Sexual Desire Differences: What If There’s Nothing Going Wrong?

Corey Allan

Corey Allan, Ph.D.
Simple Marriage

Today I am launching a series of guest posts from the male perspective with Corey Allan of Simple Marriage. I’ve followed Corey’s blog for several months and listened to his Sexy Marriage podcast with another marriage and sexuality blogger, Gina Parris. Here is Corey’s take on sexual desire differences.

Are you the high desire or the low desire spouse when it comes to sex?

Have desire differences created problems in your marriage?

Sooner or later, most couples experience problems in this area. Desire problems are the most common sexual complaint for couples.

But what about (cue the dramatic music) if you’re the wife who has higher desire for sex than your husband?!?

It’s natural to feel bad about having sexual desire differences, especially if you believe that sex is a natural function. Most people believe that love automatically creates sexual desire in healthy people. And at first glance, this makes a lot of sense.

But if you buy into the belief that sexual desire comes “naturally,” you’re in for a load of problems. You’ll feel pressured to create something that just isn’t there. You’ll get defensive and despondent when problems surface in your sex life. You may even begin to feel defective or screwed up. In turn, it’s less likely that you’ll address these sexual desire problems and even less likely you’ll succeed if you do. Add to this the seemingly taboo-ness of a man with low sexual desire (not as uncommon as you’d think).

When you believe that sex is a natural function, it sucks to be the low desire spouse. You may see yourself as the one with the problem . . . plus it’s likely that your spouse (the high desire spouse) sees you that way too.

The other big problem with approaching sexual desire as a natural biological function is it actually helps create low sexual desire because it makes sexual desire impersonal. It’s hard to desire sex when it feels like your spouse just wants to relieve their physical or emotional needs.

Know this: There’s always a low desire spouse and there’s always a high desire spouse — and there’s one of each in every marriage.

Arrows - up and down

There’s a low desire spouse and a high desire spouse on virtually every issue and decision in marriage. One of you wants to do something the other doesn’t, or wants to less than you. And even if you both want the same thing, one of you will want it more than the other. Plus, no one is the low desire, or high desire on everything. Positions shift on different issues throughout the marriage.

Desire differences are going to happen. And the positions you take (low or high desire) are simply points on a continuum.

The most freeing point of this view, neither the high desire position or the low desire position is right or wrong. They’re simply differences.

Let’s say you want to have sex every day, you’d likely think that would make you the high desire spouse. But if you’re married to a person that wants sex two times per day, you’re the low desire spouse. Desire isn’t either high or low due to biological drive, past history, or even how much you like sex — it results from some standard of comparison, usually this is your spouse.

If you buy into this idea it will help you stop the arguments over how much sexual desire is normal or healthy.

Let me state it this way — I really like sex.

I also really like chocolate — but not every day.

When my wife and I have attempted to have sex every day for a certain number of days in a row, it becomes burdensome and impersonal. But does that mean the couples who have sex more often than us are better or healthier than us? Nope.

Same for those that are less frequent. This is that comparison devil rearing its head again.

Differences are going to happen in marriage.

Especially when it comes to sexual desire.

Why?

Because this is how relationships are designed to operate. There’s more going on than “happily ever after.”

When it comes to marriage, the relationship is driven by more than just feelings, and it helps to realize that feelings aren’t always accurate. Feelings are open to interpretations. And our feelings can lead us to believe that when your spouse isn’t interested in sex like you are there must be something wrong.

Well, things going wrong and things not going the way you want are two different things.

And, if you can see that there’s actually nothing going wrong, it’s more likely you can turn things around and make them more to your liking.

The beauty of seeing desire differences (regardless of gender) as points on a continuum is it reframes the “problem.” Couples have often sought ways around this problem. Or more aptly stated, high desire spouses have sought ways to increase their spouse’s desire.

But, inevitably, the low desire spouse will control sex.

Here’s how this works:

The high desire spouse makes most, if not all, of the overtures and initiations for sex.

The low desire spouse decides which of the sexual overtures he or she will respond to.

Which determines when sex happens. Giving the low desire spouse de facto control of sex — whether he or she wants it or not.

When you look at it this way it seems simple.

The key is — how you experience this, and handle this, will say a lot about you regardless whether you’re the high or the low desire spouse.

The fact that you experience desire differences doesn’t necessarily mean there is something going wrong — and shifting your perspective could change everything.

It could open the door to you both using your sexual desire differences more productively. Desire problems can be useful to people and relationships — they push you to become more solid within yourself.

Being in a committed relationship brings two life forces front and center. The drive for togetherness and the drive for separateness. The desire to connect and share experiences with another person and the refusal to submit to another person’s tyranny.

When it comes to sexual desire, the low desire spouse understands tyranny. He or she feels oppressed, pressured to want sex and have sex, thanks to the badgering by their spouse’s higher desire. BUT, the high desire spouse understands tyranny too. He or she will feel the pressure to have sex when and how it’s available since opportunities may be few and far between. They must settle for “getting lucky” rather than feeling wanted. And on top of all this, they usually must act grateful for mediocre sex.

Sex is a common gridlock issue. And gridlock in marriage is inevitable . . . but also resolvable.

When it comes to sex, sure, the low desire spouse can stop having it, but there’s usually a limit to how far you can play that card if you want to stay married — particularly happily married.

So what can you do?

"You must realize..." pull-out quote

You must realize that what we’re talking about here is not just sex. There’s a whole lot more going on.

Most of the time, sex is approached from an other-validation stance (also called a reflected sense of self).

Take intimacy for example. Other-validated intimacy involves one spouse disclosing feelings, perceptions, doubts, fears, and inner truths and the other spouse 1)accepting, validating, and empathizing, and/or 2) disclosing in kind.

Other-validation hinges on reciprocity.

In sex this plays out as I’ll do you then you do me.

What this actually does is boosts or shores up your reflected sense of self.

Here’s something you must get straight in your mind: Being intimate with your spouse doesn’t mean you get the response you want.

Marriage is an interdependent relationship — its resilience lies in both spouse’s ability to function independently.

The balance between your reflected sense of self and your solid flexible self has a dramatic effect on your level of sexual desire and passion — and whether or not you miss it when they’re non-existent.

You may be a good person with fine values and good intent, but if your anxieties drive you to avoid things or act impulsively, you’ll do things that violate your integrity, ideals and goals, and diminish your self-worth. You’ll react harshly to other family members when your anxiety is high, which may go against your ideal of being a good solid parent, which then makes you feel guilty, thus your self-worth takes another hit.

When it comes to sex, like I stated before, there’s more going on than just sex.

Look at it this way — I’m the high desire spouse in my marriage and I’ve learned there are many things I can do to get my wife to have sex with me. I can woo her, set up a romantic date, get her several drinks, manipulate, beg, persuade, plus many other things that may work. But, none of these tactics make her want me.

That’s something I can’t control.

When it comes to being wanted . . . all I can do is present something worth wanting.

And something worth wanting develops best when you confront yourself, challenge yourself to do what’s right, and earn your own self respect.

A scary proposition, yes. But it’s the way a marriage fully alive really works.

Source: Schnarch, D. (2009) Intimacy and desire. Beaufort Books: New York

Dr. Corey Allan is a really smart guy who writes at Simple Marriage and counsels people on how to have better relationships. He’ll teach you how to get along with others, play nice, get more of what you want and enjoy giving back. He might even help you get more sex out of the deal, too!

Thanks so much to Corey for enlightening us on sexual desire differences!

15 thoughts on “Sexual Desire Differences: What If There’s Nothing Going Wrong?

  1. thegozette

    I would disagree that there’s ALWAYS one spouse with high desire and one with low in every couple. My first husband and I were both very high. Sex was all we had and did which had something to do with the break up of the marriage.

    1. Corey

      Keep in mind that the idea of High desire and Low desire is comparative – meaning one spouse’s desire level will always be higher than the other’s.

  2. workinprogress

    I love this statement: “When it comes to being wanted . . . all I can do is present something worth wanting.”
    So true… nobody wants a demanding, whiny wife/husband. I know that I can tend to be the more clingy, emotionally-needy one in our marriage and I know that isn’t much of a turn on to him. I need to keep that in check and instead be loving, gentle and self-sacrificing toward him.

  3. Jess+the Mess

    I would disagree as well, I don’t feel like either either of us has a lower desire level than the other. We are both completely on board whenever the opportunity presents itself. Maybe that will change with time but in our present state of marriage it’s very even across the board.

  4. Anonymous

    This was very helpful. Many of your statements were profound and gave credence to my feeling that there are men out there like my husband for which a lower drive than mine does not mean….anything. He’s not into porn, he’s not having an affair, he’s not harboring anything. He is just a guy for whom once or twice a week is enough. This fact really meshes wih his overall personality because he’s not a fireball in any way ( which is great because I can be). He is slow, steady, and very good at what he does–in every area of life! 🙂

  5. D

    I totally get the “tyranny” part. Yes, I feel pressured to have sex with my husband. He always “pushes”. Even if he doesn’t say a word, it’s the body language, the look on his face, the touches. I wish he would just leave me alone for a little while and let ME figure out what MY sex drive is. I don’t know – I’ve never been given the chance to find out. I would love to “want” and desire him, but how can I know what that even looks like for me when he’s always so “needy” about sex. It’s always about him. Sad.

    1. Corey

      Hi D –

      My belief is that sexual desire and struggles like you describe are relational issue, not just on you (or him). If for some reason you did discover the space to figure out YOU, it’s still going to be in relationship terms.

      I also believe and teach (in Sex On Sundays on Simple Marriage) that what you describe requires your husband to take the lead for solution. Many husbands want their wife to want to have sex with them, while a woman can have sex with whomever they choose, they can’t want to have sex with just anyone – sexual attraction is a response to stimuli. And a man’s masculinity is want stimulates a woman’s femininity.

      You’re not alone in what you’re going through, so hang in there and perhaps some possible solutions will present themselves.

    2. Anonymous

      “I wish he would just leave me alone for a little while and let ME figure out what MY sex drive is.”

      Would you be okay if your husband changed this slightly to:

      “I wish she would just leave me alone for a little while and let ME figure out what MY conversation drive is.”

      So often, we hear that the lower drive spouse controls the frequency, or the less ambitious spouse controls “what” is allowed in the bedroom. For many, the thought is that 1 or 2 times per week should be “sufficient” because that’s enough for the lower drive spouse, yet I don’t believe anyone would say it’s okay to talk to each other only as often as 1 or 2 times per week. Or, we hear that you only go as far as the more conservative spouse wishes in the bedroom – only do what that spouse agrees to. Imagine this being applied to conversation with one spouse simply dictating that certain topics are off limit forever.

    3. J

      I understand the desire to want to breathe and figure out what your own sexual desire is. I suggest communicating with your husband. Explain that you’re not trying to get out of having sex, but rather you want to have a great sex life with him that is mutually enjoyable. Maybe you could be playful with it and promise to initiate in the few (set a number) days. If he KNOWS that he’s going to be sated, he might be willing to sit back and see how it goes with you approaching him. Then figure out what you need to get ready for a sexual encounter. Most wives need time to mentally prepare and get in the mood by setting the environment, carving out time, dressing in something alluring, etc.–whatever works for you. That’s where I’d start. And with continuing to read HHH and Corey’s Sex on Sunday blog posts. 🙂

  6. Real Man Marriage

    Dr. Allan – as always, wonderful and sobering insights. I know that I am the owner of my feelings and that I alone can choose how I will respond to the trials inevitable in my marriage. My focus must be on being a servant rather than on being served, allowing God to compensate for all of the ways that I lack as a husband while praying that he will bless both my wife and me with a mighty change of heart.

  7. Annabel

    Corey (and J),

    Thank you so much for this post! As the only higher-drive wife who is currently blogging about sex (that I know of), I am really grateful when I see others tackling this important topic. I hope to see other women who are higher drive blogging in the future, and I think the start of that is helping us to realize that this is, as you said, something so important to work through and communicate about. Thanks also for tackling this issue in a way that draws us all in, and helps me to see myself (as a higher-drive wife) as normal, even if not as common.

    I appreciate it & I am looking forward to reading the series!

  8. coffeemom

    I agree with Annabel. I keep replying to posts all over about how a wife is the only way the husband can be fullfilled and how much he wants her. I keep posting for help and advice when i am the prime initiator but no one answers me. I begin to give up wanting to keep trying. My husband is patient and rarely turns me down, but he doesn’t “want” me. I feel lonely and don’t know how to fix it.

  9. Anonymous

    I just found this blog post. So I’m kind of late to the party. As the HD spouse, and a guy, I was pretty much always “grateful” for the times of love making. I was also, I think in retrospect, ashamed of my drive. If she didn’t desire it as much, then there was something wrong with ME.

    But put from this perspective, and I have indeed read the Schnarch book, (Intimacy and Desire) I do agree about the “Reflected Sense of Self”. Essentially this means that we feel valued more or less as determined by our spouse’s desire for us. But we also need to cultivate our “solid, flexible sense of self”, who we really are to OURSELVES, and what made our spouse fall in love with us in the first place.

    But what I like about this post is that it shows that the responsibility of bridging the gap isn’t on the LD person or the HD person alone. The HD person needs to work on what attracted his / her mate to him / her in the first place. And to try to forget about the rejective feelings associated with “not tonight”, and shift them toward making the next experience even better.

    Great post, again. I’ve experienced “an inability to launch” recently, and have found the shoe lately on the other foot. It’s a different viewpoint, and now I see the pain from the HD person’s point of view–It’s just as hard to be the one as to be the other.

  10. Lulu Potter

    As the HD spouse, and female… I’m at a point where I’m kind of tired of pursuing. It’s a little scary because my LD spouse isn’t “kicking in”. I still have my needs and desires don’t get me wrong,.. but I’m no longer pursuing and am very frustrated. I am feeling alone and unappreciated. I will follow Annabel’s blog, hopefully she will help me.

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