illustrated couple in the same bed, but the bed is split in half and their backs are turned to each other, because of their libido problems
Illustration by Marta Pucci

How does low libido affect my relationship?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness

If you had to guess, how many people do you think experience a problem with sex. 10%? 20%? 30%? 

It’s so much more than you might expect. According to a recent national survey in the UK, 51% of women and 42% of men report experiencing at least one sexual difficulty. Some of the most common difficulties for men are erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, and some of the most common difficulties for women are a lack of lubrication, and difficulty reaching orgasm.

But for both men and women, the most common sexual difficulty was a lack of interest in sex, or low libido, affecting 15% of men, and 34% of women - and that doesn’t include the thousands, if not millions, of people whose lack of interest in sex goes unreported. So the first thing to know is that you are absolutely not alone in this. And there’s a name for what’s going on, which is: Sexual Desire Discrepancy. 

What is Sexual Desire Discrepancy?

Low libido, or low desire, is an interesting one because it’s only really a problem if it causes you distress, and it’s most likely to cause you distress in the context of a relationship. If you’re feeling more like friends who live together than lovers, or you or your partner are avoiding any kind of intimacy in case it’s seen as an invitation for sex, or if you just have sex anyway, even though it’s not a full yes from your heart and your head, it sounds like you might be one of the millions of couples with sexual desire discrepancy. 

Before we get to what causes it, the important thing to remember is that, whoever you are, your libido fluctuates naturally over the course of your life, as well as on a day to day basis - and so does your partner’s - so a mismatch in desire between two people in a long term sexual relationship is completely normal and practically inevitable.

So if you’re single and have low desire and it doesn’t bother you, then it’s not a problem. So, really, it’s not about one person having something ‘wrong’, it’s about the difference, or mismatch, in two people’s levels of desire. It’s the distress in the differences that causes the problem. 

And this brings us to Sexual Desire Discrepancy. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but this is what we call it when two people in a relationship want different amounts of sex. And there can also be a discrepancy in terms of what type of sex you want to have, as well as how, when, and where you want to have it. 

How common is it?

Even though you might feel like you’re alone in this, it’s actually incredibly common. it’s likely people you know are going through the same thing, it’s just that nobody wants to talk about it. 

When it comes to sex, we put so much pressure on ourselves to always be in sync with our partner, and when we’re not, the problem can fee all-consuming at times, But when you think about it, you wouldn’t expect to always want to watch exactly the same nature documentary as your partner, at exactly the same time, on exactly the same day, with exactly the same regularity - and you certainly wouldn’t expect to want to watch the same 15 minutes of that documentary each time... 

However, even though it is incredibly normal to experience periods of time where your desire is out of sync with your partner’s, the problem starts when it becomes persistent, and distressing for one or both of you, and starts to affect the relationship . And depending on the study you’re looking at, this happens to somewhere between 25% and 69% of people in relationships at some point in their time together.

What causes it?

There are many, many reasons that a couple might experience a prolonged period of desire discrepancy.

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 libido, so it’s possible that your ‘baseline’ level of sexual desire is just different from your partner’s. 

Context plays a bigger role in our libido than we might realise. A stressful environment at work or at home, lack of sleep, having children, being on certain medications, the current state of our mental wellbeing and self-esteem: all of these impact 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 example, for some people, being stressed will massively hit the brakes on their libido, while for others stress will push them towards sex as a way to cope.

And, of course, relationship factors also play a part in low libido. 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 sexual desire discrepancy 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 it, you might have fallen into a cycle of not having sex, where the anxiety about sex means that one of you tries to avoid it by pretending to be asleep or have a headache, so then you don’t have it, which increases the anxiety, which increases the avoidance - and so it goes on. And 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 actively seeking it out. And it’s important to say that it’s not a judgement on either one of you if this is the case. It most likely just needs a bit of communication around sexual needs and preferences. 

Whatever factored into this situation, there is help out there.

So what can we do about it?

The good news is that there is pioneering research being done right now into treating sexual desire discrepancy, and we know that this is an issue that affects both people in the relationship and it’s not that either of you is doing something wrong. And because it affects both of you, the best solutions are ones that you do together.

A recent study by our principal researcher here at Blueheart, DrLaura Vowels, along with Dr Kristen Mark, found that coping strategies involving both members of the couple working together were more effective than trying to fix it by yourself. And these joint strategies can be as simple as talking about the issue together to see what might be causing it; doing some new and exciting activities together, either sexual and non-sexual; and even taking sex off the table for an evening (or a length of time that you both agree on) and just focusing on touching each other without any expectation of it needing to lead further. This ‘expectation-less’ touch, or curious touch, is one of the foundations of something we use a lot here at Blueheart, which is sensate focus, a therapeutic technique that has been proven to help treat a range of sexual dysfunctions, including sexual desire discrepancy.

So, now you know just how common sexual desire discrepancy is, as well as some possible causes and solutions, hopefully you and your partner can start to look at this problem as something you can tackle together as a team, and which might even bring you closer than ever before.

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