Over the last several weeks, I have tried to help you and your partner shed some light on your sexual struggles. I asked you to reflect on your personal histories and how your experiences with sex, love, conflict, and support have shaped the way you approach your intimate relationships. Next, I asked you to examine your current sex life closely and be honest with yourselves about your patterns around sex with your partner. Hopefully you have come to understand your issues better. Now, it is time to move forward and address them.
What’s on Your Side of the Court?
As you move forward in this process, only play your side of the court. I have mentioned that concept before, but now it is time to come up with concrete ways you intend to change your role in your sexual difficulties. You do your work, and your partner does theirs. You can hold each other accountable, to a degree, but do not worry about them or police their efforts. Do everything you can to solve your own part of the problem. To be successful, you need to get clear about exactly what your work is. These next blogs will try to help you do that. Let’s begin with desire discrepancy.
Handle Your Desire Discrepancy
If desire discrepancy is part of the problem between you and your partner, take on your half of that and deal with it in a healthy, constructive way. I use a concept developed by Dr. David Schnarch and suggest that you consider your role in the dynamic from two different perspectives: where is your best self in charge, and where is your worst self running the show?
The best in you is the part that is honest. It’s the part that can settle your own emotional state and manage your reactivity. It’s the part that can connect with what you want and communicate that. The best part also keeps you safe by knowing you’re going to be okay. In a way (maybe surprisingly), it’s the part that could choose to leave the relationship if your fundamental bottom lines aren’t met—at least after a good, solid effort with your partner.
Your ”Job” If You Want Less Sex Than Your Partner
Let’s look at what’s happening if you’re the person with less interest in sex. We’ve already talked about how the person with less desire controls sex. Your partner wants sex more, so you’re the one saying yes or no, when and how. If desire discrepancy has been a problem in your relationship, then your partner has likely derived their sense of desirability and self-esteem from your sexual response, allowing you to control their sense of adequacy. You may or may not welcome that power.
The best in you is showing up if you don’t want to have sex just to bolster your partner’s ego. It can be good judgment to be repelled by overtures for sex that come from neediness or obligation. The best in you knows you want a shared sexual experience that is about pleasure and connection, not validation. Your best self knows what good sex is (or can be), or you don’t know, but you are willing to figure it out for yourself. The best in you recognizes if your partner’s higher level of desire isn’t based in a developed ability to really connect in sex, to share moments of intensity, and to be present with you. So you may be showing good sense in not wanting the kind of sex you’ve been having with your partner. There may be other ways that the sex you’re having is subpar or problematic, giving you good reason not to want it. And your best self may also be standing your ground about how much sex you’re willing to have.
While some of your lower desire may be solid and coming from a good place, because you object to the sex itself or the meaning it has, you still need to challenge yourself about the parts of your motivation that aren’t coming from your best self. Do you enjoy the power you have and wielding it over your partner? Perhaps you enjoy the pain it’s causing them because you have your own resentments that you don’t deal with directly. Putting off your partner and focusing on their issues is a way of not addressing your own anxiety or limitations. Your partner’s issues can be used as a diversion, even if they’re real, so that you don’t have to deal with your own. Don’t force your partner to carry the emotional brunt of your withering sex life. Sit down at the table, figuratively, and craft a solution. This is the time to stop waiting for just the right invitation and to begin stating your needs (or even acknowledging that you have any). You may think you’re perfectly happy sitting in your comfort zone, unwilling to stretch while knowing full well that your partner is suffering. You are not.
The key is to figure out what’s happening and confront yourself about it. Where the best in you is in charge, where it makes sense for you not to want sex, you need to speak up and do something about what’s wrong instead of avoid sex. It’s not fully from the best in you if you won’t talk about it, address the issues, and work toward solving the problem between you. Where the worst of you is showing up, you need to take it on. While you can get benefit from communicating with your partner and taking a stand, it is your job to challenge yourself to act differently. It is your job to take a more active role in solving your sex life. It is time to clean your side of the court. That will entail stepping up, determining what it takes to want to engage in sex, and designing a real contribution to a sex life that works for both of you.
You “Job” If You Want More Sex Than Your Partner
If you’re the person with the higher level of desire, you’ve got the same two basic questions—what part of your role is from the best part of you and what part is from the worst?
The best in you is showing up when you advocate for what you want—knowing that sex is important to you and valuing it. Speaking up about what matters and not just letting it go is important. The best in you shows up when you’re in touch with what you like and what turns you on. If you’ve figured out your desires, preferences, and eroticism, you’ve gotten in touch with core elements of yourself. If you validate those desires, too, giving yourself permission to want what you want instead of needing your partner to make them okay, that is a sign you’re coming from a solid place.
The worst part of you shows up when you rely on validation from your partner to feel good about yourself. You take their lack of sexual interest personally, as rejection. Your sense of yourself—as a person, as a lover, as a partner—requires their sexual interest. When you have sex, you feel good about yourself and your relationship. But without sex, you get shaky. Sex is reassurance. This changes the meaning of sex from connecting with your partner to making you feel okay about yourself. This is usually unpalatable to your partner, who can tell this is a form of neediness, and then they become less interested in sex.
The worst in you is involved, too, if you believe (or pretend to believe) you are sexually evolved and enlightened while your partner is repressed or inadequate. If your conversation never gets to why your partner legitimately isn’t interested in sex and how it might not be fulfilling to them, you’re not challenging your pretenses. You can have lots of interest in sex but still plenty of issues around intimacy. You may struggle to get emotionally close to your partner, able to be physical in sex but not open in other settings or in other ways. Maybe you can be sexual when someone doesn’t mean as much to you, but you struggle if your partner matters to you. Your libido can be a smokescreen for your own challenge with having a true connection with your partner.
The worst in you is in charge when you have whatever sex is offered to you, abandoning your own desires, preferences, and eroticism to keep the peace. You take whatever scraps you can get. This suggests to your partner that you have no taste, that you can’t discern good sex from bad, and you just want to get off. You are feeding a cycle that undermines your partner’s respect for you, and probably eats away at your self-respect, too.
Dealing with your half of the desire discrepancy is going to require taking yourself on and behaving differently. Speak up about the things you know to be a problem and where you know you are on solid ground. Claim the validity of your desires and continue to advocate for yourself and what you want. But also confront yourself about how you’ve needed your partner to respond a certain way for you to feel good about yourself. Admit when you’ve been willing to blame your partner without looking at your own role. Get honest about how you are challenged to show up, be seen, and have true moments of connection. Figure out the ways this situation is about you and your own limitations instead of blaming or pathologizing your partner. Decide what you’re going to change in your interactions, so those changes originate from your best self.