Sexual Desire

Sexual desire is the fuel that fires sexual passion. Sexual desire is often highest at the begining of a relationship. Sex therapists call this period limerance; remember when you coudn’t keep your hands off your partner and you thought that everything about them was fabulous. Fun wasn’t it!

Whilst limerance feels wonderful it generally only lasts 6-18 months, longer for some. As limerance fades over time, so does the intensity of sexual desire and infatuation with your partner. This does not mean that you stop wanting to be sexual with your partner or that sexual satisfaction diminishes. Rather the frequency of sexual activity reduces and activities other than sex assume greater priority.

A reduction in frequency of sex is not necessarily bad. It means that we are not so preoccupied with our relationship and have time for other things in our lives, like a career, children, education, friends, family etc.

A reduction in desire for sexual activity within long-term relationships is a normal experience. It is common for couples to go periods without sex. Sexual desire will fluctuate depending on life events such as stress/worry, pregnancy, child birth, toddlers, death of a loved one, moving house, changing jobs, relationship conflict, illness, pain, injury, medications, sexual dysfunction, menopause, fatigue, insomnia, sexual coercion and drug use. The Sex in Australia Survey (2002) found that 25% of Australians have not had sex in the last 4 weeks, and that 24.9% of men and 54.8% of women had lack of interest in sex for at least one month over the last year.

Some people have expectations about how frequently they should be having sex. They are distressed when sex declines believing this indicates a problem in the relationship. Some people take it personally thinking that they are no longer attractive, their partner is having an affair, or perhaps their partner is gay. Others are disappointed by their declining interest in sex and fail to settle into a sexual style that is not dependent on the hormonal rush of the new relationship. These people sometimes think they have fallen out of love with their partner.

Reduced sexual desire becomes a problem when one partner wants it more than the other and conflict arises from this discrepancy. The higher desire partner may feel rejected and unloved, whilst the lower desire partner feels pressured and guilty. To start to address this problem you may want to consider:

  • It is normal for sexual desire to fluctuate in long-term romantic relationships.
  • Blaming each other causes conflict & further reduces desire for sex.
  • Counting the number of times you have sex is unhelpful.
  • Your partner is your friend. Work on a solution together.

You may also find my Sex and Relationship Tips for Men a useful read.

Lower Desire Partner

Sex is more than a physical release and selfish pleasure. Your partner wants sex with you to bond, to show love and to give and receive affection. Humans need to be touched. If you don’t want to have sexual intercourse, say so nicely. Don’t reject your partner with a harsh “No”. Give them a hug, kiss or hand job as an alternative to sexual intercourse. After all, you are missing out on affection and soothing by avoiding physical touch. You might want to say to your partner something like:

“I am avoiding you because every time we touch, I think you want sex. Can we have some time where we just kiss each other or go out together without having to have intercourse?”

Higher Desire Partner

Stop pressuring for sex. It further inhibits your partner’s sexual desire for sex and make sex feel like another chore to do at the end of a long list. When they finally give in, it is due to a build-up of guilt and a sense of relief that they won’t have to do it again for a while. Your pressure and the resulting guilt diminish pleasure for you both. Furthermore, it entrenches your partner’s low desire for sex with you. Tell your partner what it feels like for you when they say no. You might want to say to your parner something like:

“I really miss having sex with you, but I am scared to ask because I think you will say “No” and then I will feel terrible. Is there anything that is stopping you, or is there a way I could help so that we could get some time together?”

Desire Discrepancy

Difference in sexual desire between partners occurs in almost all long-term relationships. It would be weird to have the exact same emotions as your partner everyday over many years. Sexual desire can also change between relationships: You may have had higher desire in a previously relationship, but now you are the lower desire partner.

Sexual desire changes with your age, life stages and circumstances. Sexual desire is higher in the lusty phase of relationships, and is impacted on by pregnancy, child birth, illness, death, major life events and most importantly fatigue.

Sexual desire discrepancy is described as differing levels of sexual desire between partners that causes relationship distress or conflict. Desire discrepancy is normal, getting stuck in the pattern with corresponding feelings or rejection and obligation exacerbate and maintain sexual desire discrepancy and can erode trust in relationships.

Low sexual desire occurs in both males and females and with same-sex couples. There are many physical, social and psychological reasons for low or hypoactive sexual desire. See figures below:

Figure 1. Men’s Subjective Sexual Desire is impacted upon by physical, mental, relationship factors

female sexual desire model biopsychosocial

Figure 2. Similarly women’s Subjective Sexual Desire has many contributing factors with context and interpersonal motivations hypothesised to have a greater contribution than in men’s sexual desire. 

Sexual Response Cycle

The Sexual Response Cycle described by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s was based on research on high sexual desire couples: The researchers put an add in the paper for subjects who were willing to have sex in front of researchers in a laboratory. The cycle they observed was described as follows:


This is an accurate description of high sexual desire people, however it is unlikely to truly represent the normal population.

The old Masters and Johnson Model contributes to Sexual Desire Discrepancy by asserting that men and women should feel sexual desire before they start sexual activity. However many people do not experience spontaneous sexual desire. Expecting desire to be spontaneous and a requirement prior to commencing sexual activity results in many people forgoing sexual connection. Further, when partners start sexual activity with different levels of desire, the higher desire partner will usually already be sexually aroused, and thus ready to engage in high arousal activities. Where as the low desire partner will be starting sex unaroused, needing time to warm up and can find initiation of sex with high arousal touch intrusive. This mismatch in desire and corresponding sexual activity can contribute to further inhibition in the low desire partner. It may also result in the low sexual desire partner judging the higher desire partner as a poor lover or feeling that they are being used. In regard to higher partners they can feel frustrated, criticised and uncertain about how to proceed or resolve the disconnect.

Women and Spontaneous Sexual Desire

Rosmary Basson’s study of women in the 1990’s- early 2000s found that many women do not have spontaneous sexual desire. Rather their sexual desire arose only after after they became sexually aroused, THEN they desired for sex to continue.

Basson’s Model describes CONTEXT as essential to women’s sexual desire, especially emotional satisfaction, physical relaxation and safety. Basson found that there was no linear progress of women’s sexual response as was described by Master’s and Johnson.

Bassons model

Researchers have also found that many men do not follow the sexual response cycle described by Masters and Johnson, especially as they age: Men’s sexual maturity has the mind and the penis working more collaboratively. As such, physical, social and relationship factors impact on men’s sexual desire. Lack of sexual desire in men, is in sharp contrast to the sexual myth that portrays men as always ready and willing for sex. This myth exacerbates women’s feeling of rejection and men’s sense that there is something wrong with them.

Usually couples will develop patterns of behaviour to avoid the upset caused by mismatched desire. The low desire partner may go to bed at a different time to avoid sexual advances and may reduce or stop physical affection for fear it will lead to sex. Those with lower desire may feel pressured or resentful about having to have sex more often than they like or may engage in sex due to feelings of guilt and the relief that comes from not having to do it again for a while.

The higher desire partner can feel neglected, unloved, frustrated or rejected with persistence knock backs. They may have tried multiple ways to get a response from their partner including being a super house cleaner, an attentive lover, helpful with the kids, stepping back and not asking for sex, sulking, demanding, joking about it with no outcome. Those with higher desire can feel a lack of control over their sexual relationship and may feel guilty about participating in sex with a reluctant partner. They can also feel that their need for sexual intimacy is being diminished and seen as unreasonable.

If this sounds familiar, you’re stuck in the common pattern of desire discrepancy and you are not alone. Desire discrepancy is a couple problem. The person with the low desire is NOT the one to be fixed.

Conflict regarding sexual desire discrepancy is not really about sex, it is about the way the two of you negotiate, and whether you can understand and respect each others needs.

Couple Sex Therapy

Many couples have difficulty with sexual intimacy. Many happy and loving couples go through periods of sexual incompatibility and sexual desire discrepancy. Some couples never really had sexual chemistry despite loving one another. Other couples were inhibited by long distance relationships and didn’t find their sexual flow. The myth that you have a bad relationship if you don’t have a good sexual flow is not true. However if there is distress over sexual desire discrepancy, then this needs to be addressed because there is potential for injury to attachment and trust.

Many couples had good sex lives but then life got in the way. This is often a result of life priorities and the reliance on spontaneous desire to make sex happen. Sex in long term relationships is often not about spontaneous desire, rather desire comes after we have prioritised each other and found comfort and pleasure, then desire comes for pleasure to continue.

Unfortunately, some secretly look outside their relationship for sexual fulfilment and miss the opportunity for sexual growth with intimacy. It is understandable, we don’t have many scripts for erotic and intimate sex in long term relationships. However, we have many temping models for novel, spontaneous sex, driven by lust and chemistry and of course we have pornography which displays high passion, intensity and extremes. These spontaneous desire models seem to imply that sex with a long term partner is less enjoyable, which discourages us to do the work to find out what is possible.

Learning to find your sensuality and eroticism as you age is a true pleasure, but requires going out of your comfort zone and beyond what anyone else has defined for you. It requires finding your own comfort with yourself, permission for your own pleasure, self-compassion and prioritising your health needs. Its about going off script and finding what works for you and your partner.

Everyone goes through different sexual stages in life: what you wanted in your 20s is different than what you want in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s & 80s. We are also not designed to prioritise sexual play when we have young children, sick loved ones, dying parents, demanding work commitments, physical or mental illness. Although sex can be a great distraction and stress release, sexual satisfaction often comes when we are feeling good in ourselves.

Addressing intimacy barriers to ensure good sex in your long term relationship is also an opportunity to heal from early attachment trauma, or past sexual trauma, which may only appear when you are in a safe loving relationship, after limerence has ended, or perhaps after childbirth, or when your child reaches an age similar to when you were traumatised.

May couples do well prioritising time to focus on sexual connection, and address intimacy barriers that lead to sexual avoidance.