101: Libido Discrepancy
How to Navigate Differing Libidos In Relationships By Taylor Neal
Libido discrepancy—i.e. a difference in sexual desire or drive between partners—can be one of the most challenging things to navigate in romantic and/or sexual relationships, and yet, in almost every partnership we come into, libido discrepancy will be present in some way.
Whether it be situational (one partner simply not feeling it in that moment, thay day, or for a period of time) or ongoing (you and your partner(s) have differing sexual needs on a continuing basis), libido discrepancy can feel extremely difficult to accept and move through because our identities are so closely related to our sexuality.
We are trained to uphold certain types of sex as superior to other forms of intimacy, and we are simultaneously conditioned to believe that our self worth is intrinsically linked to our sexual desirability. So when our partner(s) do not seem interested in sex at the frequency and level we desire, we often immediately take it as an indication that there is something wrong with us, that we did something wrong, or that we are the problem.
When there is a lack of communication around our sexualities and sexual needs in relationships, differences in libido can cause deeper relational issues, such as:
- Cycles of insecurities
- Erectile dysfunction
- Lack of satisfaction
- The “chaser” and the “chased” dynamics
- Shame around lack of desire and sex drive
- Complicated power dynamics
All of which can end up furthering the divide between us and our partners.
It’s easy to get all up in our head about sex. The pressure alone can cause all of the above struggles to evolve and spiral inward on themselves, and we end up in a prison of our own making.
Realistically, the reason libido discrepancy can be such a challenging obstacle in relationships is due to the simple fact that we all just want to feel seen and loved. Often, lack of sex drive can be the result of other – often communication-based – relational issues causing low self-esteem, anger, resentment, fear, stress, or a wide range of other emotions that impact our ability to experience arousal and sexual desire.
On the flip side, the partner that is experiencing a higher sex drive than their partner may begin to develop insecurities and shame – feeling as though their partner no longer desires them – which can further cycle into anger, resentment, grief and other emotional responses rooted in simply not feeling loved by, or connected to, their partner.
What is Normal?
There are endless reasons why one may experience a lower sex drive, including the very important fact that many folks just have a lower sex drive than our sex-obsessed society would lead us to believe is normal. So perhaps, the first step to unpacking libido discrepancy is simply asking yourself:
What do you think is a “normal sex drive” and where do these beliefs come from?
Who taught you what you consider as normal in a sexual relationship?
Is it fair to hold our partner(s) accountable for these expectations around sexual desire?
Following these inquiries, you may start to ask yourself:
Where are my desires coming from?
Are these needs coming from an embodied, pleasure-centered place, or is my frustration around lack of sex coming from the fear that less sex equates to less love, or a less successful relationship/valuable connection?
I want to be extremely clear that no matter how many sex blogs or Cosmopolitan quizzes you’ve taken that say otherwise, there is no such thing as normal when it comes to how often you and your partner(s) have sex. There is only what is normal within the container of your relationship, and even that will fluctuate through time and through the seasons of your life.
There is no way to define normal in relation to frequency of sex, because there is no way to put such an embodied, fluid and fluctuating thing as sexual desire into numbers or statistics. It simply does not work; it lacks the nuance of the sexual body, it lacks humanity.
And yet, even after all of this self reflection and exploration of our expectations and desires, we still may find ourselves in situations where receiving that ‘no’ is extremely challenging. To be blunt, we might just want more or less sex than our partner(s), and that is okay!
I’ve been on both sides of libido discrepancy, from being the one constantly wanting more to the one that has to find it inside myself to say ‘no’ to my partner. Both sides are extremely challenging.
From my experience across this spectrum, I have found some tools for helping to regulate libido discrepancy that have been helpful in satisfying desire, receiving and giving the ‘no’ when needed, and using alternate forms of intimacy to bring an equivalent, or even deeper, sense of connection to our partner(s) when sex isn’t on the table.
Even the healthiest and most communicative of relationships will run into libido discrepancy at some point or another, so it can be good to have some tools for navigating through these sticky moments in our back pockets. In using these tools, we may find that there is truly nothing wrong with us, and we can still find love and connection outside of what we are told it needs to look like.
Or, perhaps we can release the fear surrounding sex and enter into more loving sexual relationships as we come to befriend our libidos.
Here are some practises to help you navigate differing libidos in relationships.
Perhaps one of my favourite practices, when my libido doesn’t match that of my partner, is to enter into Connective Masturbation.
This one is relatively simple. The person desiring sex will masturbate however they feel called to, using toys or not – and their partner will participate in some way. This brings the element of connection often desired by whoever is wanting sex, but allows the other partner to maintain their boundary however needed.
The partner’s participation can look different for everyone. For some, this may be to kiss their partner while they masturbate. For others, this could be holding a vibrator to their partner’s body or using dirty talk while their partner pleasures themselves. Perhaps they would like to watch their partner masturbate while maintaining eye contact. However you’d like to be involved is up to you, while letting your partner know that you’re there with them for their experience and pleasure.
The “No” Game
This is actually an improv game, but it works quite well in the context of sexual relationships.
The idea behind this one is that giving and receiving a ‘no’ can feel quite difficult between partners, since many of us have been conditioned to put our own needs aside for the sake of people-pleasing. Simply, we never want to offend one another. This practice teaches us both how to give and receive ‘no’ without guilt, frustration, or anyone getting offended. This one also works particularly well for polycules or multiple partner dynamics.
Have all parties involved stand in a space together. Have half of the participants be the ‘no’ givers and the other half be the ‘no’ receivers. The receivers will approach any of the givers and ask if they can touch one of their body parts (perhaps an arm, a hand, their face, their shoulder). The giver will simply say ‘no.’ The receiver will receive this ‘no’ as a complete answer and walk away.
If there are more givers for them to approach in the space, they will approach someone else and play out the same interaction. If there are only two partners in the game, the roles will switch. You can keep going back and forth as many times as you like, until you notice the ‘no’ becoming easier to accept and orient.
Notice what sensations or emotions come up in your body when giving or receiving ‘no,’ and I’d encourage you to have a share circle or a journaling moment after playing.
I have personally been loving this one recently. Amidst busy schedules, fatigue, stress, social lives, hobbies and so many other factors that limit our time and energy to connect, it can be really fun to actually schedule time for intimacy in our calendars. Not only does this give all partners something to look forward to in the day, it also allows you to enter into that intimate time with intention and space.
Scheduling also means that, like a meeting or any other engagement, if one partner gets to the scheduled time and simply doesn’t feel up to it, they are more than allowed to cancel. The time and space is still reserved and can be used by the partner(s) that is/are desiring sex. The other can simply sit this one out and let the other(s) enjoy.
There are many ways to find and experience intimacy that don’t involve sex and yet can be equally sensual and connective. This is not a specific practice, but rather a list of ideas for activities to try with your partner that can bring you closer and regulate desire discrepancy.
This one is not as simple, and pertains more to ongoing libido and desire discrepancy. For folks in relationships where there is a consistent discrepancy between their own sexual desires and the desires of their partner, it could be worth it to begin to explore relationship dynamics outside of monogamy (if you are currently in a monogamous partnership).
We have been trained to believe that one person, our partner, is meant to satisfy all of our needs and desires 100% of the time, and if they do not, there must be something failing in the relationship. It can be helpful to consider, if it feels safe and interesting for you to do so, that having certain needs met outside of the relationship can actually bring a lot of pleasure and joy back into the relationship.
For many folks, non-monogamy allows them to explore other sides of their sexuality without placing expectations on their partners that they are not able to fulfill. If there are certain things you feel you need that your partner is not in a place to give, then, in a consensual and communicative way, it could be worth exploring what it would look like to seek filling those needs outside of your relationship. That could be through hiring sex workers to help you explore your sexuality, or entering into non-monogamy-based sex and dating practices.
If this one interests you, I’d encourage you to do some research on the subject first, and spend time discussing things with your partner, especially if this is new in your relationship. Non-monogamy can be beautiful, but it requires dedicated communication, reflection, boundaries and understanding in the relationship to be realized in an ethical and compassionate way.
Libido discrepancy does not have to mean that the relationship, or the people in the relationship, are broken. Sometimes, it can simply be about managing our expectations. And other times, we can find tools to come together in a way that feels good for everyone.