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!

Shifting An Unhelpful Dynamic in Desire Discrepancy

Many of the couples I work with are struggling with issues related to desire discrepancy. All too often, I discover that the higher-desire partner is expressing their distress in the most counterproductive manner possible. It can be extremely distressing to be in a monogamous relationship with a much lower desire partner and a lifelong commitment. Still, there are more effective strategies, and less effective ones.

One example is taking any physically intimate contact as an invitation to go further. It seems to make sense on the surface. After all, if you’re kissing or cuddling, it might seem logical that increasing sexual contact is a possibility now, more than at another random time. But if there is a sense of pressure, entitlement, frustration, or nagging, it is likely to result in less desire and more distance, as well as increasing reactivity in both partners. Definitely not sexy.

Unfortunately, this can lead to a vicious cycle whereby one partner pursues and pursues, with rapidly lowering self-esteem and rapidly rising frustration, while the other partner pulls back further and further, feeling like they can’t say “no”, with rising guilt and frustration. A couple trapped in this cycle may no longer have any intimate touch at all, either because the lower desire partner feels pressure to go further even when hugging, or the higher desire partner feels so hurt that they stop expressing any kind of affection at all to avoid rejection.

Nothing shuts off arousal like pressure. I promise.

Good news: this dynamic can shift in lots of ways. Here are a few to get you started:

  • The higher desire partner might need an active self-sexual life; if self-pleasure is not a comfortable option, this is a good place to start. Nobody should feel responsible for someone else’s orgasm, nor should anyone feel dependent on anyone else for sexual enjoyment.
  • The lower desire partner could make a list of things that inhibit desire for them. Resolving some of these things will make it a lot easier to access desire. This is a great collaborative discussion for couples; each partner has both “brakes” and “accelerators”, and acceleration won’t be smooth until the brakes are released. Examples of common brakes include being exhausted, feeling physically unwell, or lots of stress at work. Examples of common accelerators include having a connected conversation, being touched in loving ways that are not goal-oriented, or seeing your partner in that sexy outfit. What are yours? What are your partner’s? The balance between accelerator and brake is very individual; for some people it is easy to get the right balance and for others everything has to be just right. Neither of those are unusual or abnormal.
  • The couple might practice saying “yes”, “maybe”, “slower”, “not yet” and “no”. A good way to practice this is with some kind of touch that feels totally fine to both, for instance holding hands, or giving a foot rub. The giver should get experienced at asking for permission and responding warmly and reliably to feedback of any kind, and the receiver should get experienced at giving a full range of feedback that is congruent with their preferences in the moment. Both partners should experience both roles, and practice all possible answers until there is no drama or emotional load attached.

Willingness is Enough

If you move in sex-positive and/or feminist spaces, you may have heard the term “enthusiastic consent.” Enthusiastic consent is the idea that consent requires the presence of a “yes,” not just the absence of a “no.” The enthusiastic consent movement is doing a lot of important work reframing our cultural dialogue around sex and fighting against coercion and assault. However, sometimes I think the term “enthusiastic consent” can obscure something important—namely, that sometimes willingness is enough to engage in a sexual encounter.

Some people experience desire spontaneously. That is, they’re going about their day, and then all of a sudden they think, “Wow, I’d like to have sex”–and then, perhaps, they act on that desire in some way. This way of experiencing desire is what we tend to think of as the “normal” way. But it’s far from the only way, and in reality, it’s no more normal than any other experience.

Other people tend to experience more responsive desire. That is, they start to actively desire sex only after a sexual encounter is underway. They start with willingness, and their desire blooms as the encounter continues. This is a perfectly normal and healthy way to experience desire.

Because we tend to think of spontaneous desire as the norm, people who more frequently experience responsive desire may be pathologized as having low desire, or even NO desire. They may think of themselves as lesser or broken. Their partners may fear that they are not attracted to them, because they don’t tend to initiate sex. All of these problems could be avoided with the understanding that all ways of experiencing desire are normal.

Recognizing that willingness can be enough to begin a sexual encounter is an important way of validating and normalizing responsive desire. We can fight for the importance of affirmative consent, and work to eliminate even subtle forms of coercion, while recognizing that there are many healthy reasons to say “yes” to sex besides having an explicit experience of wanting. Here are a few:

  • To experience connection and closeness with your partner
  • Because you know desire will bloom as the encounter continues
  • To relieve menstrual cramps
  • To attempt to get pregnant
  • To enjoy giving your partner pleasure

 

In your own life, and for your therapy clients, how can you validate different ways of experiencing desire, and multiple reasons for having sex, while still addressing the issue of coercion?