Any average couple will experience ebbs and flows when it comes to sex. Certainly, that can be expected. But problems pop up when these breaks in desire become the bedroom standard. Even worse is when just one member of the couple takes issue with the way things are going. Of course, we can’t expect any two people to see eye-to-eye in every aspect, even when they happen to be married to one another. But issues of sex drive alignment can cause rifts in a relationship.
According to Dr. Ian Kerner, a nationally recognized psychotherapist and author of She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide To Pleasuring Your Partner, it’s not uncommon for couples to veer apart in the way of sex and intimacy in the context of a long-term commitment. We caught up with Kerner and asked him about why this happens and how couples can work their way back into a happy and healthy sexual routine. Check out the conversation below.
How often do you encounter issues with libido your practice?
Certainly, especially among heterosexual couples, mismatched libido or discrepancy in desire is amongst the most common issue that I see, if not the most common.
Why is it so common? What are some factors that may contribute to discrepancies in desire?
As you move through a long-term relationship, what it means to be together in the context of the lifestyle really changes. Often, it becomes less about the two of you and about building a system together that involves friends, family, having kids, balancing jobs, thinking about future goals, and so on.
The demands of the changes in that lifecycle make it a lot harder to allocate the time and energy to being sexually connected. Many couples will fall into a sex rut, or notice a change in the frequency with which they’re having sex and they don’t necessarily have the tools to get themselves out of it. All sorts of lifestyle stressors create pressure and anxiety, and anxiety is not a friend of sexual desire.
Why are heterosexual couples more likely to develop this dynamic over other?
Many men experience desire spontaneously. They can think about sex, they can see something sexy, hear something sexy, remember something sexy, and that sexual cue kind of wires into the arousal platform and creates a desire to actually have sex. So for many men, desire is something that spontaneously happens. You don’t really work at it, you just kind of take in the cues that unfold around you.
But a lot of women experience something called “responsive desire.” It’s a kind of desire that emerges in response to something that comes before it. And the something that comes before it is usually some kind of feeling of subjective arousal; some kind of feeling of being aroused in your brain and your body.
So, if you are experiencing this: How can you help couples reconcile that difference?
A lot of the exercises I give couples revolve around creating what I call a “willingness window.” I give couples assignments where that spontaneous desire can be channeled; it can be used as a spark to kindle the cultivation of responsive desire.
If men can be more patient and use their spontaneous desire in a more proactive way and women can put themselves through a process of being more willing to engage in that cultivation of arousal, then they have a desire framework that works as a couple. They have something that’s replicable together.
Could you give us an example of the kind of exercises you ask them to perform?
I’m a big fan of reading really great erotica aloud, together. I also love the renaissance that’s happening with ethical porn, with porn that’s being made for women by women, for couples, and the quality that’s going into the storytelling and the diversity in the casting and all the different types of sexual experiences.
If couples are willing to spend maybe 20 minutes in one of these “willingness windows,” coming together with a laptop between them in a side-by-side way is actually a pretty great way to create some psychological excitement. A lot of couples who have been together for six months, a year, two years, ten years, they’ve never really shared fantasies. They’ve never talked during sex. They don’t even really comment on the sex they’re having. They don’t tell their partners what’s interesting, arousing, or hot. They don’t have a language to correspond with the arousal that they could potentially feel.
Is there a Plan B in place, in case the exercises don’t help?
Sometimes, you really can’t move the needle. Sometimes couples are stuck in this gap. And then you have to figure it out from there. How important is sex to the couple? To what extent is masturbation a strategy to relieve some of the pressure of this discrepancy? Are you willing to explore consensual non-monogamy? Those are all options that may come up.
That seems a little depressing. Is there any encouraging news we can give couples that may be new to this sexual dynamic?
There are plenty of couples that are attracted to each other that get stuck in a pattern of bad or mediocre sex. But, when couples picked each other, they were at least partially thinking through the lens of ‘this somebody I’m sexually attracted to,’ I have a much higher chance of helping them recapture what was once present.