Emily has had a high libido for as long as she can remember.
“I’m good to go most anytime,” she says. “And if Fred [her husband] wants to have sex multiple times in the same day, I’m all for it!”
Fred has what most counselors would call an “average libido.” In his late 40s, he’s up for a sexual encounter about two or three times a week, but this is probably less than half of what Emily would prefer.
The frustration between how often each of them desire sexual intimacy started on their honeymoon. Emily expected that after the wedding she and Fred would enjoy sex a couple of times a day, every day.
Fred had different plans for the honeymoon. “We were paying a lot of money to be in a different city, and we had tickets to Disney World, which aren’t cheap. I expected us to get out of the hotel room every now and then.”
The tension over their mismatched libidos continued to cause friction for the next decade. “Emily pursuing me sexually was a constant,” Fred remembers.
Emily concurs. “He’s not wrong. I was after him every day, or even later in the day if we had had sex in the morning.” Fred’s lack of reciprocation frustrated and hurt Emily. She’d tell him, “Do you have any idea how many husbands wish their wives were like me?”
Fred knew that was true, but he insisted, “You don’t give me a chance to be a pursuer.”
By year 10, Emily’s heart started to close.
Jamal and Shanice* also endured a contentious sexual relationship for the first several years of their marriage. Jamal desired sex almost every day, but by year two of their marriage, the amount of sex in their marriage matched a lunar calendar — happening maybe a once a month. For Shanice, “even that once-a-month session was more out of duty.”
It’s not that she didn’t enjoy sex. “Jamal is a skilled lover!” Shanice explains. But sex never sounded like something she wanted to do before they did it.
After struggling through years of discouragement with mismatched libidos, they knew they had to make a change. Both are committed believers and divorce wasn’t an option. But they also didn’t want to stay miserable. Both of them were desperate to find a way to resolve the conflict while keeping their marriage intact. They had to confront what was assaulting their marriage and make it work.
If these couples’ stories sound similar to yours, don’t despair. You can manage your different sexual desires and find happiness in your sex life. Try the following ways to start making a change.
Gain perspective on mismatched libidos
If differing libidos has been an issue in your marriage, it helps to gain a little perspective. Though this issue is often talked about as a problem, it’s actually the norm for almost every couple. In fact, it’s unusual when both spouses want sex the same amount of time or always at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with a marriage that resembles the life experience of the vast majority of married couples.
And why make this difference about sex more important than other differences? Most couples diverge when it comes to the timing of many other aspects of their relationship: serious conversations, playful outings or even dining out. There are a lot of areas where spousal desires don’t match in marriage; expecting to overcome different libidos isn’t true to life.
Managing different levels of desire is different from “fixing” or “curing” different levels of desire.
Please note that constant badgering for sex can be part of an abusive relationship. This advice is for couples where both partners feel safe and free to express their desire or to say no without fear of reprisal.
Seek mutual pleasure
Shanice became convicted when she joined a small group of Christian wives and someone mentioned “gatekeeping.” The term is used by modern counselors in different ways, but in this context, the other wives applied it to sex, where they used it to describe how one spouse starts controlling what happens in the bedroom. The spouse who is always saying yes or no or who sets up a list of conditions for sexual intimacy to occur is called the gatekeeper.
Of course, every spouse deserves the respect of being able to say without fear, “Not tonight, honey.” Sex takes a significant contribution of relational, emotional and physical energy, and sometimes, a spouse just can’t get there. Even in marriage, “no” means “no.”
Lack of sexual desire can also arise from their partner’s poor hygiene, high demands or selfish lovemaking. Those are relational issues more than sexual issues. It can be terrifying to talk about sex, especially things your spouse may do that make sex less inviting to you. I’ve seen couples endure twenty years of sexual frustration because one or both partners feared a difficult 20-minute conversation. The first step to getting your sex life back on course might be to have that conversation you’ve been putting off.
Absent the above, gatekeeping isn’t an occasional “not tonight.” It’s a pattern of controlling your spouse by making sex so difficult to experience that he or she has to jump through hoops before you say yes. And if the spouse doesn’t jump through hoops correctly, the gatekeeping spouse can say, “Aha! We don’t have to have sex tonight!”
How do you move beyond gatekeeping? Not by making sex a “marital duty,” not by lecturing about gatekeeping, not by pouting or making your spouse feel guilty. Those are certainly some of the worst and least effective ways to find resolution and some of those behaviors can even become abusive.
Instead, it’s best to focus on creating a sexual relationship marked by mutual pleasure, while being sure to address each spouse’s spiritual, emotional, relational and physical health (all of which can interfere with libido). In many marriages, when spouses address those issues, gatekeeping will die a natural death.
In other marriages, however, gatekeeping can be rooted in manipulation and selfishness, which Shanice freely admits was the case in her own marriage. Her behavior didn’t stem from malice, but from a lack of awareness about how hurtful their infrequency of sex was to their marriage.
The second piece of their puzzle was understanding the difference between a responsive sexual drive and spontaneous sexual drive.
Recognize different drives
If you have a spontaneous sexual drive, you don’t need much of a trigger to desire sex. A flash of your spouse’s body or a suggestive touch can make you ready. Even the thought or mention of sex can make you “good to go.”
If you have a responsive sexual drive, you don’t really desire sex until you allow yourself to be physically stimulated.
A spouse with a responsive drive doesn’t desire sex until sex is already underway. The way their brain operates, they need some form of wanted physical caressing before the thought of sex sounds inviting. If they don’t allow the touch to start, sex never seems like a welcome invitation, but rather more like a chore. Once sex happens, they may be thoroughly satisfied, but they tend to love memories of sex more than the anticipation of it.
Your drive isn’t something you choose. Your brain is what it is. But understanding the difference between spontaneous and responsive desire can do wonders for making your sexual relationship a blessing instead of a burden.
If you’re a spouse with a responsive drive, remember that your relationship might need more frequent times of sexual intimacy even if you don’t often desire sex.
Convicted about her gatekeeping and better informed about her own drive, Shanice says she “started trying to be more open to Jamal’s advances.” Instead of always defaulting to “no” or shaming him for wanting to have sex regularly, she at least allowed the opportunity to evolve — if not into sex, then at least some intimate touches.
Before, if Jamal started rubbing Shanice’s back in bed, and it seemed like a sexual invitation, she’d tense up and say, “Not tonight” or “I have to wake up early.”
Shanice started speaking kindly but firmly to herself. It’s OK, he’s just massaging you. Relax, don’t say an automatic no, see if you can get into this, and accept that this is his way of showing love. You can show you love him by touching him back.
It’s important to point out that she wasn’t agreeing to have sex. She was agreeing to consider it, without pressure and without expectation.
Understand root issues
As you try to manage your mismatched libidos, consider the following root issues.
Don’t take it personally
Although this is difficult to do, try not to take different desires for sex personally. The spouse who wants sex more often frequently feels unwanted; the spouse who wants sex less often is sometimes made to feel broken. Neither perspective leads to healing.
In the case of Fred and Emily, Fred’s desire was entirely normal; there wasn’t something wrong with him. At the same time, Emily wondered if there was something wrong with her, especially when she kept hearing about how husbands are supposed to be the ones who are constantly chasing down their wives.
Men and women who are married to “responsive” partners need to realize that just because your spouse isn’t initiating sex doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t like you or that your spouse doesn’t like to have sex with you. You can’t fault your spouse for what he or she wants or doesn’t want.
Having said this, Jamal admits that it’s reasonable to try to encourage your responsive spouse to be more active. And he believes the spontaneous desire spouse needs to initiate most often, without resenting that. “Don’t fight about whether your spouse initiates. He or she often can’t help it. Just be glad that they’re willing to be responsive.”
Know that maybe is a healthy word
Shanice had to learn that automatically defaulting to “no” wasn’t helpful. She and Jamal both had to learn how to live with “maybe” for a short period of time. Cuddling in bed is not a guarantee that there will be intercourse. But they can kiss a little, they can stroke each other’s arms and they can see if desire awakens. Much of the time sexual desire will show up, but it won’t every time, and both partners need to be OK with that. The key is to get beyond the automatic “no.”
“I know Shanice is committed to having mutually satisfying sex on a regular basis,” Jamal explains, “but I also know that doesn’t mean she’s going to be up for it on any given night just because I am. She gives me a chance to get her interested; if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but I appreciate that she was at least open to the idea.”
Sometimes, Shanice’s love and care for Jamal means being open to intimacy when she initially isn’t that into it. And Jamal’s love and care for Shanice means not pushing for sex when she just can’t desire sex like he does.
It’s not just about sex
A turning point for Emily and Fred came when Emily felt convicted by God that she was so focused on Fred not wanting to have sex as often that she was missing all the other ways he was a generous and kind husband.
Accordingly, she set a picture frame next to Fred’s sink in the master bathroom and used dry erase markers to write daily encouragements:
- “I love you because you made me pancakes.”
- “I love you for changing the oil in my car.”
- “I love you for changing the baby’s diaper and getting up with her last night.”
- “I love you for being an insanely funny dad with our children.”
The daily comments were revolutionary for both Emily and Fred and helped resolve the conflict over mismatched libidos.
“It changed me,” Emily said through tears. “It changed my focus from my disappointment about him not pursuing me sexually to all the amazing ways he was loving me that I was missing because I was so focused on that one area.”
For Fred, it was a huge motivation. “I so appreciated that she was seeing all I was trying to do to show her I love her, and that made me just want to do even more for her.”
Fred lived with a new joy. “Emily’s attitude toward me changed. It was less of a constant expectation for sex that I could never live up to, and more about her just loving me as a husband with it not having to be about sex all the time. That was more appealing to me. I love her as my wife, not just as my sex partner.”
Emily adds, “I didn’t write those things on the board to get him to do more. I just wanted him to know ‘I see you.’”
Talk about why as much as you talk about what
If you’re the spouse with a spontaneous drive, don’t just tell your spouse what you want, tell him or her why you want it.
It’s a different conversation when a husband says, “You’re the most beautiful, kind, intelligent woman in the world and I just want to be as close to you as possible.”
Or: “We haven’t been connecting, but I know making love with you will help us do that. I miss it!”
One husband said, “I feel like Superman when I know you’re stressed out and I can help you enjoy a wonderful climax. It gives me such joy to know I can make my wife feel that good.”
Tell your spouse why you want to have sex with him or her, and what it means to you, so that it’s not about merely selfish or physical desire.
Look for other issues
Emily’s sexual desire was fueled in part by emotional fears that Fred could address in other ways. This is a good reminder that sexual issues are almost never solely about sex. There may need to be spiritual healing (getting rid of porn), emotional healing (dealing with trauma), physical healing (poor health can seriously inhibit sexual desire and performance) and relational healing (anger and bitterness are libido assassins).
Shanice is thrilled with their new sexual relationship. “I’m much happier in my marriage. The weight of those ill feelings and resentment and guardedness has lifted. It feels so much better.”
Even though she has a responsive drive, Shanice admits, “I like having sex more often. With more frequent sex, trust has grown, happiness has grown, and . . . I understand him better.”
The couple has settled into a fairly regular two to three times a week, with an occasional uptick over a special weekend.
Jamal is satisfied with this but admits “more would be good.” If he pouted about the fact that he wasn’t getting sex four or five times a week, he’d wreck the two or three times a week that they do have sex. But if Shanice expected him to be happy with once a month, she wouldn’t be showing empathy or fostering understanding either.
If you obsess over the gap between what you have and what you want, you’ll ruin everything. When a spouse with a high sex drive expects that a spouse with a lower drive have sex as often as he or she would like, you usually end up with two frustrated spouses. Compromise isn’t a dirty word; it’s often the defender of contentment. Scripture calls us to be content whatever the circumstances (Hebrews 13:5; Philippians 4:11-13), which includes being content with our spouse’s brain and libido!
Emily and Fred’s marriage has also improved. Emily is still up for sex just about any day. “What can I say? Fred’s a very pretty man.”
What about Fred? “I still like doing other things,” he laughs.
“Sometimes he’d rather go hiking!” Emily adds. “Can you believe it?”
But they’ve settled into having sex just about every other day and both seem satisfied with that.
The key is that both of them are happy about where they are. Emily could desire sex more, but she’s content. And Fred probably wouldn’t choose four times a week on his own, but he delights in pleasing Emily. Their mismatched libidos were once a source of great pain and heartache, but now they experience joy and comfort.
When it comes to divergent libidos, there’s no right or wrong answer to how often a couple “should” have sex. The key is that sex becomes a blessing to the marriage rather than a burden. It’s more important that each partner feel valued, adored, cherished and desired.
*Names have been changed.
Gary Thomas is the co-author of Married Sex: A Christian Couple’s Guide to Reimagining Your Love Life.