This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
And when pondering this question, would your first and only answer be, “Break up”?
There’s this thing that happens to me freakishly often. I write a piece inspired by a Dan Savage “Savage Love” sex advice column. I spend a little time surfing around, looking at other stuff he’s been writing. And I find something that makes the top of my head come off in rage. Or at least, in profound irritation. I like the guy’s thinking most of the time… but when he gets it wrong, he gets it really, really wrong.
In this particular instance of wrongness, Savage was writing about a pattern he sees a lot in his letters: the problem of couples with mis-matched libidos. In many couples, one partner is more interested in sex than the other, and likes to have sex more often. A whole lot more often, in many cases. It’s a very common problem in relationships, and sex educators/ couples’ counselors/ sex advice columnists encounter it again and again and again. (And no — it isn’t always the man in opposite-sex couples who wants sex more. Very often, it’s not.)
Savage’s advice? To all these people?
Give up. It’s never going to work. He’s just not that into you. Or she. Save yourself a lot of misery in the years down the road… and just call it quits now.
A piece of advice that left my jaw hanging open in shock.
That’s your first and only answer?
I mean, just off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen options that couples with mis-matched libidos might want to try. Without even thinking about it all that hard. Before we go advising couples around the world to call it quits, why don’t we take a look at some of these options? (And if you can think of ones I don’t mention here, btw, please speak up in the comments. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of ideas — just a handful of the more obvious ones.)
Scheduling sex. I’ve written about this before. Many, many, many times, in fact. But I’m not sure I’ve ever written about it as a solution to this particular problem. So here goes: Scheduling sex isn’t just a solution for tired or stressed or over-scheduled couples. It can also be a solution for couples with mis-matched libidos. Oftentimes, in mis-matched- libido couples, the partner who wants sex more frequently will feel rejected and unwanted: if you’re the one who always makes the first move, and if you’re getting shot down more often than not, it can be very demoralizing. And the partner who wants sex less frequently can often feel pressured and inadequate. (All of which can lead to some nasty vicious circles/ self-fulfilling prophecies: nothing kills a libido faster than feeling like sex is an obligation.)
But if you schedule at least some of your sex life ahead of time, instead of relying on spur- of- the- moment impulses and advances, it can cut through a lot of these unfortunate dynamics. Sex becomes something you’re planning together, something you’re partnering in… rather than something one person is always asking for and the other is either accepting or shooting down. (It also makes some of the other solutions I’m proposing — like compromising, and re-thinking the circumstances under which you have sex — a whole lot more feasible.)
Re-defining sex. If one of you likes sex more often than the other, maybe you could re-define what you think of as “sex”… in a way that both of you would be happier with. What about mutual masturbation? Or one partner masturbating while the other one holds and caresses them? One partner masturbating while simply looking at the other partner: while they dance, or pose in erotic positions, or simply lounge and let themselves be admired? What about phone sex? Sharing fantasies? Reading each other dirty stories? What about using sex toys together, instead of having intercourse or other more direct flesh- on- flesh kinds of sex?
In other words: There are lots of different ways to have sex that can make one partner feel, not only orgasmically satisfied, but romantically and erotically connected with their partner… but that aren’t as sexually demanding for the partner who’s not as libidinous. And incorporating these kinds of sex into a sex life can go a long way towards bridging the gap in a libidinously mixed relationship.
Re-thinking the circumstances in which you have sex. Are there times of the day, or days of the week, when the less- sexually- interested party is even less interested than usual? As a couple, do you tend to have sex at the end of the day, when the less- interested partner is tired or stressed? Do you tend to have sex after parties or other social events — events that instill some of us, even the highly libidinous among us, with a profound need for a little alone time? (Introverts of the world, unite!) Do you tend to have sex after you’ve been drinking — an activity that makes some people feel friskier, but makes other people just feel groggy and out of it?
If so — try mixing it up. Look at the times and the circumstances when you’ve been having sex… and then look at the times and the circumstances when you want to have sex, when you think about sex, when sex pops into your mind of its own accord. And then try to tailor your sex life around the times and situations when you’re feeling frisky… instead of trying to shoehorn your frisky feelings into convenient times and situations for your sex life.
Compromising. If you like sex twice a week, and your partner likes twice a month… maybe you can compromise. Have sex every week so. It won’t be perfect for either of you… but being involved with someone who’s unhappy about sex is pretty darned far from perfect, too. Having sex somewhat less often than you’d really like — or somewhat more often — may not be what you’d pick if you could pick your perfect sex life… but presumably, if you love someone, you want them to be happy too, and you want them to have a sex life that’s good for them. Almost as much as you want a sex life that’s good for you. And even from a purely selfish perspective, being involved with a sad, disgruntled, sexually frustrated partner is ten pounds of suck in a five pound bag.
So while a compromise, by definition, isn’t going to be perfect, it may well be a whole better than a dissatisfying sex life. For both of you.
But it’s worth trying. Or at least considering. Lots of people do it very successfully. Including some people who were dubious when they started out. And for many couples in open relationships, the handling of mis-matched libidos is one of the biggest payoffs. One partner likes to boff more often than the other? They go boff someone else. An elegantly simple solution. (Sometimes messier in practice than in theory… but still.)
You might be skeptical about whether an open relationship can work for you. Fair enough. But if your mis-matched libido problem is so disruptive that you’re seriously considering breaking up over it, and if you really love each other and like each other and want to stay together and your mis-matched libidos are the only thing keeping you from that… why not at least give it a try? What’s the worst that could happen? It might not work, and you might break up?
Couples’ counseling. There are almost certainly couples for whom none of these solutions will work. Hell, forget about the “almost”: there are definitely couples for whom none of these solutions will work. For some couples, mis-matched libidos are a symptom of a problem, not a cause. Mistrust, bad communication, low self-esteem, sexual guilt, unaddressed resentment or hostility, etc. etc. etc.: any or all of this can lead to sexual disconnection, or exacerbate a disconnection that’s already happening. If that’s true, a pragmatic attempt to fix the symptom isn’t going to solve the problem. (Although it might provide some temporary relief, and might even alleviate some of the “vicious circle/ self-fulfilling prophecy” stuff that mis-matched libidos can generate.)
But even if that’s true, there are still options other than breaking up. Trying to actually handle those underlying problems is the obvious one. And couples’ counseling is an obvious way to do that.
And some couples, even if they don’t have serious non-sexual problems at the foundation of their sexual ones, still might have natural libidos that are so mis-matched that a pragmatic solution isn’t going to cut it. If one partner likes sex twice a day, and the other one likes it twice a year, it’s unlikely that any amount of scheduling and re-defining and compromising about sex is going to help. These couples are going to have to make some hard choices about their relationship: how important sex is to them, and whether they’d be happier apart than together, and whether they’d be happier as friends than as spouses or lovers.
But again, I don’t see why breaking up should be the go-to solution. It should be an option on the table, of course — but depending on the relationship, it might not be the best option. And again, these couples might benefit from counseling… if only to help them figure out which option is best for them.
I’m not saying break-ups are always bad. I don’t think that at all. With one obvious exception, every serious, Capital R Relationship I’ve ever been in has ultimately benefited from breaking up, and I was a whole lot better off for it.
And I do think the decision- making about this stuff is going to be different for different relationships. If you’ve got lots of other problems and you’re bickering all the time and nothing much else is going well, bailing makes more sense than if you deeply love each other and like each other and get along really well apart from the sex problems. And the decision- making is going to be especially different for different times in a relationship. If you’ve been with someone for three months and are already running across mis-matching libidos, it might make sense to bail now, early, before you’re seriously invested and breaking up is hard to do. If you’ve been with someone for three years, and you’re invested and committed and your lives are deeply intertwined, you might be a lot more inclined to try to make the mis-matched libido thing work.
So yes. Sometimes, Dan Savage’s advice is right. Sometimes, if you like sex a lot more often than your partner does — or if they like sex a lot more often than you do — breaking up is the best advice anyone could give.
In every situation?
As the first, reflexive, default choice?
Regardless of how long you’ve been together? Whether the sexual mis-matching is situational or consistent? Whether the sexual mis-matching is just about sex, or seems to be symptomatic of something else? How good the relationship is apart from the sex? How good the sex is when it does happen? All situations addressed in these letters, by the way: the letters are striking in their diversity, and the only thing they seem to have in common is this one problem of mis-matched libidos… and Savage’s one- size- fits all answer.
To which I can only inquire once again, with jaw still hanging open:
Addendum: When this piece was originally published, some people thought I was being too harsh on Savage. As many commenters pointed out, the advice I’m giving here is advice he himself has given on many occasions. Which is a fair point. Which I acknowledge. Which, IMO, makes this particular piece of his all the more baffling.