You Need Help: My Partner and I Have Different Sex Drives

Q:

My partner and I have been together for nearly 3 years, living together for two (we are both 40). Even at the beginning of our relationship it was clear that our sex drives were out of sync with each other’s. My preference would be for sex around once a week, whereas my partner would be happy with once a month. Since lockdown happened we have only been intimate twice and I feel like what was already a problem for me has become a huge issue in our relationship.

My partner semi-identifies as a stone butch and when we do have sex she often does not want to receive. Over time I feel like our sex life, even when more regular, is so limited and that I get little say in what we do, because if I try to make suggestions of what we might do it gets shut down (although I should say it is always enjoyable).

I love her so much, and in the past our sex life has been fantastic, but now I feel like I have to convince her to have sex at all and then I feel like I’ve coerced her. But I think if I didn’t suggest it we might never have sex at all. Now it’s become a huge sticking point and she says that I’m pressuring her too much, and I know I am and it makes me hate myself.

I know that some of my feelings come from the fact that year into our relationship I caught my partner messaging an old flame. It wasn’t sexual but there was something there and she did end it but my trust was broken as she had lied to me about the nature of this friendship for a long time, and now all I can think is that it’s just me she doesn’t want to have sex with. Also, the only other time I’ve been in a relationship where one person didn’t want to have sex was when I was in a relationship with a man, and was still coming to terms with my sexuality.

I feel so hurt, rejected and frustrated that it makes me question our whole relationship, and we are supposed to be buying a house together this year, but how can I take that step if this continues to be such a problem for us? Any advice would be gratefully received 💜


A:

It is absolutely normal for sex drives to change in any relationship. But it sounds like you might be hoping for a magical solution here. More specifically, it sounds like you’re hoping that your partner is going to wake up one day and suddenly have a higher sex drive. Or that you’ll wake up one day and suddenly have a lower sex drive. Technically, those things could happen, but they’re not solutions, because they’re not something that you can really count on. Your letter opens with a really key part of your problem. As you put it, it was clear that your sex drives were out of sync at the very start of your relationship. And yet, you made the choice three years ago to continue on with the relationship despite this detail.

Look, people make choices like that all the time. Especially in the beginning of a relationship with someone, it’s easy to overlook some of the downsides and incompatibilities because you’re so swept up in the excitement and ecstasy of seeing someone new. But here you were presented with this massive piece of information about you and your partner and your dynamic in the bedroom, and you actively chose to ignore it. You knew what your preferences were, and you knew what your partner’s were. Maybe you convinced yourself that it wouldn’t be a big deal or that things would change. But they haven’t changed, so now you’re stuck with the same decision you were presented with three years ago: Do you accept this difference between you and your partner and actively go against your own preferences or do you end the relationship?

I’m sure that sounds harsh! I’m sure you are hoping for a solution that doesn’t involve breaking up, and I’m not saying that it’s the only solution, but based on the situation you’ve described, it does sound like the healthiest one. Because you can’t change your partner’s sex drive. And you can’t just sit around hoping things will change when this dynamic has been in place since the beginning. It sounds like your partner has been clear with their own feelings here: They feel pressured. And that makes you feel bad. This sounds like it could turn into a really toxic cycle—if it hasn’t already.

(Sidenote: I’m assuming that if you were considering talking to your partner about opening up the relationship that you would have brought that up in your letter, so my advice here doesn’t really get into what polyamory might look like in your situation. It’s extremely likely that your current partner cannot completely sexually satisfy you, even though as you say the sex is very good. Because it’s clear that you want more of it and also to try more things and that they do not. If you want to read more about non-monogamy, polyamory, and open relationships here’s a place to start.)

I’m sure you care about this person, and sex isn’t everything in a relationship. But I think sometimes people think that incompatible sex drives aren’t that big of a deal, when in reality, this can create messed-up dynamics that seep into other parts of the relationship. It can make the person with the lower sex drive feel pressured and insecure and it can make the person with the higher sex drive feel coercive and also insecure. And as you write in your letter, those things are already happening within your relationship. All that insecurity in a relationship can quickly spiral into worse feelings and bad patterns.

It is natural to feel rejected — I totally get it. But your partner has been so clear about their own sex drive and sexual wants, so it’s not like there’s any deception going on here. It is okay for you to make suggestions about sex, but it’s also your partner’s right to say no if it’s not something that they want. Sex requires consent which requires conversation which requires different sets of desires and needs coming together in a compromise. In your situation, compromise is really difficult for a lot of reasons. Once a week vs. once a month are VERY DIFFERENT PREFERENCES. It’s time to consider that this incompatibility could be a major obstacle to both of you being really, truly happy.

I know this is really hard to sit with, but can you keep going on like this? You need to really process the fact that your sex drive might never change completely and that your partner’s sex drive might never change completely. Is that something you can accept and live with? Maybe three years ago you thought you could when you made the choice to date them despite having this information, but maybe you’re realizing now that it’s not sustainable.

I do want to address what you mention at the end of your letter, too, because I do think it’s a contributing factor. Does your partner know that you’re feeling insecure about this incident? If not, that’s definitely a conversation that should happen. In fact, it could change a lot of the cycle I see happening here. Again, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to change anyone’s overall sex drive, BUT if your partner knows that you’re specifically feeling insecure because of her breaking your trust, then maybe she can provide some reassurance in other ways. Rebuilding trust can rebuild intimacy. Or maybe there was even an uptick in your sex drive because you needed to feel wanted in the wake of the betrayal, and maybe rebuilding trust will make it so that you’re not viewing sex as a form of validation.

Open communication about sex, trust, desires, needs — all of these things can help nurture intimacy. Still, it might not fix everything, especially since the disparity between your sex drives apparently existed even before the betrayal. Which is why major life decisions like buying a house together shouldn’t happen right now. Before making a choice like that, I think you should sit down with your partner and express where some of your insecurity is coming from, especially if this incident with her ex is playing a large role in it. Provide space for your partner to express how they’re feeling about all of this.

Then you have to reconsider the same decision you were presented with three years ago: Are you willing to date someone with a lower sex drive even if that means sacrificing your own wants and needs? You can’t change your partner. You can’t even really change your own sex drive, because settling for less sex isn’t the same as wanting less sex. All you can change is the situation you’re in, and it will be hard. But all relationships teach us more and more about what we desire and need, and ending a relationship shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, especially when it comes as a result of honoring people’s needs.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Orlando. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 233 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Hey just wanted to offer some hope to you in case breaking up was not what you wanted. I highly recommend the book Lesbian Couples for some suggestions on how to work through sex drive differences! They happen in every long-term, esp monogamous, relationship because we are not all the same and we change over time. You do have a big discrepancy, as Kayla said, but if you don’t want it to be a deal breaker it doesn’t have to be. As long as both of you agree on that. It sounds like y’all are caught in some classic relationship/attachment patterns that can definitely change! Again it takes both of you though. Getting a couples therapist might also be worthwhile if you struggle to shift those dynamics on your own. Here’s a link to the book: https://g.co/kgs/wk2tKq

  2. Kayla, this is such hard and necessary honesty. I have been here, it was terrible, and working on it didn’t change anything about the fundamental truth of the situation but did make everyone feel stressed out and terrible.

    It is haaaard to accept that this kind of difference would end an established long-term relationship, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to hear this advice until I’d had the relationship where I tried everything and learned for myself that change couldn’t be forced or willed into happening, but it is my fervent hope to never again do myself like that and to be brave enough to let an otherwise good thing go early on, for both of our sakes, if I see a situation like this coming in the future.

  3. This hit so close. I am almost a year out of a four-year relationship that ended for strikingly similar reasons. I remember searching autostraddle high and low trying to find advice on this. Thanks for this spot-on take here, Kayla.

    One aspect I’ve found helpful to examine are underlying motives for compromise. Over the last year I realized how genuinely HAPPY sex makes me. But then why was I was totally okay with sacrificing an actual NEED for so long? I realized I still harbored a lot of internalized purity culture bullshit around sex, and was still buying into ‘love is sacrifice’ nonsense. I didn’t value my sex drive as legitimate as any other need.

    Obviously every situation is different— but you got this, trust your gut!

  4. Once upon a time I sat in a bar, crying, googling “how to lower female sex drive” so I wouldn’t be the bad guy in a basically identical situation. Leaving the relationship was the best choice I ever made.

    • As my therapist once said when I was going through the exact same experience, people stay in relationships until the pain of staying outweighs the pain of leaving.

      Being in a sexless relationship, I felt the pain of rejection on the daily. Physical intimacy is my love language, and without it I felt unwanted, rejected, undesirable, and unloved.

      Breaking up hurt so bad (10 year relationship), but it freed me to meet someone who I’m more compatible with.

      Also, if you are attracted to butches, I know you probably know this, but there are a lot of butches out there who also like to receive pleasure from partners, who are more open and creative and free than your current partner (not that they are less than based on their sexual desires, just incompatible with you by the sounds of it).

      Wishing you the best!

    • Tell your partner exactly what you have written here, have open communication about it but honestly the whole point of have sexual exsperiences is to find compatibility even in sex drive. so best advice is to move on as ambically as possible.

  5. i completely agree that wildly mismatched libidos is an understandable dealbreaker for monogamous couples, especially if its causing issues and insecurities in either partner (much like a mismatched desire to have/raise children is a commonly understood dealbreaker), but i also wonder about lowered libido due to anti-depressants or another external factor. I guess the cause behind the mismatched libido doesn’t really change the fact that libidos are mismatched, or the insecurities/issues that can cause in the relationship; but as someone who now has a much lower sex drive due to a very necessary anti-depressant, and who feels a lot of guilt around said lowered sex drive (i am currently partnered and monogamous & started meds 1.5yrs into my 2.5yr relationship) I guess I’m just interested in others thoughts on this particular subset of mismatched libido issue.

    • Wow… This is all very close to home for me as I am someone who has an intensley high sex drive at the beginning of relationships and then it falls flat, about 4-6 months in.
      It has always been a problem/paranoia I have, and has lead me to have a number of unsuccessful relationships.
      It’s only untill I started dating my current partner that I have had the fortune of someone who is really understanding but also opening my eyes and helping me.
      My partner has a very high sex drive and our relationship is almost perfect, apart from the sex problem. With her help I am now seeking therapy to learn how to see myself as a sexual being and also help with other areas that I would not even have thought as being a problem without the assistance of a sex therapist and being brutally honest about my needs.
      All situations are going to be different, but maybe open up to your partner (if u haven’t already) and see if they are truthfully happy with how your sex life is or if they are being restricted by (potentially unknown) underlying issues.
      My own situation is extremely challenging for my partner and we have come to breaking point a number of times. Relationships are the unknown, and none of us really open up about the nuts and bolts of what relationships truly are, especially for the individual!
      It’s a lucky person to have advice on the truth of what we’re really getting ourselves into.
      Good luck, and I hope you choose the path that’s right for you.

  6. As my therapist once said when I was going through the exact same experience, people stay in relationships until the pain of staying outweighs the pain of leaving.

    Being in a sexless relationship, I felt the pain of rejection on the daily. Physical intimacy is my love language, and without it I felt unwanted, rejected, undesirable, and unloved.

    Breaking up hurt so bad (10 year relationship), but it freed me to meet someone who I’m more compatible with.

    Also, if you are attracted to butches, I know you probably know this, but there are a lot of butches out there who also like to receive pleasure from partners, who are more open and creative and free than your current partner (not that they are less than based on their sexual desires, just incompatible with you by the sounds of it).

  7. I can definitely relate to the letter writer’s conundrum–my wife’s sex drive–which, once upon a time, was actually higher than mine–crashed about two years ago (likely, at least in part, due to her going on a higher dose of anti-anxiety meds, which have done amazing things for her mental health). In her case, she actually considered this a good thing, since it meant less distractions from her schooling (she’s in the process of getting a second bachelor’s and changing careers).

    This caused a bit of friction for a while–to the point where I actually *did* consider lowering my sex drive (I’m a post-op trans woman, and my body basically doesn’t produce any testosterone on its own as a result; in the absence of a small amount of externally supplemented T, my libido plummets, but there are also other, minor detrimental effects). What we ended up doing was stop just talking about being poly (which we’ve done for years), and actually put it into practice–and that’s seemed to work pretty well so far! (well, it was, until the pandemic hit, but I figure that can’t last forever).

    In our case, it helps that she’s still rather physically affectionate with me otherwise, and I know that it isn’t a sign that she’s unhappy in the relationship (she’s very blunt and open about that sort of thing, so if she really were miserable, I know she’d tell me).

    What it *has* occasionally made me insecure about is if I’m somehow
    fundamentally undesirable, since, unfortunately, as a trans woman, that’s a message that’s repeated about women like me over and over again in the popular consciousness. I got involved in burlesque, which helped–it’s hard to feel undesirable when people are literally throwing money at you to take your clothes off–but since COVID-19 means all the shows in my area are shut down, it’s been a bit harder to deal with it as of late. After all, if society’s telling me I’m repulsive…and even my own wife isn’t interested in having sex with me…maybe society is right?

    (It didn’t help that the last two matches I’ve had on Her turned out to be a very obviously catfish attempt, and someone who quickly revealed herself to be a chaser)

    Still, I try to remember that her asexuality is not about me, that even if I were the most gorgeous woman in the world it probably wouldn’t make a difference, and that surely there’s at least a few people out there who are genuinely interested in sleeping with me.

    • As an asexual person in a long term relationship with a sexual person, and as someone who identifies as stone butch, I get that breaking up seems like the healthiest option, but I feel like there are so many communication issues to cover before you get to that stage. Please open up to your partner about how you feel!

      Also this may be unpopular to say but you don’t need to be horny to have sex. Your partner could try and compromise with you and have sex more, and try new things, and perhaps would be happy to do so if you explained how you feel. I enjoy sex not because I feel a need for it but because it makes my partner happy and builds intimacy.

      Unrelated to the issue, but why are you referring to their partner using ‘they’ pronouns instead of ‘she’? Seems like a weird choice when you know that her partner uses she pronouns in the letter.

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