Desire Discrepancy Is About More Than Frequency

7 min read
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Desire discrepancy is when couples have a mismatch in their sexual desires and is one of the most common issues bringing couples into therapy. Unfortunately, many people, therapists included, focus exclusively on the frequency of sex, trying to get couples to “fix” how often they engage in intercourse. But there’s more to the story.

Sexual Economics

It’s easy to get focused on how often a couple is having sex. As you read about desire discrepancy, both in mainstream media and in clinical literature, most of the focus is on helping couples negotiate around how often they engage in physical intimacy. Don’t get me wrong—frequency is an important factor, and it is the most studied aspect of desire discrepancy.

Often, partners are labeled as either “the high-desire partner” or “the low-desire partner.” Higher-desire partners are encouraged to be empathic to their partner’s feelings and to take responsibility for their own needs, through masturbation and nonsexual ways of gaining love and intimacy with their partner. Lower-desire partners can be encouraged to “stretch” to connect more with their own sexual interest.

The Principle of Least Interest is an economic model that argues that the person who places the least value and interest on a commodity exerts the greatest influence on its value. So, if you’re at a flea market, bargaining over a knick-knack, you can get the best price by acting as though you really don’t care if you get the item, and you’re more than happy to walk away.

In couples, this economic principle can also influence partners’ willingness to exert effort for the relationship. The one that values the relationship the least exerts less effort, and the other partner must escalate their efforts to satisfy the other, less-interested partner.

When it comes to sex frequency specifically, when one partner desires sex once a month, and the other partner wants sex daily, the couple is far more likely to have sex closer to once a month than daily. The partner who wants sex more is usually the one who has to compromise more.

More than Frequency

Higher-desire partners often use masturbation to compensate for decreased sexual frequency, a pattern generally more prevalent in men. But it’s not at all uncommon for me to hear couples report that even though one partner desires sex, the other partner chooses to masturbate instead. Oftentimes, this dynamic is blamed on things such as pornography or a compulsive need to masturbate.

Having treated a great many of these couples, I’ve found that there are usually other factors at play that involve individual issues within the couple:

  • Different erotic interests. Sometimes, the frequency of sex doesn’t matter when the mismatch is about the kind of sex desired. Where one partner has kinky interests or fantasies that are not shared or interesting to the other partner, this difference can lead to rejection of sex that doesn’t “scratch that itch.” The Principle of Least Interest plays a role here, too—the partner who cares the least about a certain kind of sex usually exerts the most control over whether the couple engages in it. My friend Dan Savage recommends that couples explore being “good, giving and game,” within reason, to meet each other’s erotic needs and interests, but emphasizes that we’re not obligated to conform to our partner’s erotic scripts.
  • Timing. Couples can get on different schedules, from work, sleep, and simple biology. Some are morning people, others night owls. I once treated a couple who had different work shifts (day vs. evening) and one partner had masturbated and was already asleep by the time the other partner got home and was turned on. They had to discuss scheduling sex and learn to plan around their different schedules.
  • Demandingness. Some people with specific sexual interests can be rigid and demanding, always wanting a certain kind of sex and upset if they don’t get it. That demandingness can lead to their other partner becoming resistant, feeling used and controlled, and rejecting their partner’s interests. Here, even though both the kinky person and their vanilla partner want sex, they may choose not to have sex with the other, because of a stubborn reactionary process.
  • Disgust and Shame. Sometimes, different erotic interests are not just unshared but are a turn-off, or even seen as disgusting. This can be about kinky behavior and fantasies, or about certain sexual behaviors, such as oral sex, sex with the lights on, anal sex, etc. Unfortunately, when one partner finds the others’ sexual interests disgusting, it can lead to them rejecting sex entirely. Oftentimes, moral and religious judgments play a role here. Frequently, rejection leads to the other partner feeling shamed for their unshared sexual interest and choosing to masturbate or watch porn that depicts that desire, because the Internet, porn, and their own hand don’t shame them, whereas their partner does. One of my male patients once told me, “I’m bisexual, and like to fantasize about sex with men. But my wife finds homosexuality disgusting. She gets mad at me if I bring it up in fantasy during sex. So I watch gay and bi porn, where I can be turned on and not worry she’s going to reject me.”
  • Quality. A mismatch can be about the quality of sex. I see dyads where one partner is unwilling or unable to try to meet their partner’s sexual needs, leading to their partner feeling unsatisfied. So, the unsatisfied partner may choose no sex rather than bad sex. Sex therapists often have success helping these couples learn to collaborate and practice sex that is more satisfying and pleasurable for both of them. A female patient once said in therapy: “My husband has never given me an orgasm. But my vibrator does. He’s threatened by that, and won’t let me use it during sex. So I said OK, I’m choosing pleasure instead of guilt trips.”
  • Loss of Attraction. Sadly, across marriages, people can change, both physically and psychologically. Those changes can affect our feelings of psychological and physical desire and response to our partners. In therapy, we help partners learn to attend to other factors in their feelings towards their partner and to translate those feelings into sexual desire. But, when they are people who highly value and enjoy sex, this can lead to feelings of settling and decreased satisfaction.

Sexual communion is a relationship quality that improves sexual and intimate relationships. Sexual communion involves caring about your partner’s erotic satisfaction and pleasure, empathizing with them, and making an effort. I’ve written in the past about the value and importance of trying to meet our partner’s sexual ideals. Often, these strategies can help to mitigate the sting of sexual mismatch, in both frequency or kinds of sex.

We all need to do a better job of recognizing that sexual mismatch and desire discrepancies are not just about how often a couple has sex. Other important characteristics can influence the levels of sexual satisfaction in a couple.

In addition to asking our patients and each other “How often do each of you want to have sex?” we should also start asking “Are you having the kind of sex you want to have?” And, as my colleague Peggy Kleinplatz lays out, we have to be able to identify and voice the kind of sex we want, and our partner has to be able to hear us. This can lead us to richer, deeper exploration and solutions that don’t simply focus on frequency.

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