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Of course, once you broaden the definition of sex, the definition of desire also has to expand along with it, like repotting a plant once it’s outgrown the little brown one it starts in. Put simply, sexual desire is a feeling of wanting to engage in some form - any form - of sexual activity. It doesn’t matter whether this is a desire for sex with yourself, with your partner, or with others: it’s just about the wanting. However, even this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds: a 2007 study identified 237 reasons that people want to have sex! Some common reasons include pleasing your partner, seeking pleasure or sexual release, a desire for intimacy, or to feel desired.
It’s worth noting that sexual desire is distinct from sexual arousal, which is what happens when your body and brain anticipate, and get ready for, sex. Your body gets ready with changes like genital lubrication, erections (not just if you have a penis - clitorises and nipples too!) and pupil dilation, as well as increased blood pressure, breathing and heart rate. And your mind gets ready by becoming more aware of, and receptive to, sexual stimuli, and this is the subjective experience of feeling ‘turned on’.
SDD is by definition a couples’ issue: in order for there to be a discrepancy between two different desires, you have to be measuring your own desire against someone else’s. This is particularly important, because it’s much more helpful - and more effective - to tackle the issue by focusing on the discrepancy itself, rather than by thinking of one person as having desire that’s ‘too low’, or ‘too high’; it’s no-one’s fault.
It might be that you want more or less sex than your partner, that you want a different type or duration of sex than your partner, or you’d rather have sex at different times of the day or in different places. All of these would fall under the umbrella of a sexual desire discrepancy (SDD). None of this is inherently problematic, and it’s actually a very common occurrence, affecting more or less every relationship at some point, but if it lasts for a long time, or is particularly distressing, then it can have a big impact on sexual and relationship satisfaction.
Short answer: very! Even though it’s not a hugely well-known term, sexual desire discrepancy is among the most common reasons that couples seek sex or relationship therapy. Every couple will experience some sort of desire discrepancy at some point, but often for a short period of time, or in a way that neither partner finds distressing. However, depending on the study you’re looking at, somewhere between 25% - 69% of people report a problematic difference in sexual desire.
Despite being one of the most common reasons that couples seek sex and relationship therapy, there’s actually very little research into sexual desire discrepancy - and we’re working hard to change that here at Blueheart! If you’re thinking about what might be having an influence on your desire discrepancy, here are some things to consider:
Firstly, there might be a natural variation in the different levels of yours and your partner’s desire. No two people are exactly alike; our genetics and our hormones can predispose us to a certain level of sexual desire, so it’s possible that your ‘baseline’ level of sexual desire is just different from your partner’s. This is distinct from a scenario in which just one partner is experiencing distress from having a lower sexual desire than they’d like to, which is the case for 34% of women and 15% of men.
Context plays a bigger role in our sexual desire than we might realise. A stressful environment at work or at home, having children, being on certain medications, the current state of our mental wellbeing: all of these impact on our ability to get in the mood. Stress in particular is a real culprit here, but it’s important to note that not everyone responds to the same context in the same way; for some people, being stressed will hit the brakes on their sexual desire, while for others stress will propel them towards sex as a way to cope.
This idea of brakes and accelerators is based on the Dual Control Model of sexual response, in which sexual arousal and desire come about from an interaction between two different systems: your sexual excitation system - things that turn you on - and your sexual inhibition system - things that turn you off. When there are more things turning you on than turning you off, you feel sexual arousal, and when there are more things turning you off than turning you on, you don’t. These things could be sensual (what you can see, hear, feel, taste, or smell), contextual (anything from your level of stress or fatigue, to the cleanliness of the room), cognitive (any distracting thoughts about your body, or your to-do list), or emotional (if you’ve just had a tough conversation at work or with your partner). This is a really useful way of thinking about how different factors affect your desire - what things press on your brakes, and what things hit the accelerator?
Of course, relationship factors also play a part. Just like stress, feeling insecure in the relationship can reduce sexual desire in some people, and increase it in others as they attempt to reconnect or seek closeness through sex. You can also experience SDD if you feel completely secure in your relationship - it’s not automatically a sign that there’s something wrong! Depending on how long you’ve been struggling with SDD in your relationship, you might have fallen into a routine of not having sex, which can cause some anxiety and avoidance when sex is on the cards again; the longer you’ve been in this routine, the harder it can be to break out of it. It’s also possible that one or both of you is not enjoying the sex you’re having! In which case, it’s totally understandable that you’re not seeking it out, and it’s important to note that this isn’t a judgement on either one of you if this is the case! It’s most likely just down to a lack of communication around sexual needs and preferences.
A study by Laura Vowels, our principal researcher, and Dr. Kristen Mark explores lots of different strategies that couples use to navigate their SDD, and found that doing something together with your partner was more effective than trying to deal with it on your own. These joint strategies could be as simple as talking about the issue with each other to see what might be causing it; doing other exciting activities together (both sexual and non-sexual); or sometimes even having sex when you’re not necessarily in the mood. This last one might sound a bit counterintuitive, but the reasoning behind it is that desire doesn’t always have to be there before you start a sexual encounter - it can often arise in response to a sexual situation - like how sometimes you might not realise that you’re thirsty until you have a glass of water. Another strategy that some couples use is to take sex off the table for the evening (or any length of time that they both agree to) and just focus on touching each other without any expectation of it needing to lead further.
Ahh - the million dollar question! Firstly, let’s start with the fact that sex doesn’t necessarily have to be a priority if you’re both OK with that, and it’s very normal that other things take precedence at different times in our lives. (Can you imagine the chaos if sex was always top of the list?) But if you’re trying to make sex a priority again and it’s proving harder than you thought, it might be because it’s just much easier to focus on the essential but never-ending to-dos of everyday life admin: working, cleaning, cooking, childcare, deleting emails you don’t remember signing up to… These things all demand our energy and attention, and by the end of the day we’re exhausted and stressed, so instead of doing anything that might actually make us feel better or replenish our energy, like spending quality time with our partner, friends, and family, we numb ourselves out by watching TV or scrolling through our phones. This isn’t because we’re bad people: it’s a completely normal response to feeling overstretched and overwhelmed by the demands of life, but it also means we often feel like we don’t have the time to focus on sex as well. Having said that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, it’s not that we don’t have the time, but rather that we don’t always make the time. Hopefully we can help you make that change, if you’d like to.
Blueheart's therapeutic programmes are designed by two of the world's leading academics in the field of sex therapy:
Dr Katherine Hertlein, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Couples and Relationship Therapy, author of 'A Clinician's Guide to Systemic Sex Therapy' (the leading practitioners' book on sex therapy) and a Professor of over 15 years at the Family Therapy unit at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Laura Vowels, a future leader in sex therapy and academic specialising in sexual desire discrepancy (SDD). Laura has published over 15 articles on SDD that have been reviewed in several leading publications.
87% of Blueheart users see positive results with themselves and their relationship after 14 days.
Having said that, change means different things to different people, and it varies from couple to couple. Every couple is unique, and where some might see changes in a few weeks, others might need months, or longer, to get to where they want to be. There’s no rush.
Ultimately, you and your partner will be the best judges of when you feel you’ve made the changes you set out to make.
Blueheart is currently only a mobile application available on both the Play Store (android) and the App Store (iPhones & iOS).
We are working on bringing our plans to your web browser soon :)