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Navigating Desire Discrepancy in Long-Term Relationships


Desire Discrepancy

One of the most common sexual issues that long-term partners face involves mismatched libidos. Long-term partners tend to experience this discrepancy more often than not; in fact, desire discrepancy is so common that it is actually considered a completely normal aspect of long-term relationships. Below are some tips and tricks, based on research, to help you navigate this common experience.


What is Desire Discrepancy? What is Sexual Desire?


Desire discrepancy occurs when partners have differing levels of desire. Sexual desire refers to the interest, or drive, to engage in sexual behavior. Desire itself can be a complex process. Sometimes, it may be experienced as an intense urge or feelings of lust, and at other times, it may be experienced in more subtle ways.


Similarly, there are different types of sexual desire; spontaneous desire refers to a sexual drive seemingly out of nowhere, while responsive desire is desire that is in response to sexual stimuli or context. For example, an individual who feels desire in response to foreplay is experiencing responsive desire.


 Although it is normal, desire discrepancy can feel very distressing. Partners might experience a reduction in relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction, as well as various emotional impacts, such as frustration and guilt. However, not everyone experiences desire discrepancy as problematic.


Sex Science: Why Desire Might Decrease Over Time


At the beginning of romantic relationships, many individuals experience heightened sexual interest and intense emotions, making for a seemingly “easy” sex life. This limerence phase of relationships involves an intoxicating-like state in which the person is consumed with thoughts and feelings about the new relationship.


This can be partly attributed to the unknown nature of new relationships; as Esther Perel points out in her book, Mating in Captivity, eroticism is intrinsically tied to the unpredictable. Long-term relationships, on the other hand, are often characterized by more stability and predictability. The desire that was once sparked by the unknown, mystery, and ambiguity may start to decline.


Desire in long-term relationships might additionally decrease as partners perceive each other as investing less in their relationships. Transitions such as becoming parents, professional changes, and aging, can also result in reduced desire or changes in desire templates. Additionally, there are a range of barriers to desire and sex that couples experience. In one study, couples reported that changes in mental health, physical health, and daily stressors adversely impacted desire in their relationships.


Although reductions in desire may be normal, it can become upsetting when partners experience discrepancies in these desire changes. Problems can arise when partners are uncertain of how to proceed.


Navigating Desire Discrepancy in a Long-Term Relationship


Thankfully, there are several well-researched strategies for partners who are coping with desire discrepancy, summarized below:


Don’t stop initiating sex


It is not uncommon for the partner with higher desire to start feeling frustrated or concerned. Partners may fear being rejected when initiating sex or worry that they are pressuring their partners. These are normal feelings, but it is best to communicate these with your partner and problem-solve, rather than letting these emotions stop initiation of sex all-together.


This is partly because the lower-desire partner might have more of a responsive desire template, rather than a spontaneous one. If sex is never introduced, then there are no sexual stimuli for the responsive partner to respond to! Instead of stopping initiating sex, you can try communicating your worries and finding what contexts turns your partner on.


Education and normalization


Partners often worry about what it “means” that desire has changed over time or that there are clear differences in libido. Many mistakenly believe that a reduction in desire is a sign that the relationship isn’t “right” anymore, or that something is “wrong” with them. Education can help normalize these experiences and reduce the extra stress and pressure.


For example, books such as Come as You Are or We Come Together, both by Emily Nagoski, can help provide some context and reduce fears. It is also important to gain some knowledge around the specific desires, interests, and sexual orientation of your partner. For example, if your partner is on the asexual spectrum, it can be beneficial to have some understanding of what this means for your partner’s sexual desire.


Communication and creative problem-solving


Even though the mystery might diminish in a long-term relationship, the desire does not have to. Couples who are more comfortable with sexual communication tend to fare better when navigating desire discrepancy. Communication can look like negotiating partners’ differing desire, scheduling sex, and getting creative around meeting sexual needs.


For example, one partner might be open to giving pleasure, but not receiving any on some days.  Scheduling sex can be beneficial because it allows the lower-desire partner to prepare themselves emotionally and physically. It also sets the standard of prioritizing intimate time together as a couple. Other strategies include non-sexual physical touch, masturbation, and non-monogamy.


Desire discrepancy is totally normal, and it is an expected part of being in a long-term relationship. Communication is an essential ingredient for making sure the discrepancy does not become problematic.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Dr. Arenella received her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship as the Michael Metz Fellow in Couples’ Sexual Health at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She is an AASECT certified sex therapist, and has received specialized training in sex therapy modalities, gender affirming care, and sexual trauma. She is a licensed psychologist in California and Minnesota.



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