A friend once told me that a relationship is like a Venn diagram. There's a large amount of shared space and common elements, formed from two separate figures. In other words, you and your partner can find common ground, but you're not one person. While sex is often a shared aspect of a romantic relationship, one's "sex drive" or individual desire to having sex, isn't necessarily shared between partners. But what does it mean if one partner has a higher sex drive?
Are you doomed? Is the end near? (Spoiler alert: You're not and it's not.) Discrepancy between sex drives is incredibly common in long- or short-term relationships. There are many reasons for why your sex drive changes over time. Medications like antidepressants or birth control can have hormonal effects, while stress from school, work, or friends can hit you emotionally. Our interpersonal relationships are greatly impacted by the world around us. Additionally, outdated stereotypes, such as "men always want to have sex," can be painful to hear and difficult to decondition, especially if you and your boo don't fit into these (misguided) standards.
I spoke with Misty Smith, PhD, LPC-S and certified sex therapist and Stephanie Alys, co-founder and Chief Pleasure Officer (CPO) of MysteryVibe, a British pleasure brand, about mismatched sex drives in otherwise in-sync relationships.
Like any good Gender Studies gen-ed will teach you, gender and sexuality are spectrums. Embracing a spectrum, as compared to a binary or "this or that" mentality, means a (literally) more rounded approach to understanding your own and your partner's sexuality and sex drive. Making space for both of your desires to change and evolve over time allows for better communication about your sex life. Alys attests to the spectrum model saying, "There are as many sexualities as there are people on the planet so even if you, broadly, have similar drives, things will probably still vary on a day-to-day basis," Alys tells Elite Daily. Having more frequent, smaller check-ins can take the pressure off long-time-coming "big talks" and can create room for partners to speak up about what they're wanting or changes their noticing.
"The most important thing to remember when you have a partner who has a lower sex drive than you is that you are not the cause.
Why do partners have different sex drives? Alys and Smith both affirm that there can be many reasons, all of which are valid and common. "From the state of your hormones, to your mental health, to the way you feel shame surrounding sex (or don't), all of these things can affect your desire," Alys states. "The most important thing to remember when you have a partner who has a lower sex drive than you, is that you are not the cause. Everyone is wired a bit differently when it comes to sex drives, and it's not necessarily a reflection on your attractiveness or your bedroom moves."
Affirming that you are not the cause of your partner's lower sex drive can remove a sense of blame or responsibility that you may take on. Relationships are a team effort. When one party isn't feeling the sexy stuff, it can be easy for the other to place blame upon themselves. Smith also affirms that a low sex drive isn't indicative of a lack of attraction to your partner. "I almost always recommend to a low desire partner to have their hormones checked prior to making other changes," she says. "Sometimes partners might have a higher sex drive or a lower sex drive due to sexual trauma, whether it be in there [their] childhood or adult life."
Talking about hormones or past sexual experiences can be intimidating, and navigating sex and sexuality can be difficult and emotionally draining. But opening this dialogue can help in redirecting the conversation from trying to pin-point blame to trying to find what works for you as a couple.
You never want sex to become associated with fighting because that does not get you closer to your goals."
When one partner's sex drive is much high than another, it's easy to feel like someone is at fault. And though communication is a great tool in navigating relationships, it can hard to know exactly how to communicate. "Most couples don’t actually communicate this difference in a positive way. Sex is a sensitive topic for most couples with desire discrepancies. Be sensitive when bringing up the topic," Dr. Smith shares. "Try not to put blame on either partner! If you find yourself in a perpetual discussion or fight about sex, it might be time to see a counselor or a sex therapist. You never want sex to become associated with fighting because that does not get you closer to your goals."
Being mindful to not place blame or attack your partner when talking about your different sex drives can be challenging at times. Working with a sex therapist or counselor can be a good option for couples that can afford or have access to those resources, and who feel comfortable with said that choice.
Alys confirms that communication is key. "It may be worth discussing some particular phrases or words at a neutral time (like at dinner)," Alys says. "That way, when you get to the bedroom you both know how to communicate 'I'm not particularly feeling sexy but I'm open to being seduced' versus 'I really don't want to right now'. Consent is sexy and an absolute requirement. Also, remember that people will become aroused at different speeds. It might take you two minutes but your partner a whole evening of flirtation!"
Consent, or an active agreement to engage in sexual behavior, is a non-negotiable factor when engaging in sexual activity. While it can seem awkward or distracting to have conversations about your sex life while you're having sex, it's still crucial. Additionally, discussing this with your partner when you're sober and fully-clothed, can be a productive time to talk about your sex life and things you both want to try in the future.
The key is communication, compromise, and consent.
Many couples with different sex drives want practical (and physical) advice for navigating the discrepancy. Alys shares, "For times when you're feeling it and your partner really isn't, it's also helpful to discuss how you both feel about masturbation. Are you comfortable if your partner masturbates when you go to sleep? Would you prefer they head to the bathroom? Would your partner be comfortable watching you play with a sex toy, even if they don't want to join in? Having these boundaries expressed ahead of time can help address differing sex drives." Though sex often involves a partner, it absolutely doesn't have to. If masturbation is something you and your partner are comfortable with, solo sex can be a way for a higher sex drive to be met.
For some couples, opening their relationship to other partners or practicing polyamory may be other solutions. "I've met many couples who have different sex drives engaging in open or polyamorous relationships," Alys says. "While it definitely doesn't work for everyone, this kind of arrangement can allow for some flexibility and help both partners feel like they and their significant other are getting what they need." While practicing polyamory or having a open relationship is a way some people may choose to navigate differing sex drives, it's not always choice that others are comfortable with or interested in.
Rest assured, differing sex drives aren't the kiss of death to your love, nor does it mean you're not meant to be together. Smith and Alys both attest that sex drives exist on a spectrum and can change over time. "Sex drives wax and wane through different phases of life," Alys shares. "The key is communication, compromise and consent." Discussing what you both want and knowing your limits and desires can be important when talking about you differing sex drives. Smith adds, "Differing sex drives just means a couple has to communicate a bit more effectively and often about the topic."
Differing sex drives are a common part of dating. You and your partner are not the same person, and it makes sense that you would have varying desires at different times. Additionally, allowing for space to talk about how past experiences have impacted your sex drive can be helpful in building trust with a partner. While it can be challenging to access, reaching out to specialists can be an effective way to continue to understand your own body and mind. If you're feeling distant from your partner, sexually or emotionally, check in! No one knows a relationship better than the two people in it, and only you can say what feels right for you. As long as you're both coming from a place of unconditional love and mutual respect, the fire will continue to burn bright.