Differential Desire

Posted by Emily Nagoski

So the Good In Bed forums have been up and running for a few days now and there are some pretty amazing questions being asked - from people with enviable sex lives looking for ways to expand their sexual landscape, all the way to folks with heartbreaking stories of sexual confusion and isolation.

There are SEVERAL questions about differential desire.

No surprise, since it's the single most common sex problem that couples experience - you know, Person A wants it and Person B doesn't, so they get into the chasing dynamic, where Person A asks and asks and asks and feels rejected, hurt, and resentful because Person B keeps saying no, no, no; and Person B feels guilty but also defensive and hurt because being asked just makes Person B feel like there must be something WRONG with them.

Yikes, right? There's tremendous pain for both people when sex turns into a power struggle in the relationship. Sex ceases to be a source of renewal and nourishment and becomes a battleground, and no one wins.

Because you've been paying attention, you know that the solution is to stop having sex for a while. (You need to read the link there in order for that sentence to make sense. There's a bit more to it than just not having sex.)

But that's a practical solution - a set of behavioral steps you can follow over the course of several weeks, to create change.

The LARGER solution is attitudinal rather than behavioral. Feeling like there's something wrong with you (or feeling like your partner feels that there's something wrong with you - or indeed feeling like there's something wrong with your partner) is a definite weenie-shrinker. Every time.

So look, I'm going to say this thing, and you're going to listen and believe me because... I don't know, why would you believe me if you haven't believed it from anyone else? Because I'm clever and have a PhD and things? No, you'll believe me because it's just true. Because in the patient corners of your heart, you've ALWAYS known it's true. It's this:

You're not broken. You are whole. And there is hope.

You might be stuck. You might be exhausted. You might be depressed, anxious, worn out by the demands your caring makes on you, and in desperate, dire need of renewal. You might be tired of feeling like you need to defend yourself. You might wish that, just for a little while, someone else would defend you and protect you so that you could lower your guard and just be. Just for a while.

Those are circumstances, they're not YOU. YOU are okay. You are whole. There exists inside you a sexuality that protects you by withdrawing until times are propitious.

I completely get how terribly frustrating it can be that your partner's body feels like times are propitious right now, while your body is still wary. And it's even worse because the more ready your partner's body seems, the more wary your body becomes. It is The Suck, Like Woah, for both of you.

But it's in there, your sexuality. It's part of you, as much as your skin and your heartbeat and your vocabulary. It's there. It's waiting. You're okay. Just because you've had no call to use the word "calefacient" or "perfervid" lately doesn't mean it's not longer available to you. Should the opportunity arise, there it will be, ready, waiting. Like the fire brigade. Like a best friend.

There's a bunch of stuff you can try to create propitious circumstances.

  • Try thinking about your sexual interest in terms of the sexual inhibition system and sexual excitation system; identify the things that rev your engine and the things that keep your brakes on. Talk to your partner about minimizing those brakes triggers and making good use of the engine revvers.
  • Lots of folks find that self-consciousness about their body prevents them from being emotionally present for sex. If that's you, try a few things to improve your body image.
  • Part of your experience of low desire might because you're just not a "spontaneous desire" kind of person; you might be a responsive desire kind of person. With responsive desire, you begin to want sex only after you've already started to be stimulated. It's quite a different experience from spontaneous desire, but it's just as legitimate. Embrace it and make good use of it.

And a brief message to Person A - the one who wants sex and keeps asking for it:

Give Person B space and time away from sex. Let sex drop away from your relationship - just for a little while - and be there, fully present, emotionally and physically. Lavish your Person B with affection, on the understanding that affection is not a preamble to sex. Be kind and generous with your love.

I know it can feel like Person B is withholding and I know that can feel DEEPLY SHITTY. Your role in untangling your relationship knots is very difficult, because it requires you to put down your hurts and be loving to the person who, it sometimes seems, is the source of those hurts. That's fuckin' HARD.

Put simply, the best way to deal with differential desire is: be nice to your partner.