Over the past several weeks, I have prompted you and your partner to talk about the various experiences from your past that may be contributing to the difficulties in your sex life today. Hopefully you have come to understand your partner, and yourself, better. Now that you have reflected on your past, it is time to turn your attention to the present and uncover why you and/or your partner is avoiding sex.
There are some very good reasons you are avoiding sex. There are real issues you face that are making sex difficult or disappointing. In fact, so many things can affect sex that it’s almost inevitable that you would struggle at some point. My next several blog posts will be about finding out what the issues are that impede your sex life with your partner. As before, I want you to think about how you are handling these issues and what you need to do differently to improve the situation. You will then pull all of this together and focus specifically on your role in the dynamic.
Sexual Desire Issues and the Desire Discrepancy
Issues around sexual desire are a very common reason you might be feeling bad about sex. If one or both of you has a hard time wanting to have sex, not only are you less interested in it, but you also run up against the expectation (from yourself, your partner, the world, or all the above) that you should want it. Once it seems like something should be different than it is, you can get self-conscious, self-critical, and avoidant. It’s difficult to engage in something that makes you feel inadequate.
When someone’s libido drops (either yours or your partner’s) or seems low, that person struggles to feel desire for sex. Worry over this state of affairs (by both parties) makes it even more difficult to get interested. As you get older, your desire often becomes more reactive as well. You don’t feel horny or think about sex in the same way or as often as you used to; now you need stimulation and mental engagement to be interested in sex. These changes mean it’s harder to be interested enough to take the time and trouble to get in the mood. When sex becomes hard work, it’s no wonder you struggle.
Desire discrepancy (when one partner wants sex more than the other) between the two of you is another thing that can throw your sex life for a loop. There is always one partner who wants sex more than the other, at least over time. You might change roles—in different relationships or over time—but one of you is going to be the person with more interest in sex. This isn’t a problem by itself, but it can become one when you get caught in the traps of a desire mismatch.
If you’re the person with higher desire caught in the trap, you typically feel rejected. You want sex, and you take your partner’s lower level of desire personally. If the other person doesn’t want sex, it must mean you aren’t attractive, desirable, lovable, or important. At that point, sex begins to take on extra meaning—proof that you’re all those things or confirmation that you’re not. In fact, you may feel an increasing urgency to prove these and to reassure yourself, generating even more of a focus on sex. You may come off as controlling, with frequent sexual initiation, pressure, and not taking no for an answer.
You, as the person who wants more sex, can also feel controlled. The person who wants sex less, due only to that fact, ends up in control of sex. They get to say if, when, and how you have sex, and it starts to feel like you’re left to accept whatever crumbs the other is willing to throw you. You get resentful. You’re not happy about this, but you may be willing to take what there is since you don’t know when your next chance for sexual connection will be.
It’s common for the person with more desire to do most of the initiating. You may bring up your interest in sex frequently, trying to get something to change, and end up fighting about it. Those conversations probably go in circles. Or maybe you’ve gone quiet hoping that your partner will notice and pick up the slack. Maybe you’ve stopped talking about it, resigning yourself to feeling unfulfilled and unhappy. You give up on trying to make a difference in your sex life. Perhaps you alternate between these ways of handling it.
Likely, you feel like something is wrong with your partner because they don’t want sex. Where is their natural sex drive? Is something broken so they don’t feel what they’re supposed to feel? Should they go to therapy and figure this out? You might feel more sexually evolved or open and want to help your partner let go, open up, or grow sexually. It’s also possible to assume something is wrong with your level of desire, that you want it too much, or that you put too much importance on it.
If you’re the partner with less desire who is caught in the trap, you feel pressure. You are always mindful that your partner wants sex, and you are aware that they’re unhappy. Their interest in sex can feel like a constant presence in the room, never letting you relax. You can’t imagine having the time or space to cultivate your own interest in sex. When faced with the possibility of sex, you weigh how long it’s been since the last time you did it against how much you don’t really want to have sex. This can lead to giving in, when you don’t think you can get away with saying no again.
Perhaps you get annoyed with your partner for their level of interest in sex. It can feel like they just want sex, not you. Your position is always in response to your partner—yes or no to their desire, yes or no to their suggestions, yes or no to the pressure you’re feeling.
It is likely you have some very good reasons for not wanting the sex that is offered. You may know how good sex can be or have a sense of your wants and desires but think (or know) your partner can’t handle that or isn’t interested. As you watch your partner accept the poor level of sex you’re having, you’re losing respect for them even though you’re the one offering them crumbs. Yet you don’t take the risk to speak up or take responsibility for your own sexuality.
Since you seem to be missing this drive that others seem to have, it may also feel like something is wrong with you, that you are inadequate or broken. It may be that you haven’t found or explored what makes sex engaging for you, and so it seems like your sex drive is missing.
Regardless of what side of the trap you are in, you probably pathologize each other to some degree—regarding or treating each other as abnormal or unhealthy. You may criticize your partner’s level of desire. If you’re the one who wants more sex, you may have been accused of only thinking about sex, always wanting sex, or maybe even of being a sex addict. If you want it less, you may be labeled as repressed, frigid, withholding, or broken—implying that something is wrong since you don’t have what’s considered a “normal” sex drive.