Reader Question:

My girlfriend and I have been dating and living together for going on two years, and libido differences continue to be a problem for us. While we love each other very much and are extremely attracted to each other (it’s always good when it happens), we’ve gone down to about once a week, where before it was between two to three times a week. I have a very high libido and even three times a week is somewhat frustrating for me.

While we’re both young and fairly in shape, we’re also very busy; I work six days a week and she’s a PhD student. She finds it very difficult to transition from work mode to sex mode, even when we take hours of time to cuddle, massage, watch TV etc. The bottom line is that she just doesn’t want sex very much and actually finds it annoying to have to think about it. She’s tried and even promised various times to increase the amount or work on it, but it never works, and in fact the problem has steadily gotten worse; we recently went over two weeks without having sex. She doesn’t understand why I can’t be happy with once a week, as she argues, I’m sure correctly, that many couples are fine with that amount. During our last fight about the problem, she said that she’s just not very sexual.

It’s relatively clear now that things aren’t going to change on her end, and so I have to figure out how to cope with once a week. Sex is extremely important to me and once a week just leaves me feeling unfulfilled and even miserable at times. My girlfriend is completely unable to understand this, just as I’m completely unable to understand her low libido. I suppose my question is: how can I learn to cope with an unsatisfying sex life? I love my girlfriend and she’s otherwise a wonderful partner.

From John

Sexpert response:

Sexpert, Desiree Spierings BA (Psych) MHSc (Sexual Health); Sex Therapist; Relationship Counsellor; Director of Sexual Health Australia and Editorial Advisory Board Member of Virtual Medical Centre and Parenthub responds:

Hi John,

Desiree Spierings
Desiree Spierings

Having mismatched libidos can be very frustrating for both partners. It is a very common problem that many couples have to deal with. Research has found that many women in long term relationships lose their spontaneous desire for sex. This does not mean that most women don’t have sex. However, they rely on something that is called ‘response’ desire instead of spontaneous desire.

Response desire is something that once she starts kissing, touching, caressing she gets a bit aroused and then starts feeling in the mood and wanting more. She had no spontaneous desire prior, but once she started to participate she enjoys it and she might like more. A big problem is that when there is a desire discrepancy, women tend to not give their man a finger (so they stop kissing, caressing, and any kind of sensuality all together) because they are afraid he is going to want the whole hand. This would mean the response desire has nothing to respond to.

The problem with mismatched libidos is that the partner with the higher level of desire most often tends to blame the partner with the lower level of desire. But what they need to realise is that if they also had a low libido there wouldn’t be a problem. It is this discrepancy that is the difficulty.

Additionally, the partner with the lower libido always controls the frequency. They decide when they give in and this can be very frustrating for the partner who likes it to happen more.

The partner with the high libido often has their own story in their mind as to why their partner does not want or desire them. They will often think things like: “my partner must not find me attractive, she must be having an affair, or maybe she is gay”. This is why it is important to talk about it, as this is most often far from the truth.

For you, John, to help cope with an unsatisfying sex life, it may be useful to understand where her low libido comes from. By understanding her libido type you may have more compassion for the whole situation.

Factors that play a role for women with low libido include having a huge to-do list, and when sex is on the list it is often last on the list. Additionally, the difficulty of being present during intimacy. She might still be thinking about her to-do list or other stresses while trying to be intimate. She might be self-conscious or may have some body image issues. She may have received negative messages about sex, for example from religion or upbringing. Not being in touch with her sexuality in general, she might find it hard to turn off from work mode into sexual mode. Last but not least, any relationship difficulties.

In your case it sounds like she may be a bit overworked and possibly stressed with her PhD work. And she might find it hard to switch off from work-mode into intimate/relationship-mode.

When there are mismatched libidos it is both partner’s responsibility to work on it. Please see some tips for both of you.

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For you, John (partner with high level of desire):

  • Share the load! If she feels overwhelmed and stressed, her sexual brain has no space to turn on. So help her out with the housework chores and the stresses of the day.
  • Implement bridges. To go from PhD-mode or work-mode straight into sexual mode can feel a bit awkward, so try to create a bridge that could make that feel more natural for her. For example, suggest to have a bath/shower together, have a glass of wine together, or give her a massage.
  • Have a ban on sex! Tell her when you want to be intimate with her, that you do not expect sex. This takes the pressure away from her to have sex and she can freely do all the other things but does not have to worry that it has to lead to actual sex. Knowing she does not have to have sex could create more intimate moments, so we make sure her response desire has something to respond to.
  • Foreplay away all day! Most women need emotional intimacy in order to feel in the mood for sexual intimacy. So start giving her that throughout the day. Ask her how she is doing, help her out with the dishes, pay attention, give her lovely compliments, take her out, etc.
  • Have realistic expectations. Having expectations violated creates negative psychological consequences. So be realistic that she will most likely never match your sex drive. It is about compromise.
  • Masturbate. You have two hands!

For your partner (low level of desire):

  • Plan a sex date! If we wait for it to spontaneously happen we can wait a long time. When we are busy it might never happen, but if you plan it, you will be able to get ready for it, you can make sure you are not too tired.
  • Implement bridges! To go from PhD-mode or work-mode straight into sexual mode can feel a bit awkward, so try to create a bridge that could make that feel more natural. For example, have a bath/shower together, have a glass of wine together, or give each other a massage.
  • Put it first on your to-do list! Ask yourself what will make your partner happier: to do the dishes right now, or to have some intimacy. This does not have to be intercourse, but just some other physical affection can be a place to start.
  • Love yourself! Be in touch with your own sexuality and make sure you feel sexy. You are not going to want sex if you don’t feel sexy. It is important to remember that if we don’t use it, we lose it! So in order to feel good about ourselves and feel sexy, we could make sure we smell nice, look good, are well groomed, dressed gorgeous, think of sex, masturbate, exercise, fantasize, meditate, relax, eat well and above all are kind to ourselves.

More information

For more information on an absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity, see Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD)

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