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D Stands for Desire

In our continuous search for defining normal human behavior, the knowledge of what is considered normal frequency for having sex is not satisfying when one partner has a different libido than the other.

Common complaints in the therapy room are "I'm too stressed to think about sex but she keeps pushing me," "he always wants it no matter what, it's too much," "I have too much to take care of, I don't have time for sex let alone me," "I am just simply too tired to be in the mood to have sex."

It is important to bear in mind that relationship issues may arise not from differing libidos but from how a couple responds to differing libidos. If one judges or places a value of better or worse to their partner's libido, it can create resentment, anger, and rejection and essentially a rift in the coupleship. However if each partner takes the time to communicate their individual needs assertively and respectfully, while the other partner openly listens, then the couple can work as a team to successfully find a way to close their libido gap.

One way to navigate the libido mismatch is to ask ourselves yes, no, or maybe: do we want it, do we for sure not want it, or are we unsure we want it. The majority of disputes that result from the libido gap come from confusion as to whether we want to have sex or not. Oftentimes, when we are unsure we tend to say no to our partners.

When we are unsure if we are in the mood to have sex and our higher libido partner is indicating he or she is in the mood, it is helpful to know the difference between Responsive Desire and Spontaneous Desire.

According to Human Sexuality expert Dr. Emily Nagoski in her book Come As You Are, we engage in a two-step process for sex: arousal and desire. It is important to note that the order of experience for arousal and desire varies, with some people experiencing desire first and then arousal (spontaneous desire) and other experiencing arousal first and then desire (responsive desire).


Dr. Nagoski explains that we all have things that decrease our sexual desire called brakes and things that increase our sexual desire called accelerators. Brakes can include work stress, deadlines, sleep deprivation, weight gain, hormones, sickness, the presence of guests, a recent argument, a lack of silliness and fun in the relationship, and/or life transitions. Accelerators are the homemade dinners, flowers, candles, soft music, massages, relaxing showers, feeling good after a workout, and/or being in a good place in the relationship. To start the arousal process, our accelerators need to be activated and brakes need to be put on hold.


We cultivate desire when the arousal process is in gear and we find ourselves in a sexual and/or romantic context. Our preference for these contexts is individual: some people see lit candles as a great context while others look at a couch and think sex.

Now the order that we experience arousal and desire varies from person to person and even with the same person it can vary from time to time. We experience spontaneous desire, when we want to have sex out of the blue with no clear sexual triggers.

Most of the time especially with women, we experience responsive desire, desire that arises from a highly sexual context. This means that when we are unsure if we are in the mood to have sex and our partner very much wants to be with us, it helps just to start engaging in sexual activity because chances are the desire will come once we are aroused. However, if it's not a maybe and we know for sure we do not want to have sex, it is important that we have the safety, trust, and respect in the relationship to say no.

Below are some additional strategies that may be helpful in negotiating varying libidos:

#1 - Ask yourself: Do I really not want to have sex or is this the time where once it starts I can see myself getting into it (think spontaneous versus responsive desire)?

#2 - Keep in mind that sex is a stress reliever. When we bond with our partners, experience orgasm, and cuddle, the hormone Oxytocin, known as the love or cuddle hormone is triggered and this lowers our Cortisol levels, i.e. our stress hormones.

#3 - Identify your accelerators.

#4 - Identify your brakes.

#5 - Identify the contexts that boost your desire.

#6 - Schedule space in your day so that you have the time to increase the accelerators, decrease the brakes, and set the context and mood to have sex.

#7 - Do what speaks to you. If dishes in the sink serve as a brake, wash them, and then jump into the shower and relax for 20 minutes as an accelerator. Dim the lights, put on some fun music, and dance with your partner to set the context, and let yourself enjoy.

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