Ask a Therapist: Desire Discrepancy Q&A with Casey Tanner

desire discrepancy

What are things you can do to increase sexual desire with a partner

To begin, it’s helpful to understand what kind of desire you and your partner have. There are at least two kinds of desire that we know of: spontaneous desire and responsive desire.

Those with spontaneous desire might have the experience of feeling turned on and horny out of nowhere – there’s not necessarily a cue in the environment that caused it. Those with a more responsive desire are more sensitive to environmental cues and are often more likely to be turned on or off based on what’s going on in their day, how they’re feeling in their bodies, and what’s going on in their environment.

The first thing is understanding which of those categories you fall into (or maybe you’re somewhere in between). Knowing what kind of desire you have helps us to figure out how to bridge the gap between yours and your partner’s kinds of desire.

Often what happens is that someone with a spontaneous desire matches up with someone who has a more responsive desire, which is what we call a “desire discrepancy” or difference in sex drive. What we often do in sex therapy is talk about bridging that gap by creating an environment and context for the more responsive person to become turned on.

Context can be environmental (e.g., lights on or off), biophysical (e.g., menstruation), etc. Once we understand which of those contexts are a turn on (an accelerator) and which of those contexts are a turn off (a brake), we can start to create an environment for the lower-desire partner to get aroused.

How to stay excited with sex that is not spontaneous?

We often equate spontaneous sex with exciting sex (and sometimes that can be the case), but it’s very possible to create exciting sex even if sex or intimacy is planned. Here’s an example: a role play that you and your partner have both talked through and consented to. That’s planned, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.

Another thing that could be planned but still exciting is incorporating a new toy into your sex life. Don’t equate “planned” with no sense of “newness”. Planned sex can still bring newness in, and in fact, sometimes we have the most new and safe experiences when we talk about bringing in something new ahead of time. It’s planned, but still exciting.

How to plan sex without it seeming robotic or boring?

Personally, I’m a huge proponant of scheduling intimacy, not necessarily scheduling sex. For people who have more of a responsive arousal system, planning sex can actually contribute to anxiety. For example, if I know that Sunday at 2:00pm me and my partner are having sex, I might actually feel more anxious and be less likely to enjoy it.

What can be really exciting is planning intimacy. Intimacy means different things to different people. It might look like a check-in about how our days went today. It might be a shower that isn’t shower sex, but instead is a time for us to be naked together. It could even be reading a book together or going to our favorite restaurant. Scheduling intimacy is not the same as scheduling sex, but when we create a lower-pressure intimate moment it may end up leading to sex.

I usually lose interest in sex 6-12 months into a relationship. I wish I continued to want it. Advice?

What you’re describing here is so common, because it’s right around that 6-month mark that we move out of what we could call the “infatuation stage” into a form of more committed love. Our brain is actually changing in that process.

Initially there’s an immense amount of adrenaline, serotonin, norepinephrine, and cortisol coursing through our systems, which increases our sense of arousal in a lot of cases. That starts to trend downwards as we move further into a relationship. The way that we sometimes interpret this phenomenon is that we don’t want our partners as much or maybe not at all anymore – which can be a very distressing feeling.

What’s often happening for people is that they’re shifting not from having desire to having no desire, but they’re actually shifting from having a more spontaneous desire with their partner toward a more contextual, responsive desire. This means that it takes more effort and specific context to get to that same place that was so easy to get to in the beginning.

So, you haven’t necessarily lost desire for your partner, you just have to shift into a different mindset that is more creative and is a little bit more effortful. It is so worth it when we can find a way to combine that committed form of love in longer term relationships with finding ways to meet our desire where it’s at – which might be more contextual at that point.

How does environment (careers, kids, living together or not, etc) impact intimacy?

Environment, kids, careers, and big stressful life events like moving in together can all have a massive impact on the way we experience desire, especially if you’re someone with a more responsive desire. If you’re one of those people, these types of day-to-day stressful events or major life events will have a greater impact on your sex drive and sexuality.

When we introduce some of these milestones into our relationship, we develop a greater sense of routine with our partners. This can be really lovely – it’s predictable and there’s a sense of security. But sometimes predictability and security can feel like the opposite of passion and sexiness, so we have to find our way back there together.

One way we can do this is to shift from a mindset of routine to one of ritual. Where in our routine or in our day can we carve out moments of ritual? If we get home at the same time, maybe we spend at least 20 minutes making sure we check in about each other’s day. If we don’t start work at the same time, maybe we still set our alarm at the same time so that we have an hour in the morning to drink our coffee and watch the news.

It’s not so much about carving out time for sex. It’s much more about rituals in which we still stay connected and create opportunities to surprise each other in ways that we did before there were kids or before we moved in together. This sometimes means planning a date night or doing something creative like taking a cooking class together or going to karaoke. Sometimes seeing our partners in a new light – the way that was so easy when we first met them – can bring us back to that place of passion, intimacy, and connection.

How do I prioritize intimacy when I’m tired?

This is an important question because most of us are tired of living in the world that we live in, with the careers that we might have, with kids, or just dealing with a pandemic. We get tired, and often the first thing that goes out the window is our sex lives. For some people that’s okay, and for others they really start to miss it.

What I talk about with folks is identifying the times of your day, your week, or your month where you’re more likely to have energy. It may have something to do with the time of day – perhaps mornings are better for you than evenings. It may have something to do with the day of the week – maybe Saturdays when you don’t have to go to work are days where you find there’s a little bit more of an opening for sex and intimacy. It may be across the span of a month – is there a certain time on your cycle when you’re more or less interested in sex?

If we can start to track these things and our energy associated with them, we might find a sense of ritual. Maybe you and your partner decide that Sunday afternoons are going to be your time to schedule intimacy with one another because you know that the week has been wrapped up, there’s usually not a lot going on that day, and you typically find yourself more energized. Rather than thinking all day everyday, “Do I have the energy for sex?”, get to know yourself and your energy levels and find a time that typically works for you.

What to do when I try to connect with my partner but feel rejected?

This question really speaks to the fact that initiating can be incredibly vulnerable. When we initiate something, we open ourselves up to being rejected. Society has taught us that someone saying “no” to sex means something about us – that we, ourselves, are being rejected, that we’re not good enough, that we’re not sexy enough, etc. But when you really think about it, the chance that you and your partner(s) are going to always want sex at the exact same moment in your day is a sort of absurd expectation.

So much more often than not, what’s happening when you get rejected is that one person is in a state of openness and arousal and the other person just has a context or environment that hasn’t set them up to feel turned on or desirous.

It’s incredibly helpful to depersonalize that rejection and remember what it does and doesn’t mean. Often it’s not about you, it’s about what’s going on inside your partner. The best way to handle this sort of rejection is to self-soothe, or if you have a relationship with your partner where you feel safe asking for reassurance you can do that too.

You could say something like, “You have every right to say no, but I feel a little bit sad that you did and it’d be helpful to hear that that’s not about me. Or if it is about me, can we talk about it?” You don’t have to hold that in and pretend that it didn’t hurt, but at the same time, no means no and we have to respect that no.

My partner and I want to explore possible sexual interests further, but where to start? Advice?

For couples that are venturing out into new territory, a great place to start is with a yes/no/maybe checklist. Establish a list of different kinds of sexual acts or acts of intimacy that you and your partner respond with either, “Yes, that’s exciting”, “No, I don’t want to try that”, or “Maybe, I’m open to it but we need more discussion”.

What these lists can do is give you a really simple way to see where your interests in new things overlap. Often there will be 5-10 things that both of you have wanted to try but maybe haven’t vocalized to each other, and that’s a great opportunity to say, “Let’s start with our mutual yeses, and maybe things will open up more as we try new things”. With this checklist, you at least have a list of things that you both feel safe trying.