My partner and I seem to be in different places when it comes to sex. We have fabulous sex when he’s up to it, but in general I have a higher sex drive and want to be more adventurous.
We both have histories of trauma and deal with it in different ways. I’m mostly into reenacting/reclaiming the trauma, and he wants to avoid it. I don’t think either is better, I just want to know if you know a way that we can find some common ground.
Our individual sexual desires are like cake (Okay, I just spent my holidays binging on “The Great British Bake Off” and, subsequently, baked goods. So just bear with me here). Our sexual-desire cakes are all influenced by a variety of factors, some easier modified than others.
First, we’ve all got our basic batter ingredients that went into our specific cake early on in life that formed the foundation of our desire templates: biology, parenting, cultural contexts, and social messages about sex and sexuality that we didn’t even know we were receiving.
Then, we put that cake in to bake. Our batter doesn’t change that much, but as our cakes get golden-brown in the oven, our relationship to sex solidifies. As we get older, we absorb more information and log more experiences with sex and sexuality that we can actually remember: sex education classes, media and marketing messages, early sexual experiences both good and bad, traumatic experiences processed and unprocessed.
We get together with our partners and add on some frosting. Maybe even some of those cute decorative flowers or sprinkles. Our sexual desires shift in how they look and feel based on current life stuff: our jobs, stress levels, body image, medications, kids, health, communication patterns, or rooted feelings about our relationships. Decorative elements as these can be shifted with relative ease compared to the foundational ingredients in our batter or how long we set our bake-timer for. The latter are more deeply rooted and may be harder to change or maybe won’t ever.
So what are your options if, as a partner, all you can do is worry about your own cake and/or contribute to your partner re-frosting theirs? Generally your options are to bridge the gap, understand and accept the desire discrepancy for what it is, or end the relationship.
Desire discrepancies between partners is a common complaint when it comes to the sex column, my workshops, and my therapeutic work. What I’ve noticed is that it’s not generally the desire discrepancies themselves that make or break a relationship, but rather it’s how the couple manages to deal with it that makes the impact.
First, understand yourself and then understand your partner. Explore your own cake ingredients, and then inquire about theirs. Knowing what positively or negatively impacts your sexual desire levels and how that plays into that of your partner’s is where this work starts.
Then, explore techniques for bridging the gap. First, what’s behind your desire to have sex? Sometimes the pull to have sex is physical: We want to get touched and get off! Sometimes, it’s more mental/emotional: We want validation, intimacy, relaxation, etc. Knowing what fuels your desire may lead you to what you might be able to do in order to scratch the itch without needing your partner to match your desire levels.
Masturbation, exploring new definitions of sex, enjoying physical intimacy that isn’t sex, and/or negotiating outside sexual/romantic partners are all things people do to manage desire differences in relationships that they otherwise love to be in.
Leave the door open for you, your partner, and your sex life to change. But don’t push it or expect it to. It’s easy for partners to fall into the absolutes of “we’ll never” and/or “you always” when feeling stuck which doesn’t allow for the flexibility of exploration that’s crucial when dealing with desire.
Finally, let me just put on my broken record so we can all dance to the tune of “seeing a couples therapist is always helpful when navigating important differences.”
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.