LCSW, LMFT, CST
Good Men Project:
Not Tonight, Dear: Mismatched Libidos
Truth to tell, it would be extremely rare, if not impossible, to find two people with perfectly
matched libidos. If that was possible, it would definitely be impossible for them to match every
single time, despite the fact that it feels that way for most couples at the beginning of their
relationship. They don’t live together, have spans of time between “dates”, and if they are
sexually intimate, both are generally mutually interested in participating fully in that endeavor
most of the times when they’re able to be together.
And thus our expectations are set for all that is to come in the future. Since that early passion
will inevitably change in most relationships over time, it’s vitally important to understand what
that’s about-and what it’s not.
As a certified sexuality therapist, I see many couples for whom “mismatched” libidos are the
reason they come to counseling. Despite what most think, it is not always the woman whose
libido causes her to desire sexual intimacy less often than her male partner in heterosexual
relationships. Often it’s the man’s drive which is lower in frequency. I believe this
misconception arises out of popular, but toxic mythology, i.e. “guys only want one thing” and
“women use sex to control”. Never say never, but usually, neither is the case. These myths do
untold damage to people and relationships, and yet they endure. It’s ironic but disproving of the
myths, that when I see same gender couples, their libidos don’t identically match either!
When a couple has different libidos (which includes just about every couple I see), I often hear
them describing each other in negative ways-“he is a sex maniac” or “she is cold (seems to be
taking the place of ‘frigid’)”. This labeling makes an already challenging situation worse. A big
part of the problem is that the person who is more frequently interested in being sexual almost
always feels rejected by their partner. They take it personally and begin to wonder if, or even
believe that they are no longer desirable. Most often this isn’t the case. It’s hard to look outside
oneself enough to think that the less frequently interested partner is only taking care of
themselves by deciding if they are interested in being sexual or not. Due to this perception,
anger is likely to occur. As for the one declining the invitation, they usually feel a great deal of
pressure and guilt, which can turn into anger and resentment if not addressed. Oftentimes, when
this precedent is set and the couple does not discuss and find ways for resolution, the pattern
continues indefinitely, sometimes over the entire span of the relationship.
When one is being sexually intimate despite not wanting to be, that person may be engaging in
obligatory sex. It is rare to find people who actually want their partner to be with them out of
obligation, so it can be a lose/lose. That doesn’t mean that it might not be fine to offer one’s
partner sexual pleasure even if they are not interested in sexual pleasure for themselves.
Wanting to give something to your partner is a part of what goes on in the give and take of a
relationship. That’s different from obligation or a “have to”. Think back rubs. And while
you’re thinking about them, realize you get to say no if you choose and to quit when you’re tired
without guilt, and hopefully without your partner feeling rejected. Although more emotionally
complex, the same rules apply for sexual giving. Problems can arise from this when the desirous
partner is unable or unwilling to accept this as the gift it is meant to be and thinks of it as not
being fair to the other unless it’s mutual. Ironically, it often evolves into mutuality, as the less
interested person may become sexually aroused by their partner’s passion. The more rules
couples make about what someone else “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing, the worse it becomes.
It’s both the right and job of each person to determine how best to take care of themselves-in and
out of bed!
If there is something going on in the relationship which is pushing one or both people apart, this
will almost always manifest in a waning interest in being sexually intimate. That does not mean
that is necessarily the case, however, and I encourage people not to jump to any conclusions but
to have an honest and open dialogue with their partner to determine if there are unresolved
problems which are getting in the way. If it’s needed, enlist the help of a therapist in this
process. Once you get the “all clear” on the relationship front, go with being mismatched as the
How do you close the gap? First, recognize that you’ve probably already got a scenario where
neither person is a happy camper. Look beyond what’s not working for you and find out what
your partner’s experience is like. The saying “foreplay begins when you get up in the morning”
applies here. Be interested and curious about what’s going on with each other as you work
toward finding solutions.
Neil Cannon, Ph.D., a Certified Sex Therapist, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and
Professor of Couples Counseling in Denver, Colorado described a wedding cake model for
sexual intimacy in a recent web seminar. Going from the bottom layer up, it goes like this:
connection; cuddles and kisses; foreplay and intercourse. According to Dr. Cannon, some
couples’ cakes are upside down-in other words, the start with intercourse as the foundation
instead of the top, last layer. Take a look at what your wedding cake looks like (even if you’re
not married!) and begin a conversation with your partner about what you both would like to do to
change it if necessary.
Some excellent suggestions for having more sex are to be found in an article by Greta
Christina/The Blowfish Blog. She advocates scheduling sex. This usually provokes grumbling
and statements about spontaneity, so I remind you that when you first started out and weren’t
cohabiting, you scheduled dates, and since at some point you were being sexually intimate you
were, in fact, scheduling sex! Why should that have to be different just because you live
together and/or see more of each other over a longer period of time? And if you have kids,
you’ll recognize truth in the statement that just about everything has to be scheduled. Christina
recommends thinking of scheduling as planning and being partners together-much like if you
were planning a vacation. This can put a very different spin on it.
She also recommends redefining sex in a mutually agreeable fashion. This opens the door to all
possible combinations of who gives and gets pleasure and in what manner, whether touching is
or isn’t involved by both, visual stimulation, talking, reading, watching videos, phone sex, etc.
Even if no one or only one has an orgasm, there is a romantic and erotic connection (bottom tier
of the cake) going on; looking at when one thinks about sex, wants to have sex and work around
those preferences. Sex does not work for everyone at night once the couple is in bed, though it
may work for one, but not the other. Talk about it. Figure it out. If your libidos are really far
apart, think about whether it would be better to have less than what’s perfect for both, or to have
neither partner at all satisfied with the sexual relationship. Dr. Cannon states that it’s not always
toe curling and is better some times than others. Since that’s true for most things, why should
sexual intimacy be any different?