What to do when your sex drives differ

Patricia Love and Jo Robinson

Things can seem complicated when your sex drives are out of sync—here are the stories of couples who have gone through the same thing and advice on how to solve it

“I love my wife,” one husband told me. “We’ve been married 16 years, and I’ve never been unfaithful. But I’m not always happy with our lovemaking. The problem is, I’m always the one initiating it. I think she’s sexy—I just wish she felt the same about me.”

This husband was describing a common phenomenon that sex therapists call “desire discrepancy”—when one partner has a higher sex drive than the other. For most of these couples, nothing is “broken” in their sexual relationship. Rather, one of them’s hot when the other is not. 

A typical case the man who admitted he would like to make love every night and thinks about sex dozens of times a day. Minutes after he and his wife have made love, he’s wondering how soon it will be before they do it again. His wife would be content to have sex three or four times a month. Like many people with low desire, it takes her a long time to become aroused. “For the first 15 minutes of love-making, I could happily stop at any point,” she told me. “I have hardly any sensation. It’s only when my orgasm is imminent that suddenly I think don’t stop! Otherwise I could take it or leave it.”

Given society’s preoccupation with sex, it isn’t surprising we expect people to have an unwavering interest in lovemaking. But there are millions of women who don’t experience a pressing physical need to make love. And while there are many women with plenty of sexual desire, it is likely that their male partners have even more. In the majority of hetero-sexual relationships, the man has a higher sex drive than the woman. What causes this difference? Some experts have focused on psychological factors such as marriage problems or repressed upbringing. Although these conditions do influence desire, they don’t fully explain the differences between male and female sexuality.

Researchers now know that sex hormones also play a role. Men and women have the same sex hormones, only in differing amounts, and testosterone, which has long been regarded as the “male” hormone, may fuel the sex drive in both genders. The fact that men have up to 11 times more testosterone than women may be the reason they experience more desire.

Barbara Sherwin, a researcher and lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, has given various synthetic hormonal preparations to women who have low hormone levels due to removal of their ovaries. In one experiment, women who were given an oestrogen-testosterone combination were able to maintain the desire and arousal levels they experienced before their surgery. They also had more energy and a greater sense of well-being.

Testosterone that occurs naturally in a woman’s body produces a similar effect. Ina. Tudy of 30 young women, Patricia Schreiner-Engel, a researcher in obstetrics and gynaecology at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, discovered that women with higher levels of testosterone appeared also to have higher levels of sexual arousal and remained aroused for a longer period.

A woman’s desire for lovemaking can vary from day to day. Studies show that some women are more interested in sex during the first half of their monthly cycle.

Men also experience slight variations in hormone levels. For instance, a man’s testosterone can rise in the morning hours. In one study, university tennis players who won a match were found to have a slight increase in testosterone, possibly due to their elevated mood, while the losers experienced a slight decline.

Whether you are a man or a woman, if your sexual desire declines markedly, you should consider having a medical check-up. A doctor can rule out some physical causes, such as depression, the side-effects of prescription drugs and certain chronic diseases. Referral to an endocrinologist may pinpoint a hormone deficiency which can be treated.

But what can the vast majority of couples without obvious hormonal deficiencies do to even out their differences in desire? The first step is to become less polarised.

Many couples with conflicting sex drives develop different points of view about their love lives. One partner may think they “hardly ever” have sex, while the other believes they have it “all the time”. 

However, when they try to understand each other’s point of view, they often experience a dramatic turnaround.

You and your partner can also put your love life back in sync. Here’s how:

 

For the partner with greater desire:

1.    Turn your partner on
Be understanding that, sometimes, they're just not in the mood. If you suspect it's time for some fun then put some more effort into finding out what turns them on. The more adept you are at creating arousal, the more often you’ll both be excited.

2.    Be flexible
Make love in the morning, if that’s what your partner enjoys. The time of day may not make much difference to you, but your partner will be more responsive.

3.    Redirect some of your sexual energy
When your life is full and exciting, your energy has a number of outlets besides sex. Channelling your energy in other directions may even out some of your differences.

4.    Don’t confuse lust with love
Try not to take your partner’s low sexual desire personally. It’s likely to be the result of a number of factors, including fatigue, the ageing process or a low level of hormones.


 

For the partner with lesser desire

1.    Accept more responsibility for your own arousal
Don’t expect your partner to all the work. What turns you on—wearing sexy clothes? Hugging and kissing? Because you have less spontaneous desire you must learn how to create it. Initiate those activities you find erotic

2.    Paying attention to subtle cues
Unlike your partner, you may never experience a strong burst of sexual desire, so amplify the sexy feelings you do have. When you feel even the slightest twinge of desire, follow through on it. Also, try to detect any cycles of desire. Are you more receptive at a certain time of day or month? In a certain place? After a massage or a long soak in the bath? Note these instances and take advantage of them.

3.    Make room in your life for love-making
Many people with low desire enjoy sex a great deal once they’re aroused. The problem is they don’t have much motivation to initiate passion. Work round this problem by setting aside specific times for making love.

4.    Appreciate all that you do.
Willingness to satisfy your partner’s sexual desire proves that you’re a loving, giving—and sexy—partner. Take pride in your positive attitude, and be assured that the two of you can create a long-lasting, mutually satisfying relationship.