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3 Unspoken Truths About Low Sexual Desire

Why “just doing it” may not be a bad idea.

Key points

  • Not everyone experiences spontaneous desire.
  • Inadvertent power issues arise when it comes to sex
  • The need for more physical connection in relationships is often misunderstood.
Source: DAVIDCOHEN/Unsplash

Mismatched sexual desire is the number-one problem brought to sex therapists. One partner longs for more physical closeness, while the other is simply not interested. Although differences in sexual desire are common from time to time, when a sexual desire gap becomes a long-standing issue, problems outside the bedroom become inevitable.

After decades of helping couples bridge their desire gaps and hearing from people who viewed my TEDx talk on this topic, I’ve learned three things you need to know about this often painful situation. Being aware of these three things can go a long way in bridging the sexual desire gap.

1. The person with lower desire controls the sexual relationship.

Although people don’t often talk about this, the truth is, in most relationships, the person with a lower sex drive controls the sexual relationship. This isn’t to say that this person is controlling, manipulative, unkind, or mean-spirited. It simply means that if this person isn’t in the mood for sex, sex probably won’t happen.

Furthermore, the less interested person expects his or her partner to accept and understand this decision and not complain. Additionally, there is an expectation that the higher-desire spouse must remain monogamous.

2. People with lower desire often misunderstand their partners.

Most people with a lower sex drive can’t quite understand their partners’ needs for physical touch. Many tell themselves that sex is just a biological urge, and their partners simply want an orgasm. “It’s like scratching an itch,” they say. Less interested spouses don’t understand why their partners can’t just masturbate if all they want is a physical release.

But here’s the truth: Although sex might act as a physical release occasionally, it is more often the case that touch holds much more meaning to the person longing for it. Clients have told me countless times that sex and affectionate touch make them feel loved, wanted, attractive, important, and most of all, close and connected to their partners. One man recently told me that when he and his wife make love, everything feels right in the world, a feeling he rarely experiences in any other context.

Furthermore, when the relationship is void of touch, higher-desire partners often express deep loneliness, depression, and anger.

This misunderstanding between spouses can be compounded when they seek professional help. Many therapists believe a sexual desire gap can be remedied once the emotional issues are resolved. So, therapy prioritizes tackling the day-to-day issues troubling the lower-desire spouse and tabling the conversation about sex.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it is biased, leaving the sexually unsatisfied partner feeling unheard. Secondly, my clinical experience has taught me that while resolving emotional issues in a marriage is essential, it often doesn’t change a thing about a couple’s love life.

Couples need to understand that while emotional distance can lead to sexual estrangement, the opposite is also true; sexual estrangement can lead to emotional disconnection. Both aspects need to be addressed directly.

3. Low desire isn’t always low desire.

Some people tell me they have low sexual desire; they’re just wired that way. Although this may be the case occasionally, this assessment is often inaccurate. This characterization is based on an outdated perspective of sexual desire.

It was once believed that there are four stages to the human sexual response cycle:

  1. Desire. Desire was defined as a spontaneous thought or feeling that arises randomly. One could be in the middle of doing anything–riding a bus, working out, writing checks, reading–and a sexual feeling rises.
  2. Arousal. Once you begin touching, your body feels stimulated, and you become aroused.
  3. Orgasm. Following a period of arousal, your body experiences orgasm.
  4. Resolution. After an orgasm, your body returns to its normal resting state.

This model is no longer considered viable. For one thing, for millions of people, many of them women, stages one and two are reversed. They need to feel aroused before recognizing that they have a desire for sex. In other words, for these people, desire isn’t spontaneous. It is responsive. It’s arousal first, desire second.

This explains why so many women report, “I wasn’t in the mood for sex when we started fooling around, but once we got into it, I really enjoyed it.”

It is estimated that 75 percent of men but only 15 percent of women experience spontaneous desire. These women don’t necessarily have low sexual desire. They simply need to jumpstart their desire by doing something that feels good to “get the juices flowing.” The precursors to sexual desire could be cuddling, kissing, or touching in sexual ways.

Although no one should ever have sex if they really don’t want to, it’s important to keep in mind that being in the mood for sex shouldn’t always be the prerequisite. This is especially true for people who experience responsive desire because occasionally deciding to “just do it” often results in a mutually enjoyable sexual experience leading to additional relationship benefits.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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