• Differing sex drives is a common relationship problem, perhaps especially in long-term relationships

  • Sex and couples therapist Nicola Foster offers her 6-step plan for intimacy that works for everyone

  • We have couples therapists available to help you here

One of the most common issues couples encounter in the bedroom is a difference in sexual desire – in therapy terms, we call it ‘mismatched desire’. Put simply, one person wants sex, the other doesn't – or at least to the same degree. Mismatches can vary from ‘I'm happy with lovemaking once a week, but they'd like it two or three times’ to ‘I don't want sex at all, but my spouse wants it twice a day.’

As an intimacy therapist, I see the distress faced on both sides, regardless of the degree of mismatch. I see clients who feel rejected and powerless, wondering if they will ever have the sex life they had hoped for. I see clients who are dealing with guilt and confusion, not knowing how they can meet up to their partner’s desires.

In this article, I'm sharing the stages we go through in therapy to step out of the vicious cycles and find a way to reconnect. 

Step 1: Acknowledging the issue

Ignoring or avoiding discussing a mismatch often leads to it becoming the ‘elephant in the room.’ Resentments all too easily develop, increasing emotional and sexual distance. So the first step is an open and honest discussion about its impact. 

I encourage you to make time to talk in private. Decide who shares first, and set a timer – ten minutes is a good start. Talk about what sex means to you, what you enjoyed about it in the past, what you miss, what you found challenging, and the impact being so mismatched is having on you. 

It’s also helpful to talk about what you imagine it’s like to be in the other's shoes. Try to stay with any vulnerable feelings without going into blame. If you're the one listening, your task is to really listen – without commenting or defending. Then swap over.

Step 2: Thinking outside the box

Finding a middle ground requires exploration, creativity, and compromise. I encourage you to broaden the definition of sex beyond intercourse or penetration. The kind of sex you both had when you got together is unlikely to still suit you years or even decades on. Your bodies have changed. Hormones have changed. ‘Lust and thrust’ doesn’t work anymore, so it’s imperative to find new ways of being intimate and to explore a variety of types of touch. 

I work a lot with the ‘3-Minute Game’ from ‘The Wheel of Consent’ by Betty Martin. It’s a brilliant and fun way to explore desires and touch while also setting limits and boundaries. It can help you explore the dynamics of giving and receiving. When you get better at giving generously and how to receive with grace, sex and intimacy get easier too.

Step 3: Addressing the brakes

"Brakes" are those things that stop us from feeling arousal. Anything from fear of interruption to performance anxiety, or even simply feeling cold or tired can act as a brake. 

A very common and real issue for mums is feeling ‘touched out’ by childcare. Talk about your brakes – they’ll be unique to you – and how, together, you can put in place strategies to mitigate them.

Step 4: Making an agreement that touch isn’t a cue for sex

Many couples have an unconscious escalator – touch ‘here’ leads to touch ‘there’ leads to kissing ‘here’ and sex will follow. If the lower desire partner thinks that touch is a cue that sex is on the cards, for them that touch is unlikely to feel good or welcome, and intimacy is broken. 

It’s really important to be able to enjoy different forms of touch – nurturing, playful, even sensual (as opposed to sexual) – touch that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to get somewhere. 

Step 5: Exploring willingness

A key aspect of overcoming stress around desire differences is the concept of willingness. 

If you are the low desire partner, what might you be willing to do with an open heart? This might be very different from what you might want to do. 

If you are the high desire partner, what might you be willing to offer that would be a relaxed experience for your partner? Again, this might not be what you want in an ideal world. 

The key here is finding out what ‘willing with an open heart’ looks like for each of you – it is not about ‘putting up with’. Making offers and requests with creativity, curiosity, and willingness can lead to surprising new experiences.

Step 6: Discovering new possibilities

Once you get past the initial discomfort of talking about sex, you might discover new aspects about you and your partner and what you both like. Some couples find that they can enjoy full-body pleasure without any genital touch, or that gently playing with power dynamics is a huge turn-on. There is a world of possibilities beyond intercourse that can be rewarding and illuminating to explore. Finding out what works for you – remembering there is no ‘wrong’ here – can be a fascinating journey.  

I hope you find some of the suggestions helpful, but if you keep getting stuck and going round in circles, don’t suffer in silence. There are many professional therapists who specialise in sex and relationship issues. Independent support is a great way to get help and guidance. Your relationship is a fundamental source of your overall life happiness and is worth investing in. I offer support couples to reconnect with guided intimacy exercises you can practice at home to build your confidence. Sessions can be great fun and give your relationship a whole new lease of life.

Nicola Foster is a verified Welldoing sex and relationship therapist in Somerset and online

Further reading

What is intimacy anyway?

How counselling helped my postnatal sex life

Sex for the over 60s: rediscovering your sexuality

The main challenges in polyamorous relationships

Is depression killing my sex drive?