Rediscovering Sex in a Mixed-Desire Partnership

In last week’s post, I wrote about the common advice that partners experiencing a desire discrepancy “just do it,” and the way that can backfire. I argued that willingness (not desire) is the key ingredient for partners seeking to rediscover their sexual connection.

However, I also acknowledged that many couples feeling awkward and uncertain when they try to return to a sexual dynamic that has fallen out of practice. This week, I’m going to share a few strategies that couples can use to reduce their anxiety or generate sexual energy when “breaking the ice” around sex.

  • Explore other kinds of shared pleasurable touch. When partners don’t have sex for a long period of time, it’s common for other kinds of intimate, connecting touch to fall by the wayside–perhaps because one partner is anxious about touch “leading to” sex, or the other is anxious about pressuring their partner unintentionally. But engaging in pleasant, connecting touch can go a long way to reducing awkwardness and bringing you closer together. Try cuddling, kissing, lying close together, and holding hands, without making the endgame sex or orgasm. Instead, focus simply on enjoying each other’s closeness and presence.
  • Eliminate performative goals. Reducing anxiety about sex can be challenging, but one good strategy is for everyone to take responsibility for their own experience of pleasure. No intimate interaction should feel like a test for you, or your partner, and than can be a pitfall when sexual connection already feels vulnerable because its been awhile. Instead, think of it as an experiment you run together, with the goal of exploring multiple ways to add intimate physical touch back into your repertoire of ways of being together. Rather than focusing on giving  each other orgasms, achieving penetration, or any other end goal, why not agree to have fun with it? Laugh together, play a little, keep it light-hearted and low-stakes.
  • Don’t rush it. If you’re breaking the ice after a long time, it’s completely understandable to feel like everything has to go perfectly in order for the experience to be a success. But remember: success is just having a connecting, pleasurable experience with your partner. If either of you starts to feel scared or overwhelmed, slow down and be in the moment together. Loving, intimate touch (sex!) often includes holding one another, soothing uncomfortable emotions, kissing tears away, cozy foot rubs to start or finish, reassuring one another than all is well, and creating a safe space for both of you to be exactly where you are in the moment. After all, we’re discussing real life here, not Disney.
  • Reconnect with your body. Are you living in your head most of the time? Going through the motions of your life, rushing around, holding a big to-do list in your mind? Busy lives make it very easy to lose touch with the physical self. A good first step is to reconnect with everyday bodily sensations of pleasure. Notice how great your next shower feels. Shampoo your hair with attention to sensation. Rub lotion into your feet, hands, face, and body, and most importantly, open yourself up to the pleasure of the experience. Then, see if you can let your mind and body drift into a more sexual realm. What you can find within yourself, you can share with your partner.
  • Work with your own eroticism. If you have lost touch with your sexual desire, but you want to ignite that part of yourself and your relationship again, spend some time and energy attending to your own erotic self. Rather than waiting for your partner to turn you on, ask yourself “What do I do that turns me on?” Can you turn yourself on by noticing how sexy your partner looks in bare feet and jeans at the kitchen sink? Thinking about sex mid-day and texting your partner about it? Wearing or shopping for sexy underwear? Give this some thought. You may have many ways of turning yourself on, or you may not have thought much about it before. If that’s the case, you can have a lot of fun learning what is sexy to you. You might even decide to share your turned-on self or your newfound sexy vibe with your partner.

Should You “Just Do It” To Fix A Desire Discrepancy?

The conventional wisdom about desire discrepancy in a relationship is “just do it.” I’ve had many clients whose previous therapists have recommended some version of this approach, ranging from “ice-breaker sex” to “it’s like doing the laundry; sometimes you just have to get it done”.

I get that when a couple hasn’t had sex in a long time, it can become difficult to find a way to connect, get started, get vulnerable, or initiate intimacy. People frequently ask me “Where do we start? We’ve forgotten how to find one another”.

The problem is that desire can be a fragile thing, in need of a gentle touch. When desire is fragile, tentative, small, or hesitant, it can very easily tilt over into aversion if emotional pressure is applied, or even perceived.

So, what’s the difference between a tentative sexual encounter that results in a stronger connection, and one that has the unintended consequence of creating an aversion, or increasing anxiety?


Willingness is the crucial ingredient that is required for a sexual interaction to be a positive experience. Notice that I didn’t say “desire.”  In fact, desire is optional. Willingness is NOT optional. In order to run the experiment of trying to connect sexually after a dry spell, both partners need to feel willing. They might also feel worried, anxious, concerned, shy, tentative, vulnerable, embarrassed, or anything else. But as long as they are able to identify willingness, there is a good chance the interaction will be successful.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself to help yourself get in touch with willingness:

  • When sex goes well, how do I feel about myself?
  • When sex goes well, how do I feel about my partner?
  • What do I want to express to my partner sexually?
  • What makes a positive sexual interaction for me? How do I help create that?
  • What types of intimacy sound fun to me right now?
  • What types of intimacy would I prefer to postpone for another day?

Remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once. Consider inviting your partner to do something that sounds fun to you. Let them know, for now, your experiment is to keep it simple and stick with what you’re most comfortable with.

If you would like to have a conversation with your partner about having sex, try taking turns with these conversation prompts:

  • A part of me wants to have sex because….
  • A part of me is not so sure about having sex, because…

Make sure both of you respond to both prompts, so you don’t reinforce a polarized dynamic. Then see if you can work together to come up with a strategy to help you both get something you want from the interaction, while helping one another feel as little anxiety as possible.

The Most Fundamental Sexual Connection

We generally think of sex as something that happens between two or more people. But the most fundamental and important sexual relationship is the one you have with yourself.

When I refer to “the sexual relationship you have with yourself,” I mean the erotic space that exists inside you. That includes the sensuous space of physical pleasure that you experience through your own body, your unique erotic fantasies, and your sense of yourself as a sexual being. All of that belongs to you. It is yours alone, for you to explore in any way you choose.

Self-pleasure has lots of benefits, ranging from increased orgasmic response to better sleep, pain relief, decreased anxiety, improved circulation…I could go on and on. It is unique in that it is private; when you’re having sex with yourself, you don’t have to consider another person’s feelings, reactions, and preferences in the moment, which can allow for a type of exploration that is relaxed and curious.

Often I find that people are impeded in exploring their sexual selves alone by a perception that self-pleasure is in some way gross, lonely, bad, or sad. That’s a real shame, in my opinion. Self-pleasure is completely normal. It’s the most reliable way to experience orgasm, and, for many people, it can be a valuable self-care practice.

If you have that kind of reaction to self-pleasure–if it seems isolating or wrong in some way–ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I having this reaction?
  • Where did I learn this?
  • Do I still actually believe it?
  • What do I aspire to believe about self-pleasure?
  • How far away from that aspirational belief am I right now?
  • What would be the benefit to me if I were able to shift all the way to the belief I would like to have?
  • What would be the benefit to my relationship(s)?

Then write down the belief you would like to have, and refer to it often. When you notice you are having the old, less helpful thoughts, try deliberately replacing those thoughts with the new ones.

If this is difficult, or progress is slower than you would like, you might benefit from discussing it with a therapist. When you interview a therapist to see if it’s a good fit, be sure to ask them if they are comfortable and competent working with sex issues—this is an issue that will require some explicit discussion about sex and sexuality.

Embracing and exploring your sexual self can allow you to understand yourself better—to know what turns you on and off, what invigorates and excites you, and what gives you pleasure. But it won’t just benefit you alone; you can also bring that knowledge back to your partnered sexual encounters, and your understanding of yourself can make sex that much hotter and more meaningful.

Having a strong connection with your own eroticism can also take some pressure off your partnered intimate interactions. It can be very distressing when one partner wants to have sex and the other does not. If you can stop thinking of self-pleasure as something lonely or lesser than partnered sex, and start thinking of it as an opportunity to explore, experience, and have a lot of fun exploring your eroticism without the pressure of anyone else’s expectations, you may find yourself taking it in stride the next time your partner doesn’t feel like having sex when you do. The reverse is also true. Next time your partner’s in the mood and you aren’t, you could invite them to have some hot self-sexual time.

Or maybe you would find it sexy to watch, or to participate in some manner? There are many ways you can incorporate self-stimulation into your repertoire for partnered sex. Anxiety and arousal don’t go together; an internal sense that it is your “job” to “give” your partner sexual pleasure and orgasm can really put a damper on enthusiasm and hotness. That knife cuts both ways—worrying that you’re taking too long is decidedly not erotic! Knowing you can take control of your own pleasure (and your partner can do the same) is one of the most empowering and anxiety-reducing shifts I know of.

Tune in next week, when I’ll be sharing some tips for how to explore your self-sexual connection!