Remember when you and your husband were in pre-marital counseling, starry-eyed and excited to begin your life together, and the counselor warned you that over time, you might have differing libidos and that it could present a problem in your marriage? Oh wait—that didn’t happen, did it? No one warns us about that.
Libido: Desire For Sex
Libido is defined as the desire for sex. This is influenced by a myriad of things over the course of a marriage: stress, pregnancy, differing schedules, hormones, and psychological and social factors.
Some women think: This is just the way I am. I don’t have a high sex drive. And they stop there in frustration. But it’s not that simple. All behavior makes sense in its context. Your libido makes sense. Try thinking this instead: this is the way I’ve developed. I’m curious about why?
A second step is to understand the impact of differing sex drives on your relationship. Mismatched libidos, although common, can cause tension, hurt, anger, and frustration for both spouses. Many women in my practice roll their eyes when asked to think about their husband’s pain.
They often view him as an uncaring oaf who puts way too much emphasis on sex, making her feel as though she is simply an object of pleasure. But the reality is that men connect emotionally with you through sex and yes, they desire that emotional connection as well. This mismatched libido thing is really about both of you.
If he senses that you don’t desire him, your husband may feel guilty or ashamed about how frequently he wants sex. He may feel unattractive, rejected, hurt, and fearful about the future. But what about your pain? What about how his disappointment affects you? What about the time when you acquiesced to having sex, gritting your teeth the whole time because you were completely not into it? I know. I’m not telling you this to make you feel worse. Instead, I hope you recognize that you are both experiencing similar feelings, even though his pain may look different from yours.
You have the opportunity as a couple to be in this together, to recognize the hurt that you both feel and work as a unit. Often, couples retreat—him feeling rejected and her feeling pressured. Physical intimacy like kisses, hugs, and cuddling decrease and sometimes disappear for fear that it will mislead to a desire for sex and more frustration.
Don’t worry, I’m going to give you some helpful tips, but first, let’s get clear about what most couples sex lives look like so you can get an idea of where you fall.
Most married American couples have sex 1.2 times per week.1
- 20-30 year olds (average 1.5 times per week)
- 40-50 year olds (average 1 time per week)
I couldn’t find a clear average on 50 and above (because the results are all over the place, often due to health issues), but I assure you that, barring health issues, they’re having just as much sex, if not more, than the 40-50 year olds.
A low sex marriage is a marriage where sex happens less than once a month (about 10 times per year).
A sexless marriage is a marriage that has gone a year or longer without sex.
So, a healthy sex life could resemble anything between a few times per week to once every 3 or 4 weeks. This is where sex drive comes in.
If your husband is wanting sex a couple times per week and you’re good for once every 3 or 4 weeks, you are both within the normal range, but just experiencing differing libidos.
Did I mention, there’s nothing wrong with you? Did I mention that you are not broken and neither is he?
If you feel like you’re creeping into the low sex or no sex zone, below are a few things to examine in yourself.
1. Your drive for sex is influenced by what you learned in your family of origin.
Sexual development doesn’t just start in adolescence or when you become sexually active. The attitude regarding sex in the environment in which you grew up is the crucial foundation to your own sexual development. If your sexuality was suppressed or if anxiety or shame surrounded your early experiences or understanding of sex, that effect can linger into adulthood and have an adverse effect on your libido.
Your naturally higher sex drive in your adolescence or early adulthood may have overshadowed any shame and negative stories you had, but these foundational beliefs lingered and as your life changes, their influence can become greater. Explore that.
2. Your body image affects your sex drive.
I am honored to have a rare peak into the minds of men in my work with them. They report to me that their biggest issue with intimacy with their wives isn’t what her body looks like or any excess weight, sagging breasts, cellulite, or C-section scars. Actually, they never mention it except to say that it doesn’t matter.
They are disappointed that their wives want to have sex with the lights off.
They are disappointed that their wives don’t seem comfortable in their bodies. One sweet male client of mine said, “I was there when the doctor pulled my babies out of my wife’s body. I love those C-section scars because they represent what we created together. It hurts that she wants to cover herself up from me when we have sex. I know what she looks like. I want to see her. I love her body.”
I wish more men said this out loud outside of the therapy room. Maybe they do. Maybe my real wish is that more women truly believed it.
You imagine that your husband wants something better, something more like those images that flash on our screens all day. He doesn’t. He wants all of you with the lights on. Because you’re beautiful.
Although you may not be aware of how your negative body image affects your drive, it does. It takes emotional energy to both cover up and hope he doesn’t see and try to be engaged and aroused at the same time. You’re asking your body and mind to perform two opposing behaviors—open up and cover up. That’s just too much. It’s easier to not want it. Explore that.
3. Trauma affects your sex drive.
Women who have had trauma in their body, especially sexual trauma can shut down physical sensations and close off sexual feelings as a means of protection. These defense mechanisms don’t disappear just because you are married, and they can often be triggered by emotional issues. If your husband hurts your feelings, it could trigger you to shut down sexually as well. Explore that.
4. Pain affects your sex drive.
If sex causes you physical pain, seek help and don’t stop until you get some answers. Pain can originate as a medical or psychological issue and both are real and both can be helped. Often, when a doctor decides he can’t help, he will dismiss it as a psychological issue. Well, good to know, but that’s not the end. That’s just the beginning of a new avenue for you to explore to fix this. Explore it.
5. Lack of emotional intimacy affects your sex drive.
This is the conundrum of the ages. You don’t feel emotionally intimate with your husband because of all the small and big grievances that can present themselves in a marriage. When women are hurt, we tend to close off. We can’t open our bodies easily when we feel closed off emotionally. Men are the opposite (of course!?). When they are feeling closed off emotionally, they seek sex because the act of coming together increases a sense of emotional intimacy for them. Crazy, I know. He needs to understand your need for emotional intimacy first and what that looks like. Explore that with your husband.
4. Your husband’s porn use affects your sex drive.
This can kill both of your sex drives. Aside from the inherent pain you feel from his actions, you imagine he is comparing you to the fake women (he’s not) and this decreases your drive to have sex with him (remember the body image thing?). If sex isn’t available to him, he tells himself that it’s easier to get his needs met somewhere else than to start an argument with you and risk rejection. It’s a vicious cycle.
Wait, wait. I’m not blaming you. This isn’t your fault. Blaming yourself for your husband’s porn use is one of the worst assaults you can commit against yourself. And demonizing him is probably a close second. Your husband is not evil and you are still desirable. Unfortunately, you are both human and have been trapped by the very efficient and deliberate snare of porn. Have the tough conversations. And keep having them. Get help.
And if all of that isn’t enough, there is another intriguing phenomenon called “incest taboo” described by Esther Perel in her book Mating in Captivity. What that means is that living in close proximity to each other, sometimes acting more like a roommate or a mother, can actually trip an incest taboo response in your brain, decreasing sexual interest and passion for your partner. This can be an explanation for why this man who you couldn’t get enough of, you now barely glance at with disinterest.
So, what’s a woman to do?
Create some intrigue.
Not for him, for you. When we are super close to our significant other, we don’t always see them. This decreases passion. Try looking at him from a different lens. Agree to meet up for a date instead of going together. Allow yourself to have that seeing-him-from-across-the-room kind of feeling. You might remember how handsome that guy is walking through the door.
Get comfortable talking about sex.
I have worked with countless women who have been married for years and even have children, but don’t feel comfortable talking about sex with their husbands. Don’t wait until you feel comfortable. That day won’t come. Start by having the awkward conversations over and over until they don’t feel awkward anymore.
Remember what worked.
What are your facilitators and what are your desire-killers? Think back to when you felt the most sexual energy towards him. Is it morning? Night? The time he washed, folded, and put up all of the laundry? Communicate that to him and aim to repeat it. But if he really does do all the laundry, you’ve got to follow through with the deed. Reinforcement goes both ways and if you tell him it works and it doesn’t, his behavior will extinguish quickly.
Agree on a number.
Ask your husband what his number is: the number of times he would like to have sex per week. Give him your number. Add them, then divide by two. Aim to have sex this many times per week as a compromise.
Set a date.
It seems like planned sex is very unsexy, but really it’s not. If you set a day or two (depending on your number) every week for planned sex, this does a couple of things:
1. You know you’re off the hook on the other days, so there’s no pressure.
2. There’s an opportunity to build up some excitement when you know it’s coming.
3. You can request that your spouse do those things that worked in the past (laundry, maybe?). He will be eager to when he knows it’s increasing desire on your end.
Increase physical touch.
You may have stopped the everyday touching because it leads to him wanting sex. Instead, agree together that all non-sexual physical intimacy will never be expected to lead to sex (unless previously agreed upon). With that burden gone, you can be free to work on increasing the hugs, kisses, massages, and cuddles, which deepens emotional intimacy and increases your immune response as well.
At the end of the day, you two have to work together with an open mind and a little creativity to figure this thing out.
Compromise is the word of the day. Your libidos will probably never be equal and that is okay. It is completely workable if you each have empathy for the other, focus on your own issues and talk openly about relationship compromises.
The hardest part is having the conversations. When someone is willing to address an issue that matters, the negative feelings tend to dissipate, even if nothing is completely solved or you don’t get exactly what you want. Just the knowledge that what matters to you matters to your partner is a huge hurdle. It’s not easy, but it gets easier and the benefit to your marriage and your sense of well-being makes it worth the work.
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Much of what we know about our sex life stems from our own personal health. Check out this podcast episode to learn more: An Intimate Look at Your Sex Life With Dr. Miller OB-GYN – 135