Sex

How to Cope With Different Libidos in Marriage

Unhappy couple with different libidos
I'm Dr. Jessica!

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By far, having different libidos lis the most common complaint that couples have when they are seeking help with their sex lives. Some couples have these differences at certain stages or during seasons of their marriage and for some couples, that difference seems to exist from day one. 

Please know that most marriages will go through times where one spouse is more interested in sex than the other. That difference isn’t much of an issue as long as your norm isn’t one spouse feeling deprived or one spouse feeling obligated the majority of the time.  

What is a desire discrepancy in marriage?

There are several terms that a couple might use to describe these different levels of sexual desire: libido difference, sex drive difference, or desire gap. I like to call it a desire discrepancy. All of these terms mean the same thing: one spouse wants to be sexually intimate more often than the other spouse does. 

Christian sex therapists, Dr. Cliff and Joyce Penner have said that if sexual issues go on for too long, those issues can feel like 80% of the relationship. In other words, if this is a serious concern and it isn’t worked on, it can make a couple feel like sex issues are the main or priority issue and that if they could just resolve this problem everything else would be just fine. 

Much of the time though, working on these libido differences also means looking at the marriage as a whole and seeing if there are other parts of the marriage where one feels like their needs are not being met. 

Let’s dive in to that part!

Obviously, if you’re reading this post, you have at least some skin in the game here. You’re probably looking for a way to bring some balance to your desire levels so that you can enjoy your sexual relationship more fully.

Let’s take this step by step by learning a little more about the sexual response cycle for men and women, some stats about desire differences, and a few steps you can each take to create more balance. 

Stats aren’t boring when we’re talking about sex.

Okay…maybe stats are still a little boring.

Research seems to indicate that when a couple experiences a desire difference, about ⅓ of the time the wife has the higher drive. That means a full 33% of the time, the woman has the higher drive. That is a pretty large amount.

I’ve written before about how to handle things when you are the wife with the higher drive and you can feel free to look at that article. For simplicity sake, this article will talk more in general terms of the higher-drive and lower-drive spouse rather than assigning a gender to each of those categories.

If you’re aiming to bring balance to your libido differences, you have to understand the sexual response cycle.

Back in the 1960s, Masters and Johnson introduced the four-phase sexual response cycle that is still often used educationally. They explained that during sex, the individual (or couple) would go through four stages: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. It was a linear process and it was believed that men and women basically had the same response.

In 1979, Kaplan simplified this model and said that there were just three phases: desire, excitement, and orgasm. Like Masters and Johnson, Kaplan believed in a linear approach or a step-by-step approach to understanding sexual response.

But there’s a problem with both of these models…they don’t work that well for everyone.

Finally, in 2009, Basson introduced the first non-linear model of sexual response and since then many sex therapists have used this model to better understand how a woman’s sexual response typically looks. I say, typically, because it still doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all women” type of approach. In fact, I’ve worked with several men whose response is quite similar to the one proposed by Basson.

In Basson’s model, she talks about the non-sexual factors that affect sexual functioning. Think of the distractions you have throughout the day (or down the hall from where you’re having sex), your workload that wears you out, your own mental health (depression, grieving, anxiety), baggage from the past  (before you were married or early on in your marriage), the atmosphere of the room you’re going to have sex in…

Really the list could go on and on. According to Basson, all of these different things can affect your sexual response.

Here’s the deal:

I believe a couple can have a combination of a Basson model and a Masters and Johnson model.

Before you get discouraged because this seems so overwhelming, allow me just a few sentences here to make sense of it all. And, if you’ll give me just a few minutes I’ll explain it more fully in the video just below this section.

Typically, men find that they follow the earlier Masters and Johnson model while women typically feel like they follow the Basson model. This means that for many men, they’ll find that they easily advance through feelings of sexual desire, arousal, orgasm, and a refractory period (more info on each of these stages in the video). Women, on the other hand, find that they may actually need to be aroused prior to feeling desire and that they may need to calm their minds and their lives prior to being able to enjoy arousal.

I can assure you…

if you don’t understand the basics of your own sexual response and the basics of your spouse’s response, it’s going to be pretty impossible to work on closing that gap.

 

Take just a few minutes to watch this video to better understand the sexual response cycle. (Also, please give me a ton of grace. This video was recorded back in 2018 when I still read off of a script when I recorded. 😂)

Hopefully, with a better understanding of the sexual response cycle, things are starting to get a little more clear regarding the sexual gap in your marriage.

What if the gap is really large or you have an asexual spouse?

Roughly 40% of people seeking sex therapy are doing so because of their lower drive in comparison to their spouse and about 20% of Americans report an extremely low level to no desire for sex. In other words, couples who are getting help with libido differences typically seek out that help because the lower desire person feels this weightiness that they need to change. So much so, that some couples have never even asked the question, “what is normal anyway?”

Not only that, in a study of 2,000 Christian women by The National Study on the Sexuality of Christian Women, almost one in three married women reported having a difficult time when it comes to sexual desire. This is a large number!

These stats are proof that many couples struggle with matching up their desire levels.

This is also proof that having a low desire (however you might define that) may not be all that abnormal. Your desire level may be right in line with the average person.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t work on this. I definitely believe you can see improvement when you work on it. This is only to say that you are not alone if you’re struggling with desire and it doesn’t necessarily mean something is really wrong in your marriage either. It just means you need to discuss these difference and find some common ground.

So who wins this battle? Low-drive or high-drive spouse?

No doubt, when two people are living under one roof with pretty different drives, there will either be frequent arguments or the couple will try to ignore the conversation all while resentment and unhappiness grows between them.

This applies to both the lower-drive and higher drive spouse. The lower-drive spouse can get upset with the higher-drive for “asking all the time,” and the higher-drive can get upset that the lower-drive spouse “says no all the time.”

But, asking “who should win” is actually the wrong question.

Marriage is about learning to negotiate your differences well and becoming more Christ like. This means that the higher-drive spouse is going to have sex less often than he or she wants, while the lower-drive spouse will have sex more often than they want to. 

Seriously though…who decides?

Here’s where I give the answer everyone actually hates… “It depends.”

There isn’t a clear answer here. Partially because every situation is different. Sometimes, a difference in desire exists because of past pain in the relationship, physical pain in the body, sexual dysfunction of one of the spouses, or other mental health issues that exist. And, each of these situations require a different approach.

One thing is for sure though; don’t start keeping score. This turns the relationship into a place where you’re each keeping a tally. And, no matter how accurate you are, your spouse is likely to have different results on their scorecard than you have on yours. 

Biblically speaking, we should be willing to set aside our own desires for the sake of our spouse. Consider the following verses.

1 Corinthians 7:3-5

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have rights over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  

But, sex isn’t just about mutual submission. It’s also supposed to be a pleasurable experience for both.

Proverbs 5:18-19

Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.

Song of Solomon 1:2

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.

This means that both spouses have to decide together that they will not just fight to have their marriage rights fulfilled. It also means that you should work to enjoy your love-making if you don’t currently.

How do we decrease the gap?

For starters, if one of you is not enjoying the sexual relationship, you need to figure out why that is. Have there been hurts in the past (either in your relationship or from past relationships)? Does the lower-drive spouse feel put off by the way the higher-drive spouse asks for sex? Has sex been painful or unsatisfying? Do you feel disconnected in other areas of your relationship and that trickles over into your sex life?

Those are all questions that you can ask yourself and ask one another. And, if you find that you can’t come to any conclusions, then you might consider checking into my program, Becoming One, where we tackle all of these big questions.

Next, know what normal is.

Keep in mind that the media would have us believe that everyone wants sex all the time. Don’t allow your marriage to be defined by what you see on TV, the movies, or advertisements on social media. Remember those models of the sexual response cycle and expect that sometimes things will not seem to line up too well for you. At the same time, if there is a significant difference between the two of you, please know that you cannot naturally assume one is “normal” and the other isn’t. For instance, if the high-drive spouse wants sex several times a day every day, the “low-drive” spouse may actually be the one whose drive is “average” compared to others. 

As we move forward with tips that will help you decrease the gap, I have some suggestions for both the higher and lower drive spouse that you can start working on right now.

Specifically for the higher-drive spouse

If you’re the higher drive-spouse, the following tips are just for you.

1. Talk to your spouse about how you feel and what sex means to you.

This doesn’t mean taking your spouse on a guilt trip or quoting Scripture to say, “you owe me!” Instead, sit your spouse down and use the following as a template with your own words.

“I know that I have a higher drive than you and I often ask for sex when you’re not really feeling in the mood. I want you to know that sex helps me feel closer to you. When we have sex, I feel _______ (this is emotional, not physical feelings that you describe). And, when you say no, I feel really disconnected. Would you consider working on our sex lives so we can both feel more connected during sex?”  

2. Talk about the changes you are willing to make.

There might be something you are doing that is a turn-off to your spouse. Maybe your spouse wants you to be more romantic or wants you to be more involved in other areas of your marriage besides for sex. You may also need to spend more time on foreplay or work a little harder to make sure it’s pleasurable for your spouse. Find out what these areas are and let your spouse know how you plan on changing your behaviors.  

3. Be loving in your actions and words.

It can be so incredibly frustrating for the spouse who’s sexual desires and expectations are not being met. When you’re sitting in this place in your relationship, make sure that you are still acting kind and loving toward your spouse. Pay careful attention to your words and behaviors. Remember, nobody wants to sleep with the enemy. Be a friend in your marriage. 

Specifically for the lower-drive spouse

If you’re the one with the lower sex drive, these tips should help.

1. Seek to engage in non-sexual touching.

Often times, the lower-drive spouse doesn’t really want to be involved in non-sexual touch (hand holding, kissing, massages) because there is a fear or concern that their partner will expect sex. Shying away from all touch is actually going to make a sexual connection much more difficult. Instead, start by telling your spouse that you want to work on touching more often and enjoying sex. Let your spouse know that you want to be able to occasionally touch without it leading to sex. Touch that doesn’t lead to sex is important for the relationship and you should both practice enjoying this.  

2. Become really aware of all sexual thoughts and feelings.

For many low-drive spouses, they can think of times when they have a sexual thought cross their minds but it isn’t an appropriate time for sex. Maybe you’re sitting together in church, or you’re at your child’s soccer game, or you’re in the car headed to work… Then something happens when you get home and all desire is gone. Start to notice those times when you feel interested and send a flirty text to your spouse. A little bit of awareness can go a long way in igniting the sexual passion in your marriage.

3. Consider having sex even when you’re not “in the mood.”

This certainly doesn’t mean forcing yourself to have sex. This is more of a willingness to engage in an activity that isn’t overly exciting right away. Many times, especially for the lower-drive spouse, sexual desire follows sexual arousal. This means that you may need to allow yourself to play together sexually before you actually want to have sex with one another. The more enthusiastic you allow yourself to be in those moments, the more likely your brain is to tell your body that this is going to be good for connection. To be clear, this is not sex our of obligation and this should never happen if you definitely don’t want sex. This is more of a willingness and a decision to engage to see if arousal will follow. There’s still freedom to say no if you just can’t get there.

And for both of you…

Pray about your sexual relationship. God created marriage and he created your bodies. He made sex to be pleasurable and fun. If it isn’t, ask him for his help. God is good and he is generous enough to give us good gifts. Sex is one of those gifts that helps the couple become one. So, since marriage and sex was his idea, trust that he can make it an enjoyable experience for you.

As always, I pray that God richly blesses you, your marriage, and your sex life.

Dr. J.

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