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People in a relationship may differ in how much sex they want. Mismatched sex drives, or libidos, are common but may cause a strain in a relationship if the couple does not manage their differences.

Every couple experiences situations where one person’s sexual needs do not align with their partner’s. These situations are called sexual interdependence dilemmas.

Mismatched sex drives, or sex drive discrepancy (SDD), is the most common of these situations.

A 2017 study even found that around 34% of women and 15% of men report having no interest in sex at all.

This article explores mismatched sex drives, what causes the issue, how it can affect relationships, and what couples can do to manage the situation.

An artistic representation of mismatched sex drives.Share on Pinterest
Gillian Vann/Stocksy

Sex drive is the motivation or desire to behave sexually or engage in sexual activities.

Also called libido, sexual desire is an aspect of a person’s sexuality. It varies from person to person. There is no such thing as a normal sex drive. People’s interest in and desire for sex is different and may change over time.

Sex drive mismatch is when one person experiences more or less sexual desire compared with their partner.

Author and researcher Emily Nagoski notes two types of sexual desire in her book.

Spontaneous sexual desire

As the name implies, this form of desire happens randomly, with or without stimulation. This desire supports the linear view of sexuality that begins with desire, followed by excitement, finally leading to orgasm.

Nagoski states that around 70% of men have this type of sexual desire while only about 10–20% of women do.

Responsive sexual desire

Some people experience desire as a response to mental or physical stimulation, not from the anticipation of it. Compared with spontaneous desire, responsive sexual desire is more deliberate.

It occurs after an external stimulus, such as watching a kissing scene on television or a partner touching them. This causes a person to feel a desire for sex.

People’s sex drives tend to wax and wane. Many factors can affect sex drive.

Medical factors

Conditions that affect a person’s hormones, including pregnancy and menopause, can cause changes in a female’s libido.

Similarly, males produce less testosterone as they age, which can cause a decline in their sex drives.

Some may have conditions that indirectly affect libido, such as depression. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) is when a person lacks the desire or motivation to have sex.

Read more on female sexual interest/arousal disorder here.

Taking certain medications such as beta-blockers and antidepressants can also negatively affect a person’s libido.

Aside from medical reasons, other factors can affect a sex drive of a person in a long-term relationship, as outlined in a 2018 systematic review.

Individual factors

These are factors that reside within the person that can affect sex drive. The following may cause sex drive to change over time:

  • level of attraction
  • understanding among couples that sexual desires fluctuate
  • feelings of having a separate identity from the couple’s identity
  • self-esteem and confidence

Stress and fatigue may negatively impact sex drives.

Read more about the causes of low libido here.

Interpersonal factors

These are factors that exist within the context of long-term relationships. They include:

  • the couple’s responsiveness to each other
  • perceived compatibility
  • communication
  • relationship satisfaction

The 2018 review also mentioned that sexual desire decreases as the relationship lengthens, but this was only true for women. Emotional intimacy also increases desire, and higher levels of intimacy reduce the likelihood of having low desire.

Monotony and being overfamiliar with a partner dampen sexual desire.

Societal factors

These are societal influences that affect a couple’s sexual desire. These include gender expectations, expectations for couples to participate equally in the relationship, and sexual attitudes that people may consider taboo.

When people do not address mismatched sex drives, it may lead to an unpleasant relationship dynamic.

Partners with high sex drives who repeatedly experience rejection may develop low self-esteem and resentment toward their partners, while the people with low sex drives may feel guilty, overwhelmed, and pressured.

A 2015 study suggests that sex drive discrepancy negatively affects sexual and relational satisfaction. However, these outcomes might be more pronounced in people in long-term relationships compared with those in short-term ones.

Low sexual satisfaction seems to have a compounding effect on overall satisfaction. While high sexual satisfaction reported by couples contributes to 15–20% of their overall satisfaction, reports of low sexual satisfaction in couples contribute to 50–70% of their overall satisfaction.

Couples can consider several tips and strategies to reduce the discrepancy and improve their sex lives.

Be comfortable talking about sex

While sex can be a sensitive subject, especially when there is a mismatch in libido, talking about it is essential. Respectfully communicating about each other’s feelings, insecurities, desires, and the reason for the low desire can lead to a better understanding of the issue.

Be understanding

Even if a partner does not understand the other person’s experience or situation, showing empathy through validation, listening, and withholding judgment can help couples navigate the mismatch better.

Having a safe space where couples can freely talk about their differences without being critical or defensive can help rekindle the spark.

Make compromises

Sometimes, some people are just not as sexual as their partners. A person with low libido can meet their partner halfway by still engaging in sex despite having a low sex drive.

A 2015 study found that partners with high communal strength or those who are motivated to care about and be more responsive to their partners reported enhanced sexual and relationship satisfaction.

However, couples willing to compromise are not restricted to sex. They can also consider alternatives.

In a 2020 study on couples’ strategies for dealing with differences in sexual desire, masturbation is the most common strategy reported by participants.

Other alternatives to penetrative sex include oral sex, manual stimulation, and using sex toys on each other. Couples can also engage in activities that may trigger desire, such as watching intimate movies together.

Redefine sex

Many couples think that sex is limited to penetration.

However, oral sex and mutual masturbation are alternatives to penetration that couples can enjoy.

Schedule it

Life is hectic. Scheduling sex can help couples plan and work around their schedules, so there are no competing demands to worry about.

Planning sex can help map out the best time when both people have the most energy. It can also help build anticipation and ensure that both are physically, emotionally, and mentally ready for sex.

Set the tone

While sexual intercourse lasts only for a few minutes, the events beforehand are just as important. Aside from kissing and touching, everything else that happens before sex is part of foreplay.

Making pleasure and satisfaction a part of their whole day can help people’s bodies prepare for sexual pleasure.

Driving a partner to work, preparing their food, having a thoughtful conversation, and giving them compliments are just some of the things couples can do to set the mood.

Certified therapists and counselors can help people and couples manage mismatched libidos.

Couples can locate a certified counselor or therapist near them through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists’ (AASECT) referral directory.

Alternatively, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists has over 15,000 marriage and family therapists for married couples who require help with their relationships.

Couples may also try online platforms such as ReGain to seek couples counseling.

Learn more about ReGain here.

Many couples believe that having mismatched sex drives is a private matter and that doctors cannot help.

However, since many factors may cause low libido, talking with a trusted health practitioner may help a person better understand their sexual health and what they can do to improve it. They may request tests to rule out conditions that may affect libido.

Couples who are still experiencing problems with mismatched libidos can seek support from a certified sex therapist to help teach them to communicate in a non-judgmental environment, process underlying issues and unresolved conflicts, and offer plans and suggestions to improve their relationship and sex life.

Counseling may also be another option for couples to address their sexual intimacy issues.

Having mismatched sex drives is a common sexual problem that couples rarely talk about. Not talking about or addressing it can make things worse.

With empathy, understanding, strategies, and sometimes professional help, couples can address the issues, reignite the passion, and improve their sexual and relationship satisfaction.