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.

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?

Reader Question: What Do You Do When There’s Love But No Lust?

What do you do when you have a couple with love, but no lust? Where one (or both) partners feels a deep affection for and connection with the other, but no physical attraction?

This is such a great question, because this situation occurs very often, and many people, therapists and couples alike, think of this as being “broken” or “abnormal”. Sometimes lust is absent for at least one partner right from the start of a relationship, and many times the “super hot sex” part of a relationship changes or diminishes quite a bit over the span of the relationship. We really cannot see this as an “abnormal” thing, or a “problem”, except in that it can cause quite a bit of distress.

A lot of the work I do as a sex therapist is about un-scripting relationships. Every relationship is an intersection of unique human beings, each with a singular set of life experiences, fears, and fantasies, not to mention physiology. Yet we often approach relationships with one-size-fits-all expectations–about sex, children, living arrangements, number of partners, etc. These assumptions make it harder for couples to negotiate the parameters of their own unique partnership.

There is really no reason any more to think that a relationship that is decades long will “normally” remain hot for both partners. First there are physiologic changes over the life-span that play a part in desire levels. For many people, the novelty of the sex diminishes, having kids and career take up a lot of time and energy, and the emotional relationship can also go a little flat as we assume we know what there is to know about one another and stop having juicy dinner table conversations and fun dates. I’m sure you can see several entry points to working with this kind of issue, including normalizing it. Desire issues can be complicated, and they often CAN shift; having the desire and motivation to create the shift is an important part of the equation.

If you use my brief assessment tool, you know that if there is any sense of guilt, pressure, subtle coercion, or sex pain you can expect desire to diminish, and often develop into aversion.

Another common situation is that the relationship never or only very briefly was super hot for one or both partners. Here I urge you to consider that there might be great reasons to be in a relationship OTHER than hot sex. Really good reasons. Deep love and ability to work as a team, common values and goals, and the ability of a strong relationship to be much greater than the sum of its parts are very good reasons to be together.

It is also possible that part of the issue is that the sex could be improved by, for example, an anatomy lesson and some frank conversation between partners about what they might like sexually. Sometimes there can be unresolved disillusionment about sex, either in this relationship or previously. Sometimes there can be conflicted thoughts/feelings/belief systems about sex that cause internal confusion.

Remember too that being willing to have sex is sufficient for a positive sexual interaction. There are lots of reasons a partner might feel willing to have sex without feeling a lot of desire, or even any. Assuming that the lower desire partner is able to say no and there is no hint of subtle coercion, a couple with either desire discrepancy or lust discrepancy can still have great sexual experiences, and many do. For more on this idea, check out my blog post on Asexuality.