Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Aren’t Angry At God »« Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Know What Atheism Is Better Than Believers

Mis-Matched Libidos: Can Mixed Marriages Ever Work?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Shadow If your partner doesn’t like sex nearly as often as you do — or if they like sex a lot more often than you do — what can you do about it?

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.

Really, Dan?

That’s your first and only answer?

Really?

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.)

Calendar 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.)

Dictionary 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.

Clock 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.

Handshake 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.

Opening up Trying an open relationship. I’m the first to acknowledge: This solution isn’t for everybody. Not everyone is cut out for non-monogamy.

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?

Sofa 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.

*

Divorce 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.

But always?

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:

Really?

*

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.

Comments

  1. Rex says

    I am the stereotypical male who wanted it more than my now ex wife, who wanted it infrequently.
    I agree that his advice was quite dismissive and preemptive, but speaking from personal experience, his solution would have ultimately been about 20 years more efficient for me.
    All of the things you mentioned in your post are spot on, and I tried them all, except for the open relationship idea. That subject actually got broached, but by that time, I had no interest in preserving my relationship with her, so I just wanted a fresh start.
    The problem was that she wanted only what she wanted. She never looked at it as a community issue, only a personal one. Her “compromise” was that it was her body and she wasn’t budging a bit from exactly what she wanted. She was happy with sex being a once a month or less activity. She thought that was reasonable and my interests were somehow unwholesome. I was closer to a daily kind of guy, so you can see where that relationship went in a hurry. She also had some serious hang ups about masturbation, even just for me.
    Counseling with her was a joke. Her idea of a compromise was to do exactly as she pleased, and for me to give up any thought of something different.
    My current fiancee has tastes that are very similar to mine. I couldn’t be happier! I am just sad that it took me 22 years to get it through my thick skull that there was no way to fix the first relationship.

  2. MAK says

    Dan Savage likes to have what I call his “I’m just going to tell everyone they’re fucked,” columns just to be funny or ornery or something. It never occurred to me to take that particular column seriously, since I have seen him give advice like yours before.

  3. says

    It was only after I left my wife of 32 years that I realized that for me, sex meant being loved and accepted. Without sex I didn’t feel loved. But my wife was expressing love in thousands of ways that I couldn’t feel or recognize. And I realise that women often have a completely different experience of sex. For my ex her experience was of being lied to, used, and discarded – “I wanted a virgin. You were a virgin. You’re not a virgin any more, so see you around.” Young guys will say anything to a woman to get sex. Promise anything. When they get sex, they feel loved and accepted, and released and ready to move on. That’s not what a young girl feels when her boyfriend “gets what he wanted” and splits.
    So my advice for mismatched libido couples is: Figure out what sex means to you. Talk about it. Why is sex with a womahn better than using your hand? Really it’s all about communication. Maybe love is being expressed in ways you don’t feel, and if you could feel them you wouldn’t need sex every ten minutes.
    I’m now about to marry a wonderful woman, but I still miss my wife a lot. If I’d known what I know now before we broke up, I’d probably still be with her. Just jerking off a lot more often.

  4. DSimon says

    “Young guys will say anything to a woman to get sex. Promise anything. When they get sex, they feel loved and accepted, and released and ready to move on.”
    Dude, speak for yourself.

  5. Maria says

    “When they get sex, they feel loved and accepted, and released and ready to move on.”
    That seems totally weird… “WOW, I feel so loved and accepted… Guess I have to get the hell out of here!”
    Isn’t where you feel loved and accepted where you’d want to hang around? Unless you have some serious issues? That seems more like a “thrill of the chase”-thing and similar “games”, that doesn’t really have to do with love and acceptance.

  6. Puzzled says

    Rex, maybe I’m wrong, but I’d expect those kinds of personality traits to show up in other parts of life in addition to sex. Am I wrong?

  7. Rick Miller says

    Despite counseling and lots of effort towards communication and understanding, a person’s feelings are still what they are.
    If there’s a mismatch, then deep-down one person is going to feel neglected and the other is going to feel harassed. There isn’t any way to change that.
    I agree with giving up. A relationship should not be a constant battle to change one’s own deep-seated feelings.
    Even being divorced and celibate for two years, I feel better than I did in a marriage with occasional sex and more frequent elbows.

  8. hotshoe says

    Hi, Greta.
    I wound up at this blog from a link in the Reasons-for-faith article, which in turn was linked from a mostly-atheist forum I frequent (rationalskepticism.org) — isn’t the internet great ? I love what you have to say and how you say it. I’m thrilled by the mix of atheism and sex talk.
    Thanks!

  9. al says

    Counseling should be nearer the top. I did not see Separate Self-Pleasuring, which should be after Counseling –so both spouses understand the parameters. We pray all can be fulfilled by legitimate thought and action.

  10. says

    al: I didn’t do these in any particular order: chronological, order of importance, or any other. “Separate self-pleasuring” comes under the category of “re-defining sex.” And if you read more of my blog, you’ll find that praying for anything at all is, to put it mildly, not very high on my list.

  11. Janelle says

    Could you do me a favor and include an addendum of some sort about birth control? Your article presumes that the libido of each partner is a known quantity – aka, it just “is what it is”. Well, what if not? What if one person’s low libido is caused by something medical? That’s something which really needs to be considered and weighed before you give up on ever being on the same page and start to consider ways to work around it. I’m speaking from personal experience here – about a year ago, my sex drive went from “high” to pretty much gone. I never had sexual thoughts, never was turned on, never really wanted sex, although I was capable of having sex and would make the effort for the sake of my partner. But he could tell the difference and it sucked for him, not to mention that yes it started to feel stressful and demanding on me to constantly do this thing that I have no interest in doing. The key here though is, this was not normal for me! I used to love sex and want it frequently! And I had no idea what had happened to me. I wish there were more people out there talking about how birth control can kill your libido, because I stayed on the pill for 6 months after my sex drive died, and because it took me so long to find the problem and stop, it’s been very slooooow progress getting my libido back, and I’m still only at about 40% of my former sex drive even though it’s been about four or five months since I was on the pill. Still, 40% is a hell of a lot more than 0, and we can work with this. But I’d like to see articles on the topic address possible causes for unnaturally mismatched libidos. Antidepressants should probably be in there too. Because if there’s an actual, solid, concrete reason for one partner’s lack of interest, you just can’t happily resolve the matter if you don’t figure out what is causing it.

  12. Buck Fuddy says

    My wife’s libido went from low to nonexistent when she hit menopause. It’s totally understandable. The hormones that fueled her desire are no longer coursing through her veins and hot flashes don’t make you feel very sexy. Besides, she doesn’t produce enough natural lubrication to make intercourse practical, and having uncomfortable sex when you’re not turned on to begin with is probably a lot like being raped.
    Why are we still together? Why not? I married her because I love her–the person that she is, not what she can do for me, sexually or otherwise.
    How do we do it? Simple. I have sex with other women. We came to this solution after months of frank, honest, often difficult discussions about the nature and meaning of our relationship–a conversation that every couple really ought to have before the consider making it official and continue throughout their relationship.
    We came to the conclusion that my having sex with other women posed far less danger to our relationship than the emotions I was beginning to feel as a result of my imposed state of abstinence. Despite my firm conviction that she was in no way obligated to satisfy me sexually, and my resolve to honor my commitment to her, I found myself acting out in ways that made me feel ashamed, remorseful, and deeply concerned about our prospects for staying together. It occurred to me that I might be experiencing what other couples go through: no one sets out to have a failed marriage. I felt as if we were in the grip of forces we couldn’t control, and that they would eventually tear us apart.
    From this perspective we were both finally able to see that, while her unwillingness to have sex with me was acceptable, her refusal to allow me to seek it elsewhere was not. I could accept her lack of interest in sex, but I could not accept her imposing celibacy on me.
    Things began to change right away. Even before I had my first extramarital liaison I felt more loving and sympathetic towards her. I was able to more emotionally intimate without expecting any physical intimacy to follow.
    And it has only gotten better since then. I’ve seen several women and had sex fairly often. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have feelings for them–I love some of them very much–but I have a commitment to my wife, and I’m very happy with her.
    To me, fidelity is all about honoring commitments, not about who you have sex with. Anyone who said I wasn’t faithful to my wife has a perverted idea of what it means to be faithful. The people who are unfaithful are the ones who divorce after promising to love “until death.” Divorce is the ultimate act of infidelity. Staying together, honoring your commitment no matter what it takes, is the ultimate act of devotion.

  13. sexuallyfrusterated-vixen says

    This article was very healing for me to read. I am a woman who has always had a very high sex drive. I consider myself to be a sexy woman, and the rush sex gives me cannot be beaten by anything.
    Anyway, my current problem is I have been with my current boyfriend for over a year and a half now. We are both in our lower 20′s, and all my friends in our age group have amazing sex all the time. Unfortunately for me, his sex drive has almost completely died, and we have sex barely once a week. When we go to bed at night I always feel so turned on with him laying next to me, I often can’t sleep. Yet if I try he always grunts something about being tired or some other bullshit. I have experienced my first batch of low self esteem in my life. I feel ugly and stupid. I am trying to move past it, but feeling like he’s not attracted to me causes me to latch out on him and treat him with less respect. I have seriously considered calling it quits. I will try some of the above information, but at the end of the day, he just might not be right for me…

Leave a Reply