Level of desire

 Level of desire

People often differ in their appetite for sex.  One of the most common sexual complaints among couples is a disparity in level of desire.  (Think: “When I’m hot (s)he’s not!”)  There is no single standard of what’s “normal.”  Level of desire differs not only from person to person, but also in the same person over the span of a lifetime.  Typically, level of desire is heightened in the beginning of a relationship so it seems that both partners have a similar level of interest in sex.  As the inevitable day-to-day-today-stressors of life come into play, level of desire can wane over time and highlight the disparity of desire between partners.  This should not be interpreted as “abnormal” or “problematic” unless it adversely impacts the relationship.

Since this is a common concern, it is helpful to take the time to examine the root cause of the difference in level of desire since there are many possible contributing factors.

Let’s distinguish what “desire” actually means in the context of sexuality.  Sexual desire can be defined as “a spontaneous interest in engaging in a sexual experience.”  This is different than physical arousal which is heavily impacted by physiological factors which may include: general level of physical health, medication side effects, aging, endocrine hormones and fatigue among others.  When your level of desire is markedly different than your partner’s, it can be easy to misinterpret his/her seeming lack of interest in sex as outright rejection.  “I thought (s)he just didn’t find me attractive anymore,” is a common assumption many people make.  While that may be an automatic assumption, it is often untrue.  Without discussing the issue with your partner, you may be suffering feelings of rejection unnecessarily.

Next, consider the difference between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy.  Oftentimes, when a couple is dealing with conflict, it can create emotional distance.  If your partner is feeling disconnected or blamed, this could likely contribute to a reluctance to be physically intimate.  Alternately, when someone is struggling with poor body image, major illness or extremely high levels of stress, this can make physical intimacy seem more like “hard work” than pleasurable and fulfilling.

Listed below are some common contributing factors that impact level of desire:

  • Anger at your partner
  • Depression
  • Boredom
  • Poor self-image
  • Negative thoughts about your partner’s attractiveness (due to aging, weight gain, poor hygiene etc.)
  • Fatigue or stress
  • Differing sexual styles
  • Attraction to someone outside the relationship
  • Limiting beliefs about sex
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Relating to your partner more as a best friend or roommate than a lover
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Performance anxiety
  • Sexual inexperience

 What you can do:

  • Identify, address and resolve any relationship issues that may be getting in the way of sexual intimacy
  • Engage in other pleasurable activities together (other than sex)
  • Proactively manage stress so it does not inhibit your sexual desire (exercise, yoga, meditation & massage are helpful strategies)

If your desire is greater than your partner’s:

  • Use a direct, complimentary approach to communicate your desire for sex.  Some examples (in no particular order) include:  “I’m feeling really sexy tonight.  I’d really like to make love to you” or “I found myself thinking about you today at work and got really turned on.  Would it be OK if I showed what I was thinking about?”
  • Spend more time building desire in your partner.  If you become “an expert” in what makes your partner feel loved, sexy and attractive, this will increase the likelihood that (s)he will be open to sexual activity.  Think of yourself as a “detective” who has been given the opportunity to “discover” new and unique ways of turning your partner on!
  • Redirect your energy away from activities and/or thoughts that heighten your level of desire (i.e. pornography, provocative reading material etc.) and towards other outlets for your passion and energy (vigorous exercise, community service, adventurous hobbies etc.).
  • Consider satisfying some of your physical needs through healthy masturbation.  Masturbation is very normal and natural.  While it doesn’t necessarily fulfill your need for love and affection, it can definitely “take the edge off” your appetite so you can be more patient when engaging with your partner.  If you choose this strategy, try to focus your thoughts on your partner and the relationship.  Focusing your thoughts too much on generic, impersonal sexual fantasies can further impair your ability to connect with your partner.
  • Honor your partner’s needs as valid.  While it’s natural to feel frustration at the difference in level of desire, it’s important that you recognize that your partner’s needs are just as valid as yours (albeit different).  Expressing anger or blame may be your instinctual reaction, but that will only increase the level of tension and disconnection between you.  Instead, focus on ways to bridge the gap.  This might mean going out of your way to make him/her feel desired, attractive or appreciated.  Or it might be as simple as arranging a babysitter or sleepover to create some alone time.
  • Don’t confuse love with lust.  Recognize that your partner’s lower level of desire does not necessarily mean his/her love for you has diminished at all.  Keep in mind that there are a multitude of factors that impact level of desire, most of which have nothing to do with you (see list above).

If your partner’s desire is greater than yours:

  • Take responsibility for your own level of desire.  Honestly assess what turns you on (erotica, a sexy outfit or lingerie, a romantic night out, kissing and touching).  Rather than waiting for your partner to get you aroused, learn to create or increase your own level of desire.  This strategy has multiple benefits:  your partner will be delightfully surprised; (s)he will feel wanted and desired; and you will gain more of a sense of empowerment around your own sexuality.
  • Make room in your life for sex.  There will always be dishes to do, clothes to fold, errands to run and bathrooms to clean.  Many of us tend to get preoccupied with the “to do” list, or fixate on what isn’t done.   However, when it comes to strengthening a marriage or long-term relationship, what could be more important than nurturing your intimate connection?  Make a conscious effort to get more comfortable with things left “undone.”  Learning to live with imperfection will enable you to re-energize your sex life (which will likely give you more energy to get the other stuff done anyway)!
  • Pay attention to subtle sexual cues.  You may be waiting for a “tidal wave” of passion to “hit you” before you initiate sex.  Instead, become a “detective” by watching for little pulses of desire that may occur throughout the day.  Notice any themes.  Is there a time of day when you tend to feel more aroused?  Is there a particular place or situation that increases your level of desire?  When you notice these subtle cues, rather than dismiss them, follow through on them!  Play a game with yourself to start with a subtle cue and build up to ravenous passion!
  • If you choose not to have sex, communicate that lovingly and let it go.  Let go of any feelings of guilt or shame; these are not helpful in strengthening your intimate connection.  Recognize that what you bring to the table is enough, and that working towards a solution is an adventure you and your partner are fully capable of achieving!


It is important to note that these thoughts and ideas are not referring to or intended for sex addiction.  If you are concerned that you or your partner may be dealing with sex addiction, it’s essential to seek professional help immediately.

If you utilize some of these suggestions and still find the difference in desire between you and you partner troublesome, talking with a trained sex therapist may be helpful.  Feel free to call the Center for Growth to set up an appointment to address your concerns.  We are here to help you find a solution!