Sexual Interest in Relationships: Navigating the Range Between “Low-to-No” and “High”

Richard Nicastro, PhD digs deeper into the important relationship dynamic of sexual interest.  While acknowledging the normalcy of an imbalance, he suggests the shortest route to a solution that works for both couples is understanding and empathy for these differences.

There are certain relationship dynamics that impact a couple’s sex life and certain relational dynamics that arise from their sexual relationship. One particular pattern has to do with the expectations that result when one partner wants more frequent sex than the other—when one partner wants sex and the other can take it or leave it (and more often then not prefers to leave it).

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall that captures this dilemma. The main character Alvy (played by Woody Allen) is talking to his therapist, and when the therapist asks if Alvy and his partner are sleeping together, Alvy states, “Hardly ever, maybe three times a week.” The next scene is Alvy’s partner Annie (played by Diane Keaton) talking to her therapist, and when Annie’s therapist asks if she is having sex with Alvy, she responds, “Constantly, I’d say three times a week.”

One partner’s sexual deprivation might be another’s sexual saturation.

It’s not uncommon for couples to have an imbalance in sexual desire and sexual interest. Navigating these waters can be a real challenge, with misunderstandings, power struggles and feelings of rejection resulting. This is particularly the case for the person who feels loved through sex. In these instances, the answer “No, I’m not in the mood” can feel like an emotional sledgehammer instead of a simple truth-of-the-moment for the other.

No Sexual Interest: Understanding Your Partner’s Sexual Experiences and Expectations

The Parter with Low-To-No Interest in Sex

Imagine that you’re being asked to do something you really don’t want to do. Now imagine being asked this week after week, month after month. You’d probably get pretty frustrated at some point, and you might even find yourself becoming angry with the person making these unwanted requests. For some people with little-to-no-sexual desire, requests for sex can feel laborious. As one wife described: “Every time my husband wants sex, I hear myself internally yelling, ‘No, not again!’”

This same wife also shared that after she does have sex with her husband, she anticipates a sexual respite for a while. She even joked, “After I get my teeth cleaned I can take comfort in the fact that it won’t happen for another six months!”

So for the person with no sexual interest or desire, after sex has occurred, their mindset might look something like:

  • A commitment/duty has just been met (“one that I’m not that crazy about”);
  • And since this obligation has been recently fulfilled, there is now the expectation that there will be a period of time with no sex;
  • If this “no sex” zone isn’t respected, tension or anger may result.

Heightened Sexual Interest: Understanding The Partner with High Interest in Sex

Whenever this partner has sex, his/her experience is one of being fed emotionally and sexually. This sexual hunger doesn’t have an on-off switch and it doesn’t become completely satiated for long. In fact, a once-in-a-while sexual experience can feel like it is only highlighting what is missing, what this person believes should be occurring more frequently.

Adrian has been married to his wife for six years. He’s always had a high sex drive and would prefer to have sex about five times a week. His wife’s libido is much quieter, and she can go for weeks without even thinking about sex. He described becoming physically uncomfortable if he goes too long not having sex, and the longer he waits, the more he thinks about and fantasizes about sex.

After having sex with their partner, the high sex drive individual’s experience may appear as follows:

  • They feel like a vital need has been met and therefore feel emotionally closer to their partner;
  • They eagerly anticipate future sexual experiences and hope that this will happen sooner rather than later;
  • As time passes and they are faced with a string of unmet sexual advances, they become increasingly tense and irritable. They can start to feel unwanted and may even feel like something is wrong with them for “wanting so much sex”;
  • After prolonged rejections, they may even try to suppress sexual longings (a suppression that may ultimately lead to underlying resentments).

When you consider the subjective experiences of each partner (low-desire and high-desire), you can see how they are worlds apart not only in their desire to have sex, but also in what it’s like for each of them to have and not to have sex.

There are no easy “solutions” to such discrepancies. These differences create tensions (both within each person and between the couple as a whole) that need to be consciously managed and negotiated. This process starts with an honest, non-judgmental awareness of each other: what it’s like to have sex when you don’t want to, what it’s like to not have sex when you feel overwhelmed by the desire to have sex.

When empathy becomes part of the communication field, mutual understanding allows for these tensions to be looked at and worked through together, rather than by just one of you.