For most, sex is an important part of a romantic relationship — but when you dive into the details, it’s incredibly common for partners to find themselves on different pages. According to Cleveland Clinic, about 43% of women and 31% of men report some sort of complication in the sexual response cycle, which includes all of the physical and emotional changes that occur as you become aroused and get busy. These difficulties, among many other reasons, can stifle sexual intimacy and affect whether both partners feel sexually fulfilled.
“[Sex is] the most intimate you can be with someone,” says sex therapist Melanie McDermott, LMFT. “Having sexual experiences and reaching orgasm releases oxytocin, which is our bonding hormone. It also releases other feel-good hormones like dopamine and adrenaline.”
So while there isn’t a golden rule for the amount of sex a couple should have, when two otherwise happy people in a relationship don’t have compatible sex drives, it can be a problem. McDermott says it can lead to cheating or a couple breaking up if that difference is never given any attention and effort.
“On the flip side, couples work through this all the time, and there are plenty of ways to compromise as long as people are open to it and don’t have unrealistic expectations,” she says.
Talk to each other.
This may seem obvious, but since sex is still somehow a taboo topic and people can repress a lot of their sexual feelings, it’s not always as intuitive as it seems. Basically, don’t go on having bad sex or no sex and act like everything is OK if it’s not. The physical and emotional gap won’t just vanish. And the longer it builds, the more of an issue it becomes.
Gary*, 27, has a much higher sex drive than his partner. He claims he is ready to go at any time, but his partner needs to really feel up for it. He often feels rejected by his partner when she says no, and he sometimes feels guilty even asking her. But he’s learned that the only way to address these issues is to speak openly about them.
“Now that we have talked about [our sex life] in detail, I try to be conscious of factors that make it harder for my partner,” he says. “This includes if I’ve had too much to drink or if she feels like she needs to take a shower because she feels dirty in the morning.”
Once you feel at ease addressing the bigger issue and coming to a point of understanding, it’ll be easier to discuss the small changes necessary to make along the way. This includes discussing what you like and want more of sexually.
“A lot of couples aren’t even talking to each other about something as basic as language they find sexy versus not,” McDermott says. “Setting time aside to talk about sex, including outside of the bedroom, allows couples to discover new things. A lot of times, being able to talk about fantasies or role-playing can help.”
Jesse, 25, was in a relationship where he had a much higher sex drive than his partner. They were unable to talk about or work through their issues, and that relationship fizzled out. He’s now with someone who is more sexually adventurous and communicative.
“We talk about what we want and how much is too much during sex,” Jesse says. “The sex is great, and he always makes sure I’m feeling safe and vice versa. It’s just so much easier now than I ever thought it would be.”
Check for mental and physical roadblocks.
Sometimes, a lower sex drive can be indicative of a deeper, underlying problem. K, 25, has been in a relationship for almost six years and has lately been unpacking some repressed trauma, including instances of being sexually taken advantage of in the past. Because of feelings of discomfort around her trauma, she’s found herself wanting to have sex a lot less frequently than her partner.
“Thanks to therapy and the patience of my partner, I am working through my anxieties and triggers to experience sexual pleasure with less guilt,” she says. “The autonomous aspect of my sexual experience is a growing concept for me. I want to allow myself to feel good on my own terms.”
Trent*, 23, is on the opposite side of the desire discrepancy in his long-term relationship. “I have a very high sex drive, and he has a very low sex drive,” Trent says. “It is hard to find a compromise, because I don’t want to be demanding and pushy. I try to have empathy and be supportive, because I know his low sex drive is fueled by depression.” Trent’s partner has in therapy for his depression for a few months now, and finding a happy medium in their sex life is a work in progress.
“I encourage my patients to check in with professionals to rule out medical factors that contribute to decreased sex drive, such as low testosterone,” Harwick says. “I also always ask what medications people are taking. For example, SSRIs are known to lower desire and contribute to difficulty reaching orgasm.”
Myra*, 28, experienced a physical roadblock with her ex, who dealt with premature ejaculation. The condition embarrassed him, and he wasn’t too keen on talking about it. Instead, he shut down the conversation by saying that he’d always been like this. As a result, Myra grew to want sex a lot more frequently than he did.
“I tried not to shame him, but I think it’s something he has to work through himself,” she says. The two are no longer together, which Myra believes is a result of their inability to communicate, not her ex’s physical limitation.
Cuddle, touch, and have varied physical experiences.
Physical intimacy is not limited to sexual intercourse. Many people want affection and touch. Cuddling is a nice and cozy way to physically bond. It can end there, or it can be a great gateway to sex. When a couple has mismatched sex drives, it’s important — perhaps even more so — to engage in physical touch like this.
McDermott says penetration is just one aspect of a sexual experience, and no one should feel limited to just that. “If one person is wanting more physical touch instead of just sexual intimacy, exchanging massages or engaging in sensual touch is a good compromise,” she says.
While K’s sex drive isn’t as high as her partner’s, she finds that a more gentle physical intimacy brings them closer — and sometimes leads to her wanting to do more.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from just squeezing and holding my partner close, and being held and comforted in return,” says K. “Ideally, I could just cuddle and snuggle when I want. And then, when I want to have more, have that happen too.”
That “more” can include various types of sexual experiences depending on what works for a given couple. “[Try] oral sex, mutual masturbation, utilizing toys, and focusing on one person’s pleasure (if that’s acceptable and consensual),” she says. “Vagina and anal sex and orgasm are a narrow definition of a sexual experience.”
Make time for intentional, meaningful sex.
Sure, we all want great sex to happen spontaneously and at the drop of a hat, but for many of those with lower sex drives, there needs to be a buildup. They may need to get in the right mindset. Intentional and memorable experiences involve effort, and sometimes, planning.
“I am a big believer in scheduling sex,” says McDermott. “It may not sound sexy, but my reason behind doing this is intention. When you set that time aside, your partner has your full attention and it’s purposeful.”
Along with exploring kinks, keeping the lines of communication open, and going to therapy, Trent and his partner sometimes pencil in their intimate time together. They plan it about every other week and during camping trips and visits to Palm Springs, California, where they go every few months.
“[Scheduling sex] has helped improved our sex life and it’s starting to make us feel more connected again,” says Trent. “It works for us.”