At the start of a relationship, there’s so much excitement and lust. You might have sex multiple times a week, if not multiple times a day. But as time goes on, things change. You may have sex once every couple of weeks – or go several months without any intimacy at all. Dry spells, you call them.
Your partner may bring up the lack of sex – they still want to do it multiple times a week – but perhaps your body and mind simply aren’t in the same place.
Many couples experience a discrepancy in sexual desire throughout their relationships. In fact, unmatched sexual desire is the most common issue sex and relationship therapists see, according to sexologist Dr Pepper Schwartz.
The issue occurs when there’s a difference between one person’s need for sex and their partner’s need for much less sex. It’s nothing new and is “extremely common,” says sex and relationship psychotherapist Miranda Christophers.
A UK study by Natsal found one quarter of relationships are affected by it, while studies from the US suggest it could be even more common, affecting as many as half. The issue isn’t something solely experienced heterosexual couples. A poll by Gay Star News of 1,500 readers found 53% wanted sex more often than their partner did, while just 22% said their sex drives were similar.
Sexual desire might increase or decrease depending on how a person feels in themselves, how they feel towards their partner, or as a result of life events and changes, says Christophers. In fact, so many things can impact desire – from physical problems like painful sex or ejaculation issues, to stress, anxiety and exhaustion. Depression, menopause, ageing, pregnancy, giving birth, health problems, medicines and contraceptions, alcohol and drugs may also affect it.
For some, it’s not much of an issue – they accept levels of desire fluctuate and feel able to talk about it – but for others, it can make or break the relationship.
There’s a widely-held belief men have a stronger desire for sex than women, but Christophers observes in her clinical experience women tend to feel a greater degree of distress when they have a stronger desire for sex than their partners.
“It’s certainly a significant issue for some,” says the psychotherapist, whose research into this area found it can have a negative impact on relationship and sexual satisfaction, in addition to causing conflict and having a notable affect on a person’s self-esteem and sense of identity.
A couple’s mismatched desire may become a problem that needs addressing if it’s causing arguments, impacting relationship or sexual satisfaction, or causing either partner to consider cheating or questioning the future of their relationship.
Sexual desire isn’t just a tap that can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice, though. Key to pushing past sexual discrepancies is communication, says Christophers. This can be easier said than done: surveys have found Brits to be particularly tight-lipped when it comes to discussing sex. Thornton & Ross polled 24,000 people from 12 European countries and found Brits are the most reluctant to talk about sex with either their partner or friends.
But to understand why there is unmatched desire, you do have to talk about it. And while you’re opening up dialogue, talk about what turns you on and off, have honest conversations about what you actually desire right now – and when you feel that desire.
By talking about your discrepancy and understanding where it comes from, you can work through the problem and lessen any potential negative impact, says Christophers. Talking also provides an opportunity for both parties to discover if there’s a solution or level of intimacy that would be more comfortable – a compromise that will suit both partners.
It’s worth bearing in mind sex doesn’t always have to mean penetration, too. It could mean masturbation, touching, kissing, oral sex or using sex toys together.
In a study of 179 women in long-term relationships with men, participants were asked what they do to get their desire back on track when they’re out of sync and several themes emerged. These included: having sex anyway, using toys, being close to their partners physically without having sex, or scheduling sex.
Jamila Dawson, a Los Angeles-based sex therapist, urges people to focus on past sexual experiences you both enjoyed. Under what conditions did you feel aroused enough to have sex? And what were you both doing that was so hot? “Focusing on the things that have been successful, then trying to translate them into the current situation can really help,” she told SexualBeing.org. “Put your positive experiences to work for you.”
Increasing general intimacy in your day-to-day life can also have a positive impact – this could mean cuddling on the sofa, hugging, reminiscing, holding hands and being more open and vulnerable about other aspects of your lives.
But remember: “not having sex is not the end of the world”, sex educator Ruby Rare told HuffPost UK’s Am I Making You Uncomfortable (AIMYU) podcast.
Rare, who identifies as queer and non-monogamous, suggested we need to rebalance what our expectations are around sex. “I go through different times in my relationships where sometimes I want to have sex all the time, and my partner does as well, and other times, one or both of us are really not feeling it as much, for loads of different reasons,” she said.
When these dry spells hit, she urges people to communicate with kindness. “It’s one thing to not be on the same page [sexually] and to have a difficult time,” she explained, “but when that starts to shift into resentment, that can be a lot more challenging to overcome.
“If you can think about yourself and where you’re at with compassion and kindness, and then also think about the other people in the situation with the same kindness, that’s a really good starting point.”
And if the issue still sticks after you’ve talked about it and tried to find strategies or some middle ground, it might be worth enlisting the help of a professional.
“If people feel they are considering the future of the relationship or looking outside the relationship to fulfil their sexual desire,” says Christophers, “then this would be a time to seek out the help of a sex and relationship therapist.”