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When Your Sex Drives Don't Match

Tips for each spouse
When Your Sex Drives Don't Match

As a marriage therapist for two decades, I've seen what happens to marriages when one spouse has little or no desire for sex and the other yearns for it desperately. Take a look at this recent letter I received.

Dear Michele:
Please help me. I'm 28, married with a 3-year-old daughter. For the past three years, my wife has avoided being sexual with me. We've gone from having sex twice a week to now, if I'm lucky, once a month. I'm miserable and I can't keep living like this.

One out of every three couples struggle with problems associated with low sexual desire. One study found that 20 percent of married couples have sex fewer than 10 times a year! And low sexual desire isn't only "a woman's thing." Many sex experts believe that low sexual desire in men is America's best-kept secret.

It would be one thing if these lustless men and women were married to each other; they could agree to go off into the sunset, basking in platonic bliss. But it rarely works that way. People with low sexual desire are generally married to partners who want more sexuality, intimacy, physical closeness, and connection.

Sex is an extremely important part of marriage. When it's good, it offers couples opportunities to give and receive physical pleasure, to connect emotionally and spiritually. It builds closeness, intimacy, and a sense of partnership.

If you're the spouse whose libido is lacking, remember that your most powerful sexual organ is your brain; in order to feel more sexual, you first have to decide that a loving, satisfying sex life and marriage are important. Then commit to finding your untapped sexuality within.

If you're the spouse with greater sexual energy, you'll need to approach your partner with greater understanding and compassion, which will improve communication, compromise, and acceptance.

Here are tips for both types of spouses in your search for solutions:

Tips for the Low-Desire Spouse

Everyone, even highly sexed people, experiences occasional lows in their sex drive. But what if your libido is nowhere to be found?

Two conditions should prompt you to take your sexual relationship off the back burner: when you think your sexual desire is a problem, or when your spouse is unhappy sexually.

Your low desire affects you and your spouse. If you think there's a problem, there's a problem. If your spouse is unhappy, there's a problem.

It's easy to believe that decisions about sexuality are so personal they should be based strictly on your own feelings and needs. If you're not in the mood, you're not in the mood. Right?

Not exactly. There are many reasons to stretch yourself if you're the person with lower desire. The main one is that unsatisfying sexual relationships often cause alienation, infidelity, and divorce. In most relationships, the spouse with the lower desire sets the pace for the sexual relationship, controlling when and how it happens.

Am I saying you should have sex any time your spouse desires or that you should go through the motions just to keep peace? No!

Many spouses with lower sex drives are essentially saying, "I know you're sexually unhappy. I won't do anything about that, but I still expect you to remain faithful." Can you see what's wrong with this picture?

When you decide to make sexuality more important, you and your spouse will become more emotionally connected. You will not only feel closer to your spouse, but you might also discover your sexual appetite hasn't really vanished; it was merely camouflaged!

Knowing why you're not so interested in sex won't boost your desire. Doing something about it will.

Here are some starters:

The Nike Solution. Consider adopting the old Nike slogan, "Just do it." Are you wondering, How will having sex when I'm not in the mood boost my desire?

Human sexuality experts once assumed all people experience sexual desire in a similar way: something triggers a sexy thought, which triggers an urge to act. Sexual stimulation then makes you feel aroused.

But recent studies show that for some people, sexual desire doesn't precede arousal; it actually follows it. Some people rarely (or never) find themselves fantasizing about sex, but when they become sexual with their spouses anyway, they become aroused. Once aroused, there's a desire to continue.

Just because one partner isn't hungering for sex doesn't mean he or she has a problem with arousal. Lots of people with low sexual desire actually enjoy sex once they get started.

Embers versus fireworks. Hormones don't have to be raging; you don't need an overwhelming feeling of passion. Many times, people with lower desire have sexual urges; they're just more subtle than their spouse's.

You might notice your husband looks great in his tight jeans and have a fleeting thought about sex. The thought may not linger, but it's there. Rather than allow these moments to go unnoticed, heed them and act on them.

Focus on the exceptions. Some people with low desire say they're more interested in making love under certain conditions—at certain times of the day, on weekends, after a bath or a good talk, on vacation, or when the kids are asleep. Identify what's different about the times you feel more inclined, and take advantage of those moments. If it's an option, create the opportunity. In other words, if hot baths turn you on, turn on the hot water.

Act it out. Try acting more sexual. Vicki, a 42-year-old mother, told me the key to boosting her interest in sex was to do things she used to do when she felt sexual. She wore perfume and sexy lingerie under her clothing. Vicki realized she stopped putting effort into her appearance when she quit feeling sexual. She also discovered that when she forced herself to get out of her dumpy jeans and into her sexy lingerie and clothes, she felt sexier, which heightened her interest in sex.

Just say when. There will be times when you really don't feel like having sex. But instead of just saying no or "I'm too tired," which feels like a rejection to your spouse, offer an alternative. You could say, "I'm really exhausted right now, but if you're willing to wait until I catch a quick nap, I'd love to fool around then." Or, "Now isn't great for me, but how about after the kids go to sleep?"

Give a gift. Less highly sexed spouses often assume that if they're not feeling sexual, there's nothing they can or should do to please their spouses. But you can show your love even if you're not in the mood by doing something that would please him or her sexually. Although I wouldn't recommend an exclusive diet of this, there's nothing wrong with just "taking care of" your spouse.

If you decide to give the gift of being sexual even when you don't feel like it, don't be resentful, or it really isn't a gift. This doesn't mean you have to fake breathless orgasms; it just means you should show some enthusiasm. It's good to occasionally push yourself a little to be a loving sexual partner.

Tips for the High-Desire Spouse

If you want sex more often than your spouse, you probably feel frustrated and powerless. But more than anything else, you've been feeling rejected, hurt, and alone.

First, you need to understand the real causes of low sexual desire, because your favorite theories are probably destructive and inaccurate. You might think your spouse's lack of affection represents a lack of love. But that's not necessarily true. In fact, your spouse may love you completely and yet still not desire sex. Or you might believe your spouse is avoiding intimacy out of mean-spiritedness or vindictiveness. And that's often a false assumption. Your spouse isn't trying to hurt you on purpose. When you truly take this to heart, it will take the sting out of your reactions to your mate.

Even if your spouse's low desire is due to low testosterone or a rotten childhood—conditions that have absolutely nothing to do with you—your approach to this sensitive subject can make a big difference.

Start with yourself. Consider what it would be like to rarely desire another person sexually. What would it be like to know millions of people are easily turned on, but you feel deader than a doorknob? And what if your spouse, the person you love most, had no understanding of what you're going through? What if she kept telling you about her unhappiness in the marriage, that you're a sexual disappointment? How would you feel?

While you're unhappy about the difference in your sexual appetites, you're not alone; your spouse isn't having a picnic either. Given the choice, your spouse wouldn't opt for this chasm between you. Even if your spouse appears uncaring about your feelings, he's hurting too. It's no fun knowing you've fallen short in the eyes of a person you love.

Perhaps your spouse's lack of desire stems from marital stress or discord. If so, be willing to acknowledge your contribution to the problem and to change yourself. A more loving marriage may be the only aphrodisiac your relationship needs.

Strike while the iron is hot. Testosterone levels rise and fall at different times, and there may be times when your spouse is more receptive. In many men, testosterone surges in the early morning, around 7 or 8 A.M. If you're a woman whose husband isn't as interested as you'd like, even if you're not quite in the mood early in the morning, you might give yourself an extra push to see if your husband is "up" yet.

If you're a man, you should know your wife's hormones spike too. It may be later in the evening, in the middle of her menstrual cycle, or closer to the end of the month. Ask your wife to see if she notices certain times when she feels slightly sexier than other times.

Talk about you. Rather than criticize your spouse's character or actions, talk about how you are feeling. Instead of saying, "You're just saying no to punish me," say, "While I know you aren't trying to hurt me, when we make love so infrequently, I feel as if you're not attracted to me or that you don't love me." When you share your feelings rather than accuse, you're more likely to be met with compassion rather than defensiveness.

Be willing to help. Express your willingness to change or approach your sexual relationship differently if it will help. Ask, "Is there something I could do differently that would make you feel more turned on or more interested in me physically?"

Help your spouse feel ready. Do you ever feel that your spouse won't make love until a long list of prerequisites have been met? Have you been frustrated by trying to meet your spouse's requests in the past, only to get rebuffed?

If you frequently dismiss your spouse's "wish list" of mood-enhancing needs, your spouse will feel misunderstood and disregarded. Try to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Do what your spouse asks, even if you're not positive it will make a difference. That's part of the gift you can give.

Try a little acceptance. If still nothing works, you can decide to continue being miserable, resenting your spouse, continuing to fight, and remaining distant. Or you can decide to accept what isn't changeable about your marriage. If your marriage is basically good other than your sexual relationship, you can tell yourself, I love my spouse. While I wish things were different, I'm going to accept my mate the way she is. I won't take her lack of desire personally. From now on, I won't make sex an issue between us. I'll focus on the strengths in our marriage and work hard at letting go of the rest.

Hard to do? You bet. Marriages are never perfect; even the great ones have their shortcomings. Find other ways to build closeness and connection. Attend a marriage conference or seminar. Meet with a marriage or family counselor. And above all, pray about it, asking God to help both of you change, if necessary, to renew the spark in your sexual intimacy.

No matter how distant you and your spouse may feel, it's never too late to have a loving, intimate, mutually satisfying sexual relationship. Never.

Adapted from The Sex-Starved Marriage. © 2003 by Michele Weiner-Davis. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster. For more information, go to www.sexstarvedmarriage.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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