How to deal with mismatched desire (in a relationship)

Are you in a relationship where one of you has much more sexual desire than the other?

I’m going to share a secret with you.

Sexual desire problems can be the most amazing thing that occurs in your relationship.

Now before you get angry at me and tell me how you’re tearing out your hair with sexual frustration or angry at being pressured to have sex, just bear with me. 

I’ve been there before. I feel your pain. 

Long before I became a sex therapist I was so frustrated that I was often the higher desire partner that I eventually broke up with long term partners because the tension and conflict seemed irresolvable. Nothing I tried to do would fix it. I was angry that they’d keep saying time and time again, “Not tonight dear” or “I’ve got a headache” after things started out so hot and exciting. I felt trapped in a relationship on false pretences. 

Take Arnold and Emma. Arnold is the low desire partner and feels pestered by his mates’ higher desire. He’d be happy to have quickie sex every two months whereas Emma wants varied sexual connection three times a week. Emma is the high desire partner and feels pressured to have sex when and only how it’s on offer from Arnold because these times sadly come so few and far between. Emma has to settle for “getting lucky” and has to be thankful for the average “duty” sex that Arnold doles out. 

After years of research and working with many couples as a sex therapist I’ve discovered you can resolve mismatched desire. It is surmountable! You can fan the flames of sexual desire again once they’ve gone out. 

Fact: In every normal relationship there’s ALWAYS a low desire and a high desire partner 

In every culture and time. Think of desire as a continuum.

For example, there’s Jen who wants sex every day and she’s with John who wants sex once a week. In this relationship she was the higher desire partner (HDP).  In her next relationship Jen is with Lucy who wants sex four times a day. In this relationship Jen becomes the lower desire partner (LDP) and Lucy is the HDP.  Now John is with someone who wants sex once a month and he’s the HDP.  

Your position is not fixed. It’s a standpoint you take in response to your partner.  For instance I have been in a relationship where I was the LDP in relation to my partner.

Whoever might have been the higher desire partner at the beginning of the relationship might become the lower desire partner as you move into the next phase of your relationship or vice versa.

There is a low desire partner and high desire partner about every issue in your relationship like housework, monogamy, intimacy, sex, having kids, moving in together etc. You could be the LDP for housework but the HDP partner about having kids. You could be the HDP partner for sex but the LDP for monogamy or intimacy for instance.

Myth: There’s no “correct” amount of sex in a relationship

Don’t compare yourself to stats or other couples. The amount of sex you agree that you’re both happy with in your relationship is all that matters. 

This means you’ve got to compromise. A great lover is sensitive and can flexibly accommodate the needs of their partner and life’s demands. 

Arnold wasn’t interested in being flexible with Emma. He didn’t care she wanted more sex and was more interested in his own needs. He was rigidly stuck in a place of “why should I do anything I don’t want to do.” He told Emma she was a nymphomaniac and “no couples have that much sex”. Arnold used an imaginary yardstick to justify his selfishness and fear of intimacy. Emma was a beautiful woman who would have had a lot of success in the dating scene but Arnold thought as soon as he “got” her after wooing and seducing her, he didn’t need to do anything anymore. 

Myth: Women are usually the Low Desire Partners 

I’ve been the higher desire partner in a lot of my relationships. In my private practice over half the couples I see are women with higher desire and less than half of the relationships the men are the higher desire partners. I see similar patterns in same sex relationships. 

It can be confusing when the man is the lower desire partner because of all the social myths that we are brought up with that say men are always horny, have bigger libidos and “think with their dick.” This means their partner can take it very personally when their man has lower sexual drive than them.

Myth: Sex is an automatic natural and biological function

You’re in love and in a relationship - yet this doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be having sex. 

This myth can make sex seem impersonal and actually flatline desire. If you’re the LDP, you’ll find it hard to get in the mood if you think sex is just your partner relieving their physical needs with you.  Sex isn’t like sneezing or blowing your nose. 
If you believe this myth you’ll be under huge pressure to always have blockbuster sex and unwaveringly sky high, unstoppable desire. You’ll be devastated when sexual desire problems inevitably appear.

Fact: Desire Discrepancy is a normal problem in the evolution of a healthy relationship

It doesn’t mean something is going wrong. It’s the most common problem I see as a sex therapist. 

Sexual desire ebbs and flows throughout our relationships.

Centuries of human evolution are replaying right here in your relationship. How cool is that?

The reason we are so successful as a species is because we evolved to deal with interpersonal tension as a cost of being in love, enjoying longer intimate relationships, having babies and putting in the effort to stick together. As a result of this we became more resilient and grew kick arse brains! Fights about sex moulded our psychology as an actual species. 

Told you it was cool!  

Fact: Normal healthy people in good relationships have desire problems

Your relationship isn’t broken!

Even if you started off your relationship having sex seven times a day, eventually battles will begin about when and how often to have sexy times. 

Desire problems crop up in the middle phase of relationship. It’s a process by which love relationships grow.

Fact: Your Brain is more in control of your libido than your genitals

So many magazine articles talk about mixing up routines and trying sexy underwear etc. Sure, this might help but what trumps all of this superficial advice is focusing on our unique human brain.

It’s our brain that delivers special meaning to sex that empowers us to have transcendent sex, passionate intimacy and deep and profound desire. 

Maintaining strong sexual desire is mental; it’s about how you feel about your relationship, your lover and yourself. This leads me to my next point.

Fact: A resilient sense of self helps you cope with sexual difference

If you possess a weak sense of self you'll be riding a wild rollercoaster of emotions in a relationship. You'll soar sky high or fall deep down depending on an approving look or the wrong word from your partner. This need for validation can be survived in early dating but proves problematic as relationships mature. 

It’s a common way for relationships to function where both partners are way too dependent on the other for positive self mirroring or emotional harmony.

Improving your sense of self means you can have amazing long term relationships, maintain higher sexual desire and sexually “co-evolve” with your partner.  Yes!

A stronger sense of self means you won’t automatically feel inadequate when your partner doesn’t want to have sex with you because you aren’t relying on external validation for your own self worth. 

Big conflicts are inevitable when you don’t have a strong sense of self and rely on your partner for a mirrored sense of self. 

Take Arnold and Emma again.  Emma regulated her emotions through Arnold. Emma needed sex with Arnold to feel good about herself. When she got her way she was happy. When Arnold rejected her sexually she raged, sulked and felt unwanted and undesired. 

Emma couldn’t accept the idea that she was sexually desirable on her own without Arnold’s sexual interest. Emma then started obsessing about cheating and affairs. When Emma received sexual interest from other men her undeveloped sense of self rollercoasted upward and she felt happy again!

Emma would emotionally crash when Arnold kept denying her sex. In sessions together, Emma learnt to grow beyond depending purely on Arnold or other men for validation for her self worth and identity.  

The dark cost about feeling great about yourself when you receive other's approval or sexual interests means you’ll feel wretched about yourself when others don’t give you that sexual interest. Of course we all love attention but if you can’t make yourself feel wonderful or realise your own worth without it then you’re in for a bumpy ride. 

Mature love needs a resilient sense of self for desire to last the distance and this starts from inside.

Fact: Mismatched Desire can be an opportunity

Your relationship doesn’t have to be torn asunder because of sex. You don’t need to be stressed out because one of you wants sex more than the other. The only choice isn’t finding someone who is more “sexually compatible.”

All conflict in an intimate relationship can be an opportunity for greater self development and growth as a couple; whether it’s fights over sex, illness, money, in-laws, time etc. 

Sexual problems bring this all into startling clarity! It’s like shining a microscopic torch into our deepest fears and wounds. 

If we are too emotionally dependent we are bonded without autonomy. 

I help couples find the sweet spot of togetherness in harmony with autonomy. This can create sexual desire like a firebomb! Imagine a see saw with codependence on one end and complete autonomy on the other. It’s a matter of finding that balance in the middle. 

This balance means we can be less reactive, stay calmer, soothe ourselves and stay more invested in relationships throughout tough times.

Working with a sex therapist to build a more resilient selfhood can get you out of the emotional gridlock that so many couples find themselves trapped in. Gridlock isn’t grounds for a divorce, it’s fertile ground for relationship transformation!


  • Leolady727
    More than a month ago

    Mismatched desire can be a real problem - it certainly was in my first marriage - after about 6 months my husband was not interested in sex and not at all interested in seeking any counselling, as he decided that it was MY problem. I dealt with it by having affairs - no way I was going to give up sex when I was still in my 20's !

    • Account closed
      Account Closed
      More than a month ago

      Yes you are very correct, unmatched couples lead to cheating and eventually often divorce. No amount of counseling will convince anyone to get into swinging, if they are against it and no amount of social pressure to be loyal to a boring partner,will stop someone who has a high sex drive finding it somewhere else. We are so over meeting couples, with one partner who has pressured the other into doing it, 5 minutes after they arrive you can tell only one is keen and from there it goes down hill. We have even had one partner leave while we were playing and another say "I've had enough" And get dressed.

  • Account closed
    More than a month ago

    Thanks for the great article Cat.
    Q: Can the LDP have a higher desire for another tangent .. say kink than the HDP. And maybe thats the reason for the LDP being L in the first place. just wondering?

  • friskypuz Photo
    More than a month ago

    Isn't that what having a fwb is for?

  • Account closed
    More than a month ago

    OK so I'm probably a little thick... apart from working on our own sense of self & overall emotional intelligence, how do you resolve the desire for sex and/or physicality in the unequal relationship? Say "sorry not tonite - how 'bout you get your dildo/hand out"???
    Wouldn't the obvious answer be 'call a friend'?!! Surely AMM's plethora of choice would be the answer!!!
    OK so getting another to sort the lack might not work in some relationships, but as asked before what IS the answer for so many men who find their partner no longer interested in sex; or those women who find THEIR partners losing quite a lot of ability with age? Little pills don't necessarily fix the mental desire, only the physical ability...?!

  • Kinkabelle
    More than a month ago

    What an insightful post. It's not everyday you think of desire as something you can work on, i thought of it like an innate urge.

  • Profile invisible
    More than a month ago

    Great article Cat. I always felt I was the high drive partner in relationships until I met someone with a higher drive than me. I was exhausted! lol The sex was amazing but 3-4 times a night takes it's toll after a few months.

    • Account closed
      Account Closed
      More than a month ago

      I use to be married to a lady and she wanted it 5 times a day, she would wake me up about 2 in the morning, before I went to work, at lunchtime, when I got home from work and when we went to bed. I was loving it but after 6 months living together my health deteriorated, I went to 5 different doctors, all of them could not find anything wrong despite lots of tests, eventually, I was unable to walk to the car without help but the sex continued, mostly with her on top by this stage. Its incredible how a penis has a mind of its own no matter how sick you are. Anyway I finally realised what the problem was and we cut back to 3 times a day :) Problem solved, I thought, till I found out she was making up the extra with a "friend"

  • trusted8 Photo
    More than a month ago

    I guess we all need to see a sex therapist instead of trolling the pages of this site looking for another that is better suited to our own desires. Sorry AMM, but your membership and popularity may end up suffering as a result. time will tell. Just for the record....thank you Cat for your article.

Copyright © 2020 Cat O Dowd It is illegal to use any or all of this article without the expressed, written permission from Adult Match Maker and the author. If you wish to use it you must publish the article in its entirety and include the original author, plus links, so that it is clear where the content originated. Failure to do so will result in legal action being taken.