Dr. Sandra Pertot,
(Adapted from: "When Your Sex Drives Don’t Match: Discover your libido types to create a mutually satisfying sex life." Marlowe & Co, 2007)
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone from another culture, and to develop a relationship, maybe as a workmate, a friend, or a partner? It’s not only the fact that there is a different spoken language to break through, but also differences in non-verbal communication, belief systems, and values.
Differences in the meaning of non-verbal behaviors are a good example of how not knowing the significance of a particular gesture, action or facial expression can cause misunderstanding and possibly offence. For example, in Japan, people use laughter and smiles to conceal anger or grief because it is inappropriate to display these emotions in public. In Asian countries, it is disrespectful to make eye contact with a superior, whereas in white western culture avoiding eye contact may be taken to suggest boredom, ignorance or dishonesty. And then there are differences in beliefs and values which can be a source of confusion or distress. Take something as basic as our belief in democracy and compare that to attitudes around the world, and you can see how difficult it can be to relate to someone with very different ideas.
Although differences in libido type might seem trivial by comparison, as you read about the types of libido you can begin to appreciate how easily misunderstandings and conflict can arise between partners who, in a sense, live in different sexual cultures. The problem is that in the early stages of developing an intimate relationship with someone we are strongly attracted to, we tend to notice the similarities rather than the differences, and if we do see some differences we may initially interpret them as interesting, exciting or challenging. The heady feelings of initial infatuation can block a rational assessment of the long term implications of some areas of incompatibility, convinced that love will conquer all and in time your lover will change to meet you at least halfway.
Few people make a commitment to a relationship believing it will end. While there are some difficult and unreasonable people, most of the couples I see who are in strife because of mismatched libidos are good people doing the best they can, and they made the commitment to a long term relationship in good faith. So how do things go wrong?
In order to understand how these differences gradually erode the goodwill in the relationship to the point where some eventually end, I developed a model of this process. I call it the Mismatched Libido Cycle, but generally I see it as the cycle of misunderstanding. This describes a number of stages that a couple go through, from the beginning of their relationship before the mismatched libidos have caused any significant distress, to the sense of isolation that incompatible libidos can bring which may ultimately lead to separation. This model makes it possible to identify what aspects of the process are significant for a particular couple, and give clues as to what may help remedy the situation.
The Mismatched Libido Cycle
Perhaps it was the case a hundred years ago that a couple began a sexual relationship not knowing what to expect. As recently as the1970s, when I began working as a sex therapist, I saw couples where the woman had no idea what sex was about, and was quite shocked to discover on the wedding night that the penis grew big and hard, and while the man certainly knew this happened, he didn’t know where he was supposed to insert it.
Now the set of expectations someone brings to a sexual relationship, even if this is their first time relationship, is often quite complex and detailed. With so much sexual information (and misinformation) around, at the very least most people expect sex to be pleasurable, and easily pleasurable at that - when do we see couples struggling to arouse and have a good time in the movies or in erotic material?
There are expectations that most people believe are an integral part of a normal sexual relationship—women should like having their breasts stimulated, men should like having their penis touched—and when someone doesn’t enjoy these things they and their partners are likely to assume there is something wrong with them. Then there are other expectations where the partners have different ideas yet each believes the other one is the problem, and reconciling these differences is a source of conflict. The most common is about how often sex should happen, perhaps one partner believes that it should be daily, the other believes weekly is much more reasonable, but there are many other areas of disagreement.
Once the first flush of the relationship passed, couples may find that the differences in what they expected in a sexual relationship begin to create tension between them. The spiral of conflict begins when one partner first experiences reluctance to respond to the other’s sexual advances, either to have sex at all or to participate in a particular activity. Prior to that, the strong emotions of attraction and desire that are fueled by the heady cocktail of hormones released during the infatuation stage make it easier for the less enthusiastic partner to respond either with genuine enthusiasm or with a willingness to please the other. As this phase passes, if there is a mismatch in libido types, the partner with the lower libido and/or less interest in sexual variety will find it difficult to sustain the level of activity desire by the other.
It makes sense that the mismatch or incompatibility will emerge as the sexually quieter partner begins to resist the expectations of the more enthusiastic partner, but this does not mean that it is the reluctant partner who is the problem as the mismatch begins to bite. Both partners have a role to play in any mismatch, and if one partner takes the position that their expectations should prevail, if there is no attempt to merge their expectations, or if their expectations are so far apart that there is no acceptable middle ground, the couple set the mismatched libido cycle in motion.
It is stating the obvious to say that someone has to initiate sex for it to happen, but the way in which this is done can determine how often sex happens and whether it is enjoyable for one or both partners. Although there is the stereotype that sex should be initiated in a passionate way with deep kissing and fondling of the breasts and or genitals, this doesn’t suit everyone, and problems arise when there are differences in what each partner needs or wants in order to become interested in having sex.
Continuing to try to initiate sex in ways that don’t work is ultimately a futile exercise, yet many couples get stuck in these unproductive patterns. Sometimes the person who is resisting sex will try to explain why they aren’t responding and what they would prefer, but often the situation is that neither knows how to break the impasse.
The manner in which each partner reacts to their partner’s sexual desires and preferences is a critical factor in the future direction of their relationship. If they try to be understanding and supportive, even if disappointed, it is likely that the couple will eventually find a good enough balance in their sex life. However, negative reactions to expressions of difference, particularly over a long period, create a climate of guardedness which can lead to hostility. The range of reactions that have been discussed in counseling sessions with me go from subtle to blatant, thoughtless to cruel.
Many couples who care about each other but are confused and hurt by the challenges in their sex life don’t intend to be critical of each other, but even subtle reactions can convey messages of disapproval and rejection. It is reasonable to feel disappointment when needs and wants aren’t met, so a sigh of resignation when your partner says no, or you agree to your partner’s request but with an unspoken "oh all right but let’s get on with it I have other things to do" signal are sometimes inevitable and don’t do much damage if they happen occasionally. If this is the usual way of responding, however, the atmosphere in the intimate relationship can become strained. When such responses become habitual, they can become toxic.
Some partners become angry and abusive. Withdrawing, sulking, getting agitated, being hostile or critical, or being angry or abusive are all unhelpful and unproductive ways of resolving mismatched libidos. These reactions are as much a part of the mismatched libido problem as anything the partner does or doesn’t do sexually. No matter how disappointed you might be, how justified you believe your hurt feelings are, such critical reactions are unlikely to help your partner want to meet your needs, and to enjoy sharing those sexual activities with you.
If you are the higher libido partner, it may be that your partner will go along with your sexual approaches in order to avoid hurting you or having an argument, or they may feel sufficiently guilty or intimidated to give in to your pressure. Unfortunately this tends to cause your partner to feel resentful and angry during sex, thus making sex less appealing and enjoyable and increasing resistance to sex in the future. And so the mismatched libido cycle spins a bit faster as increasingly the focus shifts from mutual pleasure to keeping the peace and pleasing the disgruntled partner.
If you are the lower libido partner and you are dismissive of your partner’s sexual wants and needs, your partner may accept the ground rules you have laid down for your sex life because there are other aspects of your life together that they value. However if there are feelings of hurt and resentment underlying your partner’s apparent agreement, they may find it increasingly difficult to want to be close to you in any way at all, threatening the stability of your relationship. This feeds into the cycle of misunderstanding as your partner feels resentful that your sex life offers very little for them.
The sad thing is that many partners don’t intend to seem unreasonable or demanding, but don’t know how to deal with their disappointment and sadness about their sexual difficulties. The style of communication a couple use can make or break their relationship.
Communication in a relationship is important at several levels. Obviously a couple who can chat about almost anything, who can solve disagreements respectfully, and who find it easy to let each other know what they like about each other, are likely to enjoy being in a relationship together. Good, positive, effective communication in all areas of the relationship helps to create the atmosphere that will promote sexual interest in each other.
A great deal is said and written about the importance of sexual communication. Couples who seek help for mismatched libidos acknowledge that they can’t talk about their situation without one or both becoming upset. Even if they try to be supportive and respectful of each other, it often still ends up in a stalemate. This happens because incompatible couples are missing some essential elements in their communication when they try to discuss their differences.
The first essential ingredient for effective communication is knowledge. A man’s ability to talk about his worries is flawed from the beginning if he doesn’t know that delaying ejaculation for a couple of minutes is quite normal, and therefore he does not have a sexual dysfunction. Similarly, a woman with low libido is behind the eightball when she tries to discuss her sexual needs with her lover if she doesn’t know that it is perfectly normal for many women to have a low physical libido and to sometimes fined sex more enjoyable without the pressure to come to orgasm. And so on.
It is also difficult to communicate calmly and effectively without confidence. If you believe you are an inadequate lover, that you are letting your partner down by not providing them with the sex life they want, then attempts at talking this through are undermined by guilt, apology and submission. The needs of people who lack belief in their own sexuality, no matter what libido type, cannot even begin to be met or be open to compromise if they are not recognized, validated and stated. Only by understanding and accepting their own unique set of likes, dislikes, levels of interest, preferred sexual activities, and so on, can someone be an equal partner in the communication process. Without this, sex becomes increasingly unsatisfying and stressful, and the mismatch grows larger.
Obviously, style of communication is very important. Communication needs to be positive. "I don’t feel like sex, but I’d love a cuddle"; "I may not get overcome by lust any more, but I love having sex with you"; "I’d like to have oral sex with you; if you’re uncomfortable about it, I understand, and we can take it slowly, but let’s try it"; "This makes sex better for me, touching me this way isn’t so good". Negative communication such as "I’ve told you a hundred times I don’t like that", "What’s wrong with you, everyone likes oral sex", "What’s wrong with you, why do you have to try things like oral sex?", "Well, I didn’t have this problem with other partners", will only create defensiveness and add another layer of bricks on the wall that is blocking your communication.
The final essential to good communication is being prepared to listen, to be respectful of the other’s point of view and give them time to express it, and to work together towards solutions that are good enough for both partners. Communication based on point-scoring, or being determined to have your partner give in to your point of view, is a complete waste of time. There is no point in clear and confident communication about feelings, needs, worries, desires, if these are going to be ignored or dismissed without any attempt to understand the differences that are at the heart of your mismatched libidos.
For one person’s point of view to be right doesn’t mean that the other’s is wrong. I find that in most cases of mismatched libidos, what each partner is thinking, feeling, and wanting is understandable and reasonable. Your task is to keep talking and listening with goodwill and respect so that both points of view are acknowledged and taken into account. It is possible to work through the issues associated with differences in libido when you can discuss your problems with generosity and concern for each other’s well-being. Without clear, positive, confident communication, problems fester and the cycle of misunderstanding spins more rapidly.
The sad thing about so many cases of mismatched libidos is that the damage is caused not so much by what is actually happening, but how each person interprets the other’s behavior. There are many errors in interpretation that can become toxic to a relationship. I’ve identified five main themes that underlie these misunderstandings:
1. You don’t really love me.
The most common misinterpretation, because it can arise between any types of libido and from both points of view, is that because your partner doesn’t think, feel or behave in a particular way that is important to you, they therefore don’t love you or find you attractive:
2. One partner is an inadequate lover.
In a society that is saturated with hot and lusty sexual images in which both partners perform to perfection, another common misinterpretation is about the sexual adequacy of one or both partners. It may be that the higher libido partner believes the lower libido partner is abnormal, or the more experimental partner believes that someone who is interested in sexual variety has hang-ups, but many partner’s doubt their own sexual abilities if they don’t meet some particular standard of performance.
3. My partner must be having sex with someone else.
Another damaging misinterpretation is that, because one partner doesn’t seem to be wanting sex or getting a lot out of it, then they must be having sex with someone else. While this is sometimes true, as for an addictive libido type, it more likely isn’t the case. This misinterpretation arises because it seems hard to believe that any "normal" person could be uninterested in sex, particularly if that person obviously enjoys sex when it does happen, as often happens in the case of female with low libido.
4. My partner is being selfish.
Because of the emphasis placed on sex, many good and reasonable people assume that the sex life they hear about in our society should happen easily in their own relationship. Sometimes when the partner can’t meet those expectations, some harsh interpretations are made, particularly about the person less interested in sex. These conclusions are often fueled by the opinions of some sex therapists who claim that the unwilling partner is using sex as a weapon and is being deliberately "withholding" and "punishing". These accusations are, in most cases, unfair and damaging because in my experience the less interested partner is doing the best they can with no conscious or unconscious malicious intent. Judgments such as these disempower the less interested partner because their sexuality is dismissed as dysfunctional, and they are left with no way to explain themselves and challenge the professional opinion.
5. My partner has a sexual problem that has nothing to do with me.
Partners often find it difficult to acknowledge their role in the sexual problem that appears to be the stumbling block in achieving the sex life they want. Many partners find it difficult to recognize that their open criticism of their lover’s performance is a major factor in their sexual difficulties. Other partners will not listen to their lover’s attempts to explain what they want and need in sex because it isn’t what the partner wants to do. Sometimes they will insist their must be some problem in their partner’s past to explain why the partner is giving them the sex life they want.
Your judgmental attitudes, or dismissing your partner’s needs, or not taking into account what they say works for them, can all be a trigger for the development and maintenance of the sexual problem in your relationship.
Once a couple are caught in the quicksand of these hurtful misinterpretations they feel they have nowhere to go. If you believe these interpretations, how can you have trust in each other and want to be intimate?
Have you ever been in a debate or an argument with someone where you become so frustrated by your inability to get the other person to acknowledge your point of view that you begin taking a more extreme position than you actually hold? Sometimes the other person just doesn’t listen, sometimes they simply don’t get what you are saying. Even if both participants are seriously trying to understand each other and come to a mutual understanding but can’t seem to find any common ground, the stalemate can put a barrier between them that is difficult to breach.
Over the years, the negative cycle that operates between a couple with mismatched libidos causes a snowballing effect. Your feelings of hurt, rejection, inadequacy and anger percolate away causing you to retreat even further from your partner. Each of you may get more desperate as you try to get your needs acknowledged and met, and in doing this you appear to confirm your misinterpretations of each other.
Sadly, the conflict over sex can take its toll in other areas of the relationship. As you each retreat into a more extreme position, it can be a lot harder to be affectionate together, talk easily about daily matters, support each other and help each other out. As sex becomes a source of tension and division rather than of reassurance and connection, perhaps you continue to try to initiate sex as your way of reaching out, but your partner interprets this as inappropriate and insensitive, given the poor emotional atmosphere. The more one of you pushes, the more the other pulls away from any gesture that might lead to sex: affection becomes strained and cuddling is rare in case it leads to sex, sitting next to each other on the sofa to watch tv, even smiling at each other can all become guarded in case it leads to sex. Even arguments about sex can decrease as the couple subside into resigned despair and uncomfortable silence. After several years of this, the couple may have lost even basic caring communication such as eye contact or asking about their day. We have two lonely, isolated people sometimes too afraid to even touch in bed at night. How can any relationship survive under this pressure?
It’s hard to say how many couples separate because of mismatched libidos, but certainly a lot do. At least some of these separations could have been avoided, if only the negative cycle had been stopped early enough. For some couples who come to therapy, it is already too late. At least one of the partners has given up, and has already decided the relationship must end. In other cases, the gap between their differing needs and expectations may simply be too great. Then the therapist can only help them separate with as little pain as possible.
But if there is still enough caring and goodwill in your relationship, if you know there are many reasons for you to stay together, it can be possible to resolve the differences between you. Perhaps not perfectly, perhaps not to the point where you have a "great" sex life, but good enough to give you the caring, contented sex life that reinforces rather than destroys your relationship. To do this, you have to know yourself, understand your own sexual wants and needs, what you can compromise and what you can’t, and identify the misunderstandings and misinterpretations you believe your partner is making of you, before you are ready to work on the issues together.