How Do We Deal With Mismatched Sex Drives?
People talk about their sex drive the same way they may boast about a car's horsepower.
Not to mention the celebrities who discuss their sexual prowess and libido in the media.
"So-and-so can last for this long," or "This person could do it for this many times in a day."
There is a tendency to liken a higher libido to a superpower, as if it's the sexual equivalent of being able to lift a huge weight or run at exceptional speed.
"We live in a culture that has over-coupled sex with power, commitment of love and personal worthiness," said Kate Balestrieri, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist and founder of couples therapy platform Modern Intimacy, based in California.
"As such, many consciously and unconsciously ascribe to a 'more is more' or 'should' mindset around sexual desire," she added.
'When people are not having sex, they feel undesirable and they question what's wrong with themselves'
New York City-based sex expert and marriage therapist, Jane Greer, Ph.D., and author of "Am I Lying to Myself? How to Overcome Denial and See the Truth," agreed.
"[The superiority of higher libido] is promoted in our media and the message often goes, if you want to be desirable, you need to be sexual," she said. "When people are not having sex, they feel undesirable and they question what's wrong with themselves or whether their partners find them attractive. It often leads to feelings of inadequacy."
But is having a higher libido necessarily healthier? How would sex experts define a healthy sex drive?
Is a higher libido healthier?
According to Florida-based sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist Joy Berkheimer, Ph.D., the definition of a healthy level of libido is subjective and depends on the individual.
"The concern comes when there is a huge dip from one day to the next or from one relationship to the next," she said. "There can be a shift in how safe you feel from one person to another. Or a shift in your health that needs to be checked out right away. It could also be sudden stress or trauma not related to either, but that is being ignored and manifested in your body nonetheless."
"What could be healthy for one person might be having sex once a week, but for another person, it could be every two to three days," Greer said. "It depends on each individual's desire and energy level."
Balestrieri noted that as sexual desire varies across an individual's lifespan, "there is no magic amount of sex that is the goal to strive for, so it's really about right-sizing sex in your life in a way that works best for you."
Greer explained there may be instances when a person with a higher libido makes another person with a lower sex drive feel that there might be "something wrong" with them. If this happens in a relationship, it is imperative to talk about it with your partner.
"First, you need to acknowledge that different people have different needs in terms of frequency [of sex]," Greer said. "It's important to compromise and find the middle ground."
Balestrieri emphasized that taking a neutral position concerning libido is key.
"It is not better or worse to have a higher or lower libido," she said. "Refrain from shaming the partner with the lower desire, and refrain from using doubt, manipulation or coercion to engender a sexual experience. Also, the more entitlement the partner with the higher desire demonstrates to having sex, the less desire may be felt by their partner.
She advised couples to work with a couples sex therapist so they can better navigate the physical, emotional and relational aspects that may contribute to the mismatch in desire, and then work out a plan that respects both partners' needs.
"Do not assume the partner with lower desire is responsible for fixing 'the problem,'" Balestrieri added. "Lower desire is not problematic. A mismatch in desire is a relationship problem, more than it is a sexual problem."
Greer suggested sex does not always mean intercourse.
"You can touch and still take part in being intimate with your partner, but you don't need to be completely involved beyond your energy level," she said.
She noted she advises her clients to practice "scheduled spontaneity" so that sex is a planned activity to a certain extent.
However, if it is a medical condition affecting a person's sex drive, it's important for your partner to go with you to the doctor's visit.
"Help them understand it's not about them…if it's not," Berkheimer recommended. "If it is about your relationship, be honest about that and give them an opportunity to work with you on this."
4 tips to maintain a healthy sex drive
With the caveat that a low libido may suit your lifestyle perfectly and require no adjustment and that everyone is different, here are some general strategies for a robust sex drive:
1. Take care of your physical and mental health
It is no surprise that most experts mention this first since our overall health directly relates to our sex drive.
"Nurture your mind and body with healthy habits—not in a rigid way, but in a manner that suits you and your body," Balestrieri said. "And try to get enough sleep."
Getting enough exercise is another important element, Greer said.
"Exercising gives a sense of energy, makes you feel good about your body."
2. Communicate regularly with your partner about what you're feeling
"Be honest with your partner about your desires, curiosities, insecurities and what excites you," Berkheimer said. "[Couples should] clear out feelings and frustrations, that [might] have nothing to do with sex but connect with how much you respect and trust your partner. [Because] resentments harbored [could] shut you down sexually [and] stop you from initiating or responding during intimate moments."
Discussing the quality over quantity of sex could make a difference.
"Does [your partner] feel that with less sexual desire they are loved less? Show them other ways they are intensely loved," Berkheimer said.
3. Slow down and take sensual notice of your environment
"Allow yourself to be 'moved' by that beauty," McMahon explained. "Slow down and notice. Notice the feeling of water on your skin in the shower or the smell of the soap. Explore your own areas of your body that feel good to the touch."
4. Regularly create a context that stimulates sexual interest
"Allow yourself to fantasize," Greer said. "Talk to your partner about being intimate and talk about things you're going to enjoy. Verbal foreplay makes a difference to many people."
Berkheimer noted there are actions you can initiate to build up sexual energy, such as erotic massages.
"Allow your partner to be lit up by being the receiver of a touch session, leaving them satisfied but anticipating more," she said. "This will help you recognize your partners' ultimate arousal language."
McMahon explained that men and women identify with sex drive in a different way.
"Step away from a notion of a 'sex drive' which women often don't identify with, and choose instead to define a fulfilling 'context' for feeling relaxed, attractive and desirable," she said. "What does that look like for you? Clean sheets? Freshly showered? A clean kitchen? Well rested? Soft music?"
"Then answer the question of what a partner could do to create that context as well as what you could do to create it for yourself," McMahon said. "Think of conditions that pump sexual interest instead of an internal 'magic juice' that propels you into sex."