she thought, had to be "the one." After a few months of blissful coupledom, however, the relationship hit a snag—Leah and Trish didn't have compatible sex drives.
"It felt like every time I brought up sex, she was 'too tired' or 'too busy,'" Leah said. "I started to feel like I was doing something wrong." Trish, on the other hand, felt a constant pressure to perform. A few months later, they decided to end the relationship.
Couples often find themselves in this predicament, but not all of them will want to throw in the towel. The good news is that mismatched sex drives don't automatically doom your relationship: According to experts, there are ways to find a balance that will keep everyone satisfied.
Broach the conversation
Out-of-sync sex drives can be an awkward subject to broach, but the first step to resolving this problem is to talk about it. "Many couples avoid the sex talk because we haven't been taught the communication skills to have these very necessary conversations," said Lisandra Leigertwood, M.A., MBACP, a psychotherapist and relationship therapist from New Frame Therapy in Hertfordshire, U.K.
Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., an in-house relationship expert at Paired who is based in New York City, agreed. "It's difficult to talk about sex drives, or sex in general, because it requires a great deal of vulnerability," she said. "Recent research from the Paired couples app found that nearly half of us find it awkward to talk to our partner about sex."
If you're struggling to have this conversation, here are some tips from the experts:
- Choose your time wisely. Avoid discussing your libido differences when your partner is distracted or busy, as they may feel ambushed and become defensive.
- If you feel awkward, try to bring it up as naturally as possible by segueing to the subject. For instance, if you see something on TV that resonates with your situation, use that as a jumping-off point.
- Be as open and honest as you can be to build a foundation of trust—be prepared to listen and share some uncomfortable truths.
- Avoid making assumptions, judgments or accusations regarding your partner. For instance, instead of saying, "You always avoid sex," try saying, "I feel that I want sex more than you do."
- Try not to make comparisons between your relationship and other relationships. Focus on what you want, rather than what you think of as "the norm."
Seek medical or professional help if necessary
In some cases, a low libido may be a sign of a medical issue, such as arthritis, stress, high blood pressure or depression. "Stress, sleep and nutrition can also affect sex drive," Cohen said, "so understanding potential environmental causes is important."
There may also be underlying issues in the relationship that are causing changes to you or your partner's sex drive— anything from a lack of trust to underlying, unspoken resentments about housework, childcare or finances—in which case, seeing a relationship therapist can help. Leigertwood explained that a therapist can help you get to the bottom of these relationship problems and offer options such as "exercises like sensate focus, where you get to explore physical touch." This can help you and your partner improve your sexual connection.
Explore all the options
Once you've ruled out any medical concerns or intimacy-related problems in the relationship, you and your partner may come to the conclusion that your libidos are simply mismatched naturally. While this can be upsetting, it doesn't necessarily spell the end of the relationship: Many couples are able to compromise and work toward a sex life that satisfies everyone.
In some cases, this can mean getting a little creative about what sex looks like. Cohen suggests exploring the following questions: "Does sex mean only intercourse, or does foreplay count, too? What are other ways in which a person with a higher libido can feel sexually fulfilled if their partner doesn't want to engage as frequently?"
According to a 2020 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, there are a few ways that couples with mismatched libidos can compromise and both feel satisfied:
- Mutual or solo masturbation: Engaging in masturbation together can help a couple feel intimate without having penetrative sex. When one person really isn't in the mood, solo masturbation can be a good alternative to help the other person feel sexually satisfied.
- Sex toys: In some cases, couples are able to find a compromise that involves the use of sex toys. If one person has a lower sex drive, they can pleasure their partner with sex toys to help both people feel that they are getting what they want from the relationship.
- Getting close physically: Not all physical intimacy has to lead to sex. Many couples with libido discrepancies find that kissing, cuddling and hugging can be an adequate substitute for sex.
- Maintenance sex: In some cases, the person with a lower sex drive agrees to "maintenance sex"—essentially, scheduled sex that keeps the other person feeling sexually satisfied. While it may not sound particularly romantic, this option can work if both people agree with the plan.
- Opening up the relationship: While an open relationship may not work for everyone, for some couples, it's the perfect solution to the problem of mismatched libidos. With an open relationship, the person with the higher sex drive can find sexual satisfaction outside of the relationship while remaining romantically committed to their partner. If you decide to give this option a try, remember to be clear and honest about how the situation will work.
Leah and Trish called it quits, but not every couple with mismatched sex drives needs to follow in their footsteps. Whether you enter into an open relationship or explore options like mutual masturbation, it's possible to stay together if you keep an open mind and, most importantly, commit to honesty. "Sex is one part of a relationship, but there is more to a relationship than just sex," Leigertwood said. "If both parties are willing to accept these differences, they can find a happy future."