Mismatched sex drives, complicated by obligations, guilt and energy
February 26, 2014 8:32 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I have been together for more than 7 years, and we've always had a caring, affectionate, low-sex relationship. We have sex once every month or two, and we enjoy ourselves, but it's generally pretty quick, then doesn't happen again for another month or longer. My sex drive is decently high, but hers seems very low. We've talked fairly openly about this mis-match, but there seem to be a long list of issues. This is where I'd like input, insight, or ideas.

I realize the short answer is "get therapy!" but I'd like to hear how people might have dealt with this sort of sex drive mis-match, and the related issues we face.

My wife is my first sexual partner (though I had an ex who gave and received oral sex), and my wife has had a few past partners, so we don't have a lot of personal references with "normal" sex drives, beyond what we've read about.

When we were first dating, we were horny 20-somethings, and we probably had more frequent sex, but it's been a while so I can't really recall how often we had sex. However often, it still wasn't as frequent as weekly, let alone daily. When we first noticed that I'm more aroused (by my wife) than she is (by me), she'd say that she was failing me, which sounded like she felt really guilty about her lack of sex drive. I'd respond that we'd be married forever, so we had time to catch up later.

We've had some significant life changes - my wife gave birth to our kiddo, we moved to a different state where we took new jobs, all of these things bringing their own sets of stresses and distractions. But I think we're pretty stable now, and our son is over 2 years old, so we recently talked more frankly about our sex life.

My wife said that I'm always horny, or easily aroused. The latter is true, and I restrain myself from being overly physically affectionate with her, because she usually isn't in the mood, or there is obligation to see to. My wife recently described this aspect for her, saying that she thinks of all the things she should be doing, or that she'll want to wash after we have sex, not because sex is a "dirty thing," but because she'll smell of semen. And then she said she felt like a bad wife because she didn't want to have sex more often.

Another data point: my wife doesn't masturbate, and has never owned sex toys. Earlier this month, I mentioned buying her sex toys because I thought she might enjoy that, and she seemed interested that I brought it up, but hasn't discussed since I brought it up. On the other hand, I masturbate between a few times a week to a couple times in a day. She enjoys sex when we have it and says "why don't we do this more often?" She suggests I bring it up more often, but when I do it's the wrong time, or there are things we should be doing, or she's not in the mood, and she says she's failing me, which makes me feel guilty. So I don't really bring it up all that often, hoping kisses on the neck and shoulders is suggestive enough to imply my mood and interest.

Add to all this: she has had panic attacks in the past, and was taking a low-grade daily dose of something (I forget the name of the medicine), which helped her get her anxiety in control to the point that she stopped taking it before she had our son. She's had some near panic attacks in the time since then, but one or two at most. I wouldn't say she is generally anxious, though she'll think about forthcoming deadlines until they are met, making her somewhat distracted or less focused on other topics during that time. And she does spend most of her day on her feet, so she's usually pretty tired by the end of the day, making her less interested in having sex.

I love my wife dearly, and I think she's sexy in most things she does and wears, but I don't suggest we have sex too often because I assume she realizes I'd like to have sex a lot more often than we do. The last time we had sex was some time early in January (I think .. it's been a while), and I want to discuss this more, but I'm looking for more ways to discuss our issues.

So here I come to you all: how have you dealt with mis-matched sex drives in monogamous long-term relationship/marriage? Have you dealt with thoughts of sex being displaced by other things you can't stop thinking about? How do you suggest sex in a timely and un-pushy way? Thanks!
posted by plato beans to Human Relations (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Schedule sex.

I'm completely serious. I was in a relationship with a woman (I'm a bloke) and our sex drives were mismatched much in the way that you describe. It never seemed like the right time and I was worried about pressuring her, etc.

During a frank conversation, she suggested having sex on a specific night each week. I was game and agreed. It was great. I could be physically affectionate during the week without her having to try and figure out whether I was trying to initiate sex; she could just enjoy the attention. I never had to wonder how long it was going to be until our next encounter - it was always this coming Friday.

We made allowances for busy nights, periods, etc. But whenever we could, we always had sex on Friday night. The anticipation was nice, there was no pressure and it was really just great.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:45 PM on February 26, 2014 [23 favorites]

Do you guys have date night? Where you just set time to be together? It doesn't have to involve sex per say, but spending time together where no work is allowed to be done, might allow her to relax enough to get in the mood.

For a data point, all relationships are different. I know people who have sex daily, because both partners are always in the mood, but I also know people who are happy with less sex since they are not as interested. And there are all points in between. Some people use sex as a sign of love and affection while others are horny and do it for fun.
posted by Jaelma24 at 8:58 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Theres another askme from this very day about this same problem, but from the point of view of a high-libido woman. Check it out for some good answers.

Also: go back to expressing lots of physical intimacy but without expecting sex. Those two can be separate, you know.
posted by davejay at 9:07 PM on February 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

Go to bed earlier. You don't have to have sex, but spend an hour in bed together before you go to sleep, every night. Everything must be taken care of before this time; do the chores, put the kid to bed, take showers, brush teeth, etc.

Then, get in bed and cuddle, read to each other, talk, make out, doze, fool around, whatever you want to do as long as you're present with one another. It sounds like she has a busy life; work together to make room for intimacy to happen without distractions.

Also, have you tried inviting her to help you masturbate? She might be game for touching you/talking to you/watching while you do it, and this can be a great way to share some sexual intimacy if she's not up for intercourse.
posted by annekate at 9:25 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback. Here are some clarifications:

We spend a lot of time together. She gets home and is with kiddo around 4 PM, then I get home closer to 6 PM. She usually cooks dinner, starting before I get home, or I pick something up on my way home, because kiddo needs to be in bed by 7 PM and if I started cooking, it would generally be too late. Then we three play together, and we get him to bed. Then we're around the house as a couple, toddler-free, for a few hours. We'll lay in bed together to cuddle and read, or watch some TV together, and are generally in bed by 10 PM.

On the weekends, we're decent about sharing house duties. I have a higher tolerance for mess and chaos, which we're working on, so I'm not the best at keeping things picked up, but we share laundry duty and general household chores.

To be honest, we're the only adults we spend any time with, outside of the working environments. She's happy to be home in a quiet place with her family (she has some social anxiety). So outside of chores and the occasional social outting, we're together. Yes, there's a lot of time where we're playing with our son or at least making sure he's not up to trouble, but we're not living in different worlds.

We express a good amount of physical intimacy, though I feel like I'm often more physical than she is, and I'm generally not doing it because I want sex, but because I like being near her, and I assume she realizes this, though I now realize that I'm not sending clear signals if I'm often physical.

I totally missed the earlier thread, but to differentiate my issues, since we talked about how she feels about sex, I understand that she has a different sex drive, and I don't take her lack of interest as something to do with me personally. I understand she thinks of our relationship, and sex, differently than I do, somewhat in the way that I don't notice the mess (not my post, but it made sense about how I treat housework).
posted by plato beans at 9:33 PM on February 26, 2014

I am, I suspect, a lot like your wife - busy, high-anxiety, maybe taking on a little bit more than half of the domestic obligations. I also just don't have sex on the top of my list even on a good day. I mean, I like it lots when I get around to it, but if I left it to when I independently feel like it it'd probably happen approximately as often as I get my oil changed.

Schedule it, or at least the space for it. It was a weirdly hard thing to admit to myself, but spontaneity just isn't my MO. I need to know to clear my head in advance, I need the anticipation, I need a target to aim for. And the formality is actually kind of a plus.

I can tell you that I would rather have a thousand straightforward conversations about it than ten awkward attempts at manipulation that I will never be able to un-remember. I'm low-libido, I'm not stupid. In fact, I refer to it as "fragile libido" - it takes very little to deflate my mood, and hamfistedness is my nemesis.

It's hard, I guess, for people who don't feel like this to understand how it feels. My minute-to-minute mindset is pretty businesslike; I would feel obligated to accommodate but mortified if I was expected to participate in someone else's masturbation when I'm mostly primed to pay bills or cook someone's dinner. I'm not doing this to be mean, and I can't just stare at the wall and cry and "compromise" a little rape to make my partner happy. Which it wouldn't, and that's a comfort to me. It sounds like you're coming from a similarly sympathetic place.

I'm in the middle of reading Esther Perel's Mating In Captivity, she has a recent TED talk that nutshells the book, and there is some really interesting stuff I'm taking away from it that is helpful in conversation.

I honestly think from what you've described that she struggles with finding the headspace as much as anything else, and that if you offered a standing Thursday night deal (or whatever timing) you would both find it rewarding - no obligation, but also no TV and no evening chores and y'all go in the (TIP: tidied, clean-sheets, extra pillows, nice lighting) bedroom and close and lock the door and maybe you play Gin Rummy or maybe you read dildo reviews online or maybe you fool around and she's had all week to look forward to it.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:31 PM on February 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

Hire a weekly cleaning service. Seriously. Your wife will be in the mood more often if she isn't stressed thinking about all the things she has to do. Also, dirty surroundings can be a major turnoff for many women.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:30 PM on February 26, 2014 [11 favorites]

Hire a weekly cleaning service. Seriously.

Oh my god, yes. After a full day at work and my shitty commute, there's nothing that puts a damper on potentially getting in the mood faster than walking in to a house that I'm going to have to clean on top of everything.

If you can't afford a weekly cleaning service, then I urge you to continue to make every effort to recalibrate your tolerance for mess and chaos. Ask her point-blank, if you haven't already, specifically what she needs you to do on a daily basis to make the domestic chores a 50/50 partnership -- and then do it, consistently. Women overwhelmingly take on the majority of domestic labor in our society whether they have a job outside the home or not; don't underestimate the low-level (and not-so-low-level) exhaustion and disconnect from our partners that this can make us feel.
posted by scody at 12:02 AM on February 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

You know, it's not necessarily that she has a vastly lower sex drive; often it's just that women tend to be overburdened with priorities and sex is one of the things that you actually can drop off the to-do list.

If I ask my husband what he's thinking about, he'll quite often say "nothing" and mean it. I have no comprehension of this. Right now I am thinking about: this question, making sure someone is here for our grocery delivery, working out what in that delivery we can eat for dinner, the fact I have to schedule a chimney repair, three thank you notes I need to write, laundry that I have to put in, not forgetting to turn on the dishwasher, getting milk and bread when I walk the dog, that email I really have to send that is crushing me with anxiety, a technical problem with a website I'm building on a crappy deadline, how long I can put my business partner off before I have to give her some stuff, the fact that I should be working rather than writing this, what the end of the month cash flow looks like... and we don't even have kids.

I mean, I'm not thinking about the fact that we don't have kids, I'm acknowledging that this constant brain clutter would be about 10x worse if we did.

I am married to a feminist man but valiant as our efforts may be, it is never going to be 50/50. That's because I feel much more burdened by my 50% than he seems to feel by his, and because the society we live in sucks: even if it is his job to clean the living room, if someone turns up for a visit and the livingroom is a pit, I get the social demerit for poor housekeeping because I am the girl. I can reject that as bullshit for me, but tragically I cannot reject that for the person standing in my livingroom, and it blows.

Anyway: schedule date nights, and schedule sex, and don't make them the same night. Go out with your wife and hold her hand and goose her bum and put your arm around her in places where you are clearly not just making a booty ping. Schedule the sex separately. But do schedule it.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:19 AM on February 27, 2014 [24 favorites]

Scheduling sex and unburdening chores can be very good. Also, have you considered buying sex toys for yourself?

Mostly though I think you need to have a careful and thorough conversation about the different kinds of intimacy you can have. There's various different kinds of sex, some of which she might want more than others, some of which you might not realize were on the table or maybe even hadn't communicated that you enjoyed as much as other kinds. It sounds like maybe the two of you are doing a solid amount of assuming what each other thinks instead of actually discussing it (but it also sounds like you're both quite willing to work on it, so that's good!)

But the most vital part of this conversation would be working out different kinds of intimacy that don't involve sex, and mentally separating the two. There's cuddling and sensual touches and date nights and all that. You need to talk to each other about your needs for them and see how they align, and you have to figure out how to make it extremely clear that sensual intimacy doesn't signal the anxiety-inducing sexual intimacy. And it shouldn't just be that you'll never initiate or something. You both need clear signals for wanting to be intimate, and wanting to have sex specifically. You get the same respect that you accord her.
posted by Mizu at 3:36 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was a lot like your wife, without the kid. I wanted to want sex, but man, I realllly didn't want sex.

After the divorce, my therapist mentioned that "sex doesn't start in the bedroom." How is the rest of your relationship? No, seriously? Is she happy? Are you? Are you stuck in more ruts than just this one? I'm a little alarmed that you can't remember the name of her anxiety medication -- how would you rate your communication levels?

Ask her about these things. If there are things she'd like to change (not just sex -- the household responsibilities, deadline management, communication, her anxiety meds), then please go to some couples' counseling, or one-on-one where necessary.

I also get what you're saying about not touching her because you're easily aroused, but this reinforces to her that you only touch her when it's sexual. Hold her hand, rub her shoulders, kiss her cheek, cuddle on the sofa without even hoping it might turn into sex.
posted by mibo at 3:36 AM on February 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am another woman for whom sex can just fall by the wayside because it's not high enough on my priority list. And I love sex! It's just less important than finishing my work/making sure the kid has a decent school lunch the next day/writing the grant/calling my friend who is going through a bad time/doing the laundry, etc. etc. etc.

nthing the suggestions for scheduling. This has worked for us.

Also, this: So I don't really bring it up all that often, hoping kisses on the neck and shoulders is suggestive enough to imply my mood and interest.

is a great way to prime her to cringe every time you do that, because she'll be second guessing whether you are being affectionate for the sake of it, or whether it's just a means to an end.
posted by gaspode at 5:23 AM on February 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Lyn Never: I'm in the middle of reading Esther Perel's Mating In Captivity, she has a recent TED talk that nutshells the book, and there is some really interesting stuff I'm taking away from it that is helpful in conversation.

This looks like the talk in question. Thanks for mentioning this.

I like to think we have a very happy relationship, with lots of shared affection and cuddling, but it's becoming clear to me that I'm pretty ignorant of how much is going on in her mind, and how she sees the world (and more specifically, our house). It seems she's fine with how things are kept at home until suddenly she reaches a breaking point, then we talk about it and clean up, and then everything is tidy enough for a while. I've balked at hiring a cleaner, but I'll start talking about this with her, simply with the hope of easing one of her mental burdens.
posted by plato beans at 6:05 AM on February 27, 2014

Can't nth the schedule thing enough. The only thing my late hubby and I ever fought about was sex. After I suggested a schedule things were pretty smooth. It made it easier to be intimate in non-sexual ways without me worrying he was wanting sex all the time. I suggested twice a week, he thought that wasn't enough so we upped it to 3 times a week. We worked with that schedule for several years and eventually the schedule just kind of fell to the wayside. It was no longer a struggle or a fight anymore it just came naturally after that.
posted by okieangel at 6:47 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding gaspode on this: So I don't really bring it up all that often, hoping kisses on the neck and shoulders is suggestive enough to imply my mood and interest.

If I am rubbing my SO's neck or feet or legs, it's because I want him to feel relaxed and blissed out, to show that he's the best guy ever. If he's rubbing my back, he wants me to feel good without my having to think, is this a hint that he wants sex?

So yeah, you should make your cues more formalized. Or a scheduled sex day as others have said.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:18 AM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've recommended this before, and I'll recommend it again, because it so opened my eyes about the dynamics of relationships, male-female interactions, why men and women are first attracted to each other and fall in love, why long-term relationships/marriages can stagnate or decline, and how to take action to reverse that trend.

Read and implement The Mindful Attraction Plan.
posted by Ardea alba at 9:15 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems she's fine with how things are kept at home until suddenly she reaches a breaking point, then we talk about it and clean up, and then everything is tidy enough for a while.

Oh, I know this dynamic. I would guess that things seem fine for awhile because A) you're helping out more (and she probably thanks you for this as you do it, in the hopes that gratitude will be positive reinforcement), then B) you gradually slide back to your old habits, which C) is frustrating and hurtful to her, but she keeps silent about it (probably hoping that you'll remember that you've already talked about this and so will get back to making an effort again on your own, rather than her having to ask you again to do your share), until D) she can't take it any more (which appears "sudden" to you, but is not at all sudden to her) and you guys have the talk again, at which point you go back to point A.

I've struggled with this with my partner ever since we moved in together. I think the thing that seems to be helping now (knock on wood) was that I pointed out that the problem does not derive from point B (starting to slide back to old habits), but rather point A, which frames him as "helping" me.

"Helping" suggests that the work being done is really one partner's job, and the other one is doing her a favor by pitching in. But the thing is: you're not doing her a favor when you refrain from throwing your clothes on the floor (or whatever); you're just doing your share in the daily maintenance of being one of two adults in a household, especially a household with a child. Think of it like personal hygiene: presumably she doesn't have to ask you to remember to shower and brush your teeth, because at some point you absorbed those activities as basic components of daily living. So if you can "remember" to shower or brush your teeth (minimal tasks of being a functional person), you can "remember" to hang up your wet towel and put the cap back on the toothpaste (minimal tasks of being a functional partner).

I am not saying any of this to berate you -- in fact, I think it's great that you're open to looking at this as an important component of your marriage -- but just to offer a way of reframing the issue that might make a genuine difference to both of you this time around. You don't have to split every household task in a strictly 50/50 way but you do need to find a way to divide the labor in general more equitably (for example, I cook more than my partner does, so he does the dishes more than I do).

tl;dr: if you think of it as helping your wife with the cleaning, it still implicitly frames cleaning as your wife's job. Cleaning is not her job as a woman; it's your (plural) job as adults.
posted by scody at 10:04 AM on February 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

My husband and I had this, too (but without the kid). Even when I was interested in sex, my body just said "meh". It's taken six months of reading/research and experimenting, and now we're much closer to what we had early on in our marriage (10+ years ago) - more frequent and enjoyable sex.

For me, it helped to:
  1. Get off the Pill (take it long enough and your libido can seriously tank)
  2. Take supplements (see the recommendations in The Orgasmic Diet, which is mostly a lot of fish oil, but also increased calcium and magnesium)
  3. Understand the relationship between stress and sex hormones (see Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life - basically, if you're stressed, your body will convert your sex hormones into stress hormones to deal with the stress. Hence the decreased libido if you're stressed.)
  4. Receive acupuncture (get those energy meridians activated)
  5. Start reading erotica
  6. Get a vibrator
For both of us, it was helpful to:
  • Read and discuss Wanting Sex Again (this should probably be the first thing you both do)
  • Talk honestly with each other about what each of us wants
  • Schedule "playtime" (i.e. naked-exploring-each-other's-bodies time) (even if only once a week)
While there are a lot of mental factors, don't discount the physical ones. I saw many references to anti-depressant medications causing low libido, as well as thyroid disorders, certain foods (beware heavy carbs!), and plain old exhaustion (she works, and cooks, and cleans, and there's a 2 year-old in the house? Yikes).

Know that there's hope - it just may take some effort/time.
posted by sazanka at 10:54 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's kind of related to the cleaning service.. as I was reading I thought of a book I saw in Urban Outfitters of all places it was called something like "porn for mothers" it wasn't that 50 shades crap.. but a cheesy book of pictures of blokes cleaning the house... but maybe there's something in that....
life can get in the way...
but she's her own woman.. what has really turned her on in the past?
posted by tanktop at 11:31 AM on February 27, 2014

I don't know, to me this sounds a little deeper than just "busy woman, house to clean!" issues. You mention multiple times her social anxiety and she explains that she'll have to wash because she'll smell like semen? If she is already seeing a therapist, maybe you could nudge her to fuss this out and see if she maybe has some hang ups about sex in general.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:06 PM on February 27, 2014

Just as a note: semen, post-sex (particularly the next morning) does smell particularly gross to me. It's one of the things I miss about condoms. And it's hard to get in the mood the next day, if you're still smelling semen stank from the morning.

Or get into the mood because you know you took a nasty dump this morning and need to shower before sex but your feet hurt because you got home from work and started dinner and washed up and did laundry and played with the kid and emptied the bags and planned out lunches and dinner and shopping and all you really really want is love and what you're getting is offers of sex from the person who says they love you but they just walked through the door to dinner on the table and dumped their bag on the couch and tracked mud on the floor and threw the mail in a heap on the table after you've said so many times that you don't like those things. Because, to reiterate, it's not just about pulling your weight around the house, it's about living up to your words and acting like your partner's happiness is important.

I second the 'getting off the pill' or hormonal BC - it has always done a number on my libido.

It took about three years for my hormones to settle into a new normal post-birth (I was nursing for all of that). Before that, sex was difficult emotionally and physically. A vibrator, or recommendations to sexualise my life in some way would not have helped because that necessary hormonal/physical/emotional component wasn't there. What helped was a partner who very clearly said "I am here, and I'll have sex any time you want, or we can try and stop if it's not working out, but I am not going away and I want to be close to you" and maintained physical affection with no expectation that it would lead to sex. Because that cycle where kissing is a lead in to sex, and only a lead in to sex, is a death knell for physical affection and once you're afraid of kissing your partner? Bad shit happens.

And if you've got time to masturbate more than once a day? Chances are there are a shit tonne of chores you could be doing instead. And stop phrasing it as 'helping' because that's not what it is - you're part of a household, you're an adult, she's not your mother. Next time you want to masturbate for the second time in a day? Go mop the floors first, do a load of laundry, plan out a holiday, do the washing up, fold some clothes, organise the closet, tidy the garage.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:24 PM on February 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

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