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.

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.

Desire Discrepancy Lesson #2: Look for the Blocks

I’m continuing my series on desire discrepancy this week. If you missed last week’s post on normalizing variation, you can find it here.

What do you do if you’re seeing a couple with a big desire discrepancy, their marriage is on the rocks, and you recognize that you can’t wave a magic wand and make one partner want just as much sex as the other one? Sometimes there are things you can do that will increase desire for the lower desire partner, and other times there are not. The good news is, even if you can’t directly affect desire, you can certainly help your clients remove obstacles that prevent desire from blooming.

There are lots of factors that can impede or inhibit desire, and often they fall right into your wheelhouse as a therapist. Whether or not you’ve had training in sex therapy, I’m certain you have the skills to work with issues like anxiety and depression, both of which strongly inhibit desire.

My Will Lily assessment will help you identify some very common blocks–for instance, sex pain, which is, quite understandably, a major inhibitor of desire. If your client is experiencing sex pain, they absolutely must resolve it if they are going to have any kind of positive experience of desire.

Similarly, internal or external pressure is a common inhibitor of desire. Even without full-blown coercion, it’s very common for people to feel subtly pressured into having sex they don’t really want to have, for a variety of reasons–fear of disappointing their partner, for instance, or a belief that once a sexual interaction starts, they don’t have a right to stop or redirect the activity. Over time, subtle pressure can really put a damper on desire and do lasting damage to a relationship. Will Lily can help you identify cases like this in the very first session.

As I continue this series, I’m going to be talking in more detail about some of the factors that can inhibit desire. In the meantime, keep looking for the blocks. They can take all kinds of forms. Are your clients dealing with intensely demanding, stressful work schedules? Are they listening with one ear for the baby crying in the next room? Are they dealing with grief, or working through past trauma?

Identifying and working with factors that inhibit desire is absolutely necessary to increasing desire. No matter how much desire there is, these factors will stop the action.  Helping your clients remove obstacles is what creates space for desire to blossom.

Desire Discrepancy Lesson #1: Normalize Variation

Last week, I wrote about why desire discrepancy can be such a challenging issue for couples therapists to work with. If you missed last week’s post, you can read it here.

If you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that desire discrepancies are common. People vary widely from one another in preferences, desires, experiences, and beliefs. Of course they’re going to vary in terms of their level of desire for sex. It’s completely to be expected!

You wouldn’t assume that two partners would have the exact same preferences about how clean to keep their kitchen, what they like to do for exercise, how much money they want to put in savings each month, or how often they want to travel. Couples have desire discrepancies of all kinds, in all sorts of areas, and very often they are able to resolve them gracefully, while acknowledging the validity of each partner’s perspective. So why do we so often expect our partners to have similar levels of sexual desire to us, and feel such pain when that is not the case?

Our cultural ideas about love and romance are responsible for some of the distress. We are taught to think about love as “two souls merging into one.” Romance upholds similarity as the marker of a good relationship–two perfectly-matched people meshing seamlessly together.

That messaging is particularly strong when it comes to sex. Rather than acknowledging that everyone is unique, and that strong couples can (and must!) learn to value and embrace their differences, our culture teaches us to see differences in sexual desire between partners as a flashing warning signal that something is terribly wrong. In this way, what starts as a perfectly normal variation in sexual desire between partners can get so loaded with shame, stigma, and pathologization that it begins to drive the partners apart.

That’s why I make a point to normalize variation whenever I can. There’s no “normal” or “right” amount of desire for sex. Some people want lots of sex, and that’s healthy and okay. Some people want no sex at all, ever, and that’s also perfectly healthy and okay. Also, it is very usual and expectable for desire to shift over time, with age, stress levels, physical health, and hormone changes. It is just not productive or helpful to pathologize your own or your partner’s (or your client’s) level of desire.

Normalizing variation, and helping your clients see their desire differences as simply one aspect of their unique individuality, and not a sign of something wrong in the relationship, is a wonderful first step.

Stay tuned for more on working with desire differences and associated stresses, and I commend you for diving in to conversations about sex and sexuality with your clients!