Written by Crystal Bradshaw, LPC, NCC, Gottman 7 Principles Trainer
A common complaint couples present me with is desire discrepancy.
Typically, the complaint is that one partner wants sex more and the other could either take it or leave it.
In long term heterosexual relationships, women typically need to feel emotionally connected before they can have sex. Men typically feel emotionally connected AFTER they have sex.
You can see how this can create contention.
He wants sex.
They either don't have sex OR she has sex just to get it over with.
This creates feelings of resentment in both partners, but in men it often creates resentment that is fueled by a sense of rejection and not feeling connected to their partners. Attachment languages are different and the dialect of his language may vary from hers, which could also cause issues.
Sex then becomes a contentious issue between the couple, something that could be avoided if the couple were well informed about what was actually taking place between them.
From not having sex to having "meh sex," sex ruts are normal and everyone has them.
It's to be expected.
With times of high stress, kids, transitions, work, sickness, being on medication, having repressed resentment, feeling disconnected from your partner, not feeling good about yourself and your body, etc., you're likely to hit a sex rut at some point.
Don't freak out.
And certainly don't compare your reality to the fiction and fantasy on TV, in the movies, in books, and on social media.
There will be ebbs and flows.
You'll have your dry spells from time-to-time.
Instead of stressing about how often you're not having sex, take a look at what's currently going on in your life, and in your partner's life, and see what could be contributing to the lack of sex.
Causes Of Desire Discrepancy
One common cause is: couples don't make sex a priority.
Most couples operate under the false assumption that sex is supposed to be spontaneous. That sex just happens, independent of their own involvement. If it doesn't happen spontaneously, then the thought is "something is wrong."
This narrative, fueled by our culture, is misleading and inaccurate.
Sex can be planned and scheduled, and it should be!
Think back to the beginning of your relationship, when you were dating. You planned everything. You planned and prepared for dates days in advance, covering all sorts of details down to what you would wear, where you would go, and what you would talk about. All that time leading up to the date built anticipation; it was a type of prolonged foreplay.
It was intentional.
Then, once you were in a long term relationship (LTR), you falsely assumed you no longer had to put in the time and effort because the relationship had been secured and would take care of itself.
This is a damaging myth that dominates LTR and desperately needs to be dispelled.
READ: THE VERY BEST THING YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR SPOUSE
Another cause for discrepancy is that people think desire is spontaneous.
Couples typically have inaccurate information when it comes to how sexuality works. Here is what most people think happens: First you have desire, then you pursue sex, have sex, and then it's done. But that isn't how it really happens. This thinking is problematic because it's factually inaccurate.
Many people operate under the myth that if you don't spontaneously have desire then something is wrong. Even amid our busy lives, lives that often leave us exhausted and stressed with no time for ourselves, we're expected to have desire without any effort.
Sex researchers and educators will tell you that first PLEASURE happens, not desire. For most people, desire occurs as a response to pleasure.
Desire is responsive...it responds to arousal, physical or mental.
Your brain notices sexually relevant information in your environment. That then allows you to feel good about the relevant information. Then your brain and your body respond to it. This response causes you to be curious and explore the information. It's that exploration, that curiosity, that gets you aroused.
So to have desire, you must first have arousal.
Many couples get caught up thinking that sex and desire are supposed to be spontaneous, something that just pops into existence out of thin air.
It doesn't work like that.
The actual path is: pleasure, curiosity is aroused & you explore what has made you curious, and then desire.
Here's a non-sexual example of the arousal / desire system
You're driving through town and smell hamburgers. You weren't necessarily hungry before driving through town, and you weren't craving a hamburger. However, when the delicious aroma of the hamburger (the relevant stimuli) enters your nose and hits your brain, you experience pleasure at the smell of the food and the memories of past delicious hamburger experiences.
You recall how wonderful hamburgers taste. You begin thinking about how delicious a hamburger would be. Then you seek one out. You stop and get a hamburger.
So you received pleasure first, the aroma of the hamburger (relevant information in your environment). You didn't desire to have a hamburger prior to smelling it. Once you encountered the stimuli of the hamburger (the smell), you started to feel good about the idea of having a hamburger - "Hey, I think I want a hamburger." Then your brain and body responded, and this caused you to explore your options for having a hamburger. You sought one out because now you wanted (or desired) a hamburger.
Another factor in desire discrepancy is related to Breaks and Accelerators.
Our brain has a sexual system that is made up of 2 parts - The Excitation System (accelerator) and the Inhibitor System (breaks). Both these systems work together.
We each have a set of breaks and accelerators.
We inherit some of our breaks from our culture and some from our own direct personal experience.
A lot of people have an overactive breaking system. Often, when people have too many breaks they struggle sexually. The key isn't to add more stimulation (to hit the accelerator harder and more frequently), it's to remove some of the stuff that activates your breaks.
The Excitation System (accelerator) is made up of all the things that move us towards wanting to have sex. These things could be the way our partner looks in their work clothes, seeing our partner in their element, feeling good about yourself, being playful with your partner, experiencing new things with each other, etc.
The Inhibitor System (breaks) this system is made up of all the stuff that will slam the door on you wanting to have sex. These things actually keep you from moving towards sex and can lead you to avoid sex. Feeling tired, stressed, anxious, depressed, having feelings of resentment, feeling overweight, previous experiences that were not good, religious/moral barriers, beliefs about sex from growing up that were implicitly or explicitly passed onto you, etc.
So now that you understand desire, accelerators, and breaks better, here are 5 things you can do to increase your desire for sex.
5 Things You Can Do When You Have Lost the Desire for Sex
1. Plan sex.
Yes, put it in your calendar. It may not sound "sexy" or "spontaneous,” but block out time on your calendar where you know you won't have other commitments and distractions, and devote that time slot to being with your partner.
You don't necessarily have to have the expectation of sex, just create a window of opportunity for sex to happen. The idea is that if you have a devoted time blocked off, you have a target to look forward to, something to build anticipation, something to think about because you'll have days to wonder about it.
Sex begins in the brain.
So, if you don't have a "sex" appointment with your partner yet, make sure you create a standing appointment.
What you do with that block of time is totally up to you two, but have fun. Your imagination is the limit!
2. Sex First, Food Second.
If you have a date night, great! Have sex before you get dinner.
No one wants to have sex when they are bloated, have gas, and are tired. This often leads to feelings of disappointment when the night does not go as imagined.
Sex, then dinner.
3. Identify your Breaks and your Accelerators.
Find out what your breaks and accelerators are.
Minimize the breaks (don't focus on adding accelerators, that actually doesn't help...you want to remove as many breaks as possible).
You want to eliminate the stuff that hits the breaks for you.
What are your inhibiting thoughts?
Do you think sex will be dull?
That your partner won't be into it?
Do you worry about performance? (Performance anxiety often creates avoidance in this area, which leads to further disconnection.)
Are you worried about being interrupted?
Are you preoccupied with your 'to-do' list?
Are you easily distracted?
What's the imagery that stops you?
Analyze your breaks and your level of engagement with the breaks.
How invested are you at maintaining your breaks?
Lock the door if you're worried about someone walking in. If you are easily distracted, remove the distracters (turn off the TV, silence your devices and put them out of sight) Is the relationship reinforcing the breaks? For you to want to have sex, it has to be sex worth wanting. So, what is the kind of sex that you have now that's worth having? Cultivate more of that.
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Take a self-inventory of your breaks (inhibitors) and your accelerators (exciters) and share them with your partner. You both need to have a candid discussion about these. What accelerators and breaks do you both share? How can you help remove some of the breaks for each other?
Work together as a team to create an environment that decreases your breaks and increases your accelerators.
Some breaks will require some serious attention that may require the guidance of a therapist, things like guilt, shame, disgust, moral conflicts, trauma, etc.
So make sure you don't overlook those breaks, and if you have any of these, consult with a qualified therapist to help you unpack and relocate those breaks.
4. Be willing.
Make it a habit to willingly engage in activities that will generate arousal.
Come up with some ideas that will get you in the mood. By doing this, you’ll be helping to maintain the connection between you and your partner. When couples feel connected, they report greater relationship satisfaction. If you feel connected and satisfied in your relationship, be willing to engage in things that will promote arousal that will lead to desire. These things can be mental or physical.
Dancing is a great way to generate arousal, so is exercising together, trying new things, and reading.
Just know that if you are willing to enter into a sexual space, arousal and desire will often follow.
Just start, and see if the brain and body join in the conversation...they often do.
READ: FOREPLAY ISN'T ALWAYS WHAT YOU THINK
5. Focus on foreplay.
Foreplay is essential for both partners.
Don’t confuse, or confine, foreplay with the few minutes leading up to sex. It’s PLAY that helps generate arousal and connection and can last days if you do it right.
Women often feel desire AFTER arousal, and it often takes women 20-45 minutes to get to the peak of arousal, which is why foreplay shouldn't be neglected.
Foreplay should be a staple and it doesn't have to be restricted to the moments before sex. NO! Think outside of that parameter. Set your expectations for sex aside, sex isn’t the goal, the goal is to engage with your partner in an activity that will generate arousal in some way.
Your imagination is your only limit here. Leave notes for your partner to find, send random text messages during the day to connect, take the initiative and make reservations mid-week at a restaurant just because, and meet your partner there after work.
Foreplay means consistently initiating and engaging in activities that generate arousal and connection.
It's important that people recognize, and understand, that some ambivalence when it comes to sex is totally normal.
Now that you have a better, and more factual, understanding of how desire works, start taking the necessary steps outlined above to tackle obstacles keeping you and your partner at odds.
Remember, sex begins in the brain, so devote your attention and energy accordingly.
Read more from Crystal here.
Photo Credit: Bryan Striegler Photo
“Love is the greatest gift when given. It is the highest honor when received.”
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