What if my sex drive doesn't match my partner's?

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For many couples, the situation is familiar: one partner always seems down to bone, while the other wants to Netflix and chill, but, like, literally. Left ignored, a discrepancy in libido could lead to a hot mess of confusion, frustration, and hurt feelings in the long run — and it may be especially common now, as a thoroughly trash year continues to stress us out. Mic asked New York City-based sex therapist and psychotherapist Veronica Chin Hing-Michaluk for guidance on how to deal when you and your partner appear to have mismatched libidos?

First of all, know that it’s okay if your thirst has waned lately. Many of us are dealing with financial and other stressors associated with the pandemic, not to mention racial anxiety, which refers to the stress you might feel during or prior to an interaction with someone of another race. If you're a BIPOC, you might experience this as worry about experiencing discrimination. “It’s an absolutely normal experience,” Chin Hing-Michaluk says. “We’re going through a collective trauma.” As a result, other things might’ve taken priority, like showing up for Black Americans in the fight against systemic racism. You might even struggle with guilt about prioritizing sex.

If you and/or your partner are essential workers, you might worry about your risk of exposure, Chin Hing-Michaluk adds. And if you’re both working from home, you might run into more opportunities for conflict, and probably don’t want to be intimate with your partner when you’re still pissed at them. Being with each other 24/7 also leaves little room to miss or desire each other.

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But if you find yourself craving sex more than your partner, that’s totally fine, too. “It’s okay to feel the way you feel, whether it’s desiring your partner… or more withdrawn and introspective,” Chin Hing-Michaluk tells Mic.

Mismatched sex drives can be disempowering, regardless of whether you want more or less sex than your partner, she explains. The partner who’s lost their desire might worry that something is off with them, while the one who still has it may feel rejected. She encourages her clients not to wait before the pandemic is over to have conversations around these issues. Check in with how you're feeling about sex right now, and what's preventing you from being intimate.

If you want less sex than your partner does, “it’s important to be okay with where your partner is at,” Chin Hing-Michaluk says. But, “it doesn’t mean you have to cave or compromise.” She encourages sticking to your boundaries to communicate what you’re open to doing and not doing, and saying no to your partner in “a lovingly firm way.”

Writing what’s on your mind and practicing saying it aloud before talking with your partner can help, she adds. Follow up “No, I don’t want to have sex,” with your thoughts and priorities, whether that’s attending protests or grappling with existential questions, like why the hell we’re even here. “That’s okay to share with your partner and give them an idea of what your lived experience is so they can honor where you are and manage their own experience.”

And if you want more sex than your partner does, she encourages reflecting on how you can communicate your needs in way that’s compassionate and holds space for wherever your partner is right now. It’s important to have a consensual sexual relationship, where neither of you feels obligated to have sex — and it’s important to have conversations when your partner isn’t reciprocating your desire for intimacy. If you can’t have an open dialogue about your feelings, “that’s where the shame cycle can start, where a partner can act out and say harmful things, or withdraw or go into a place where communication is difficult because they’re so blanketed in shame,” Chin Hing-Michaluk says.

Reflect on what sex means to you, why it’s important for you to prioritize it in your relationship, and whether you can compromise with other ways of connecting, like massages or reading alongside each other. Attending protests together can offer an opportunity for intimacy, too. “There’s a type of energy sharing and power to being in that type of transformative space, and very important space, in this moment in history,” Chin-Hing Michaluk says. If you’re in an interracial relationship, it can offer a segue into deeper questions about whiteness and privilege.

If not having a sexual release makes you anxious, “have a conversation about solo play,” Chin Hing-Michaluk says. Now is the time to talk about what the erotic landscape can look like at home. Do you have a vibrator or other toys around, so your likely already maxed-out partner doesn’t have to meet all your needs?

“I think communication is so important during this time,” Chin Hing-Michaluk tells Mic. Even sharing how you feel in general these days can shape how you and your partner approach sex and whether strategies like scheduling date nights, or designating spaces for quickies would be helpful. Chin Hing-Michaluk has launched a free erotic card deck that can help you form a deeper connection with your S.O. Each card includes a question, like “What foods do you find most sensual?” and “What social justice movements are you passionate about?”

The pace at which you approach a conversation about your mismatched sex drives with your partner depends partly on your processing speeds, Chin Hing-Michaluk says. If you take a while to process your emotions, it might help to check in with your partner about your sex life and intimacy, then schedule another, longer conversation in a day or two. “Processing individually is for you, and the conversation is for the both of you.”

Beyond practicing what she terms “radical honesty” with your partner, Chin Hing-Michaluk suggests affirming what you like about them, as well as the relationship and its impact on you. Especially in these chaotic times, it’s important to recognize your needs holistically — and that includes your sexual needs, too.