As a Therapist and Relationship Coach “How's your sex life?” is a question I ask every couple I work with. I’ve heard every answer from, “Non-existent,” to “[giggle, giggle] Ummm, OK I guess,” and many times each partner has a different perspective on the same sex life.
Sexual frequency can be a barometer for how the relationship is going, but it can also be a barometer for stress levels and personal well-being.
For the sake of this article I'll be generalizing men and women based on what's most common, but I see all sorts of differences in drive that don't fit into what's most common. <--This is probably a whole other article.
What I see frequently in heterosexual relationships is that most men are trying to figure out how to have more physical intimacy and most women are trying to figure out how to have more emotional intimacy, but they're both making the same HUGE mistake.
Let's start with the nuts and bolts: men and women are inherently, genetically and hormonally, different creatures.
Let's just talk testosterone for a minute. Men have 9x the testosterone that women do and testosterone plays a HUGE part in sex drive (wanting or desiring sex). NINE TIMES. In Dr. Laurie Mintz's book, The Tired Woman's Guide to Passionate Sex she likens this difference to men having 9/10 of a tank of gas and women having 1/10 of a tank.
Dr. Mintz says she once asked a medical doctor about this difference in testosterone and he said it's why a man can be standing in a pile of elephant feces, see a beautiful woman walk by, and think about sex....and a woman can be on her way to the bedroom, see a dirty sock on the floor, and it's all over. It's easier for women to run out of gas.
More mothers can relate to this than not.
What impacts testosterone levels? Stress: the aforementioned dirty sock on the floor, to-do lists, not enough support, young children in the home, care taking, moving, paying bills, being a stay-at-home parent, being a working parent, grocery shopping, saving for retirement, renovation projects, holidays - so basically being an adult.
High stress and low amounts of sleep have an almost immediate impact on testosterone levels.
When stress goes up testosterone levels go down, but women have a definite disadvantage in this area. Sexual desire is something most men in early-middle adulthood don't have to worry about, but most women at some point in this stage wonder, "Is there something wrong with me?".
I think about this drive-lessening response to stress as your body's way of saying, "Pssst. Might not be a good time to have a baby."
Years ago I worked with a couple and remember explaining this to them. He looked at me quite seriously and said, "So, what do I do?" I said, "Reduce her stress levels." He seemed perplexed. She was smiling.
She recounted stories of how he would "grab my boobs" while she did the dishes, and "smack my butt" while she folded laundry. I asked him what his intent was: "What were you trying to communicate?"
He smirked, "That I wanted to...ya know..."
I asked her if this got her closer to the bed or further away from the bed. With irritation she boomed, "FURTHER. AWAY!" and her tone indicated she felt this was ridiculously obvious. "How could he not know this?"
what I wanted; he didn't want it at all.
If a husband gropes...it's probably because he wants to be groped. My husband would be exactly 50x more thrilled if I groped him than he was at his one and only surprise party. His day would have been made and I could have saved a lot of money, but I didn't deeply understand our differences at 23.
This wife was SO different in what got her closer to the bedroom that she vocalized she found his squeezes and thwaps to be "adolescent, disgusting, and irritating - especially in the midst of chores".
This wife craved emotional intimacy: to feel deeply seen and understood. When he groped her while she was working through her mile-long (invisible) to-do list she felt like he didn't care ("Don't you see me?") because that's what it would mean if she pulled something like this while he was obviously in the middle of something.
How would he feel about being groped in the middle of folding laundry? We don't need a research study to know the answer to this question.
I asked how much closer she'd be to the bed if he would have instead said, "You look stressed. What can I take off your to-do list?"
She sighed, "YAS! A LOT closer."
WHY IS THIS SUBJECT SO HARD TO TALK ABOUT? Because it's value-laden. Sexual intimacy is inherently deeply vulnerable. It's easy to start questioning your enoughness when it comes to this subject - "Am I enough?" - which, in turn, makes our self-protective defensiveness flare fast. It seems common for conversations about this subject to escalate quickly and go no where.
For example, I meet so many men who take their wife's lower drive so personally. The amount of times I've heard, "Maybe I should workout more?" as a possible solution from men is more than I can count. What the man is really assuming is, “I’m probably not physically enough.”
For men, physical attraction is a priority, but for most women it's SO not. This is why there are so many more strip clubs with naked ladies on the stage than men.
The problem isn't our differences, it's assuming we're the same and attaching meaning deducted from the misinformation gathered through our very different lenses AND THEN trying to communicate about it through hurt feelings that quickly morph into anger and defensiveness...it's easy to see why so many couples have a really hard time communicating about this subject in a meaningful, not-exhausting way. Just typing this paragraph was exhausting.
Engaging in tough, really uncomfortable conversations that escalate quickly and leave you with zero results makes people want to not ever talk about the subject again.
About a month after our session where we teased out some of the non-verbal communication, wants, and needs underlying the irritation the same couple, now equipped with some very strategic ways to communicate about drive, wants, and needs, came in after the Holidays.
He reported that he was shut-down with a big fat NO for sex on Christmas Eve morning. She just had "too much to do". He began asking what he could take off her list and after wrapping presents, making a dish, and coming up with a white elephant gift they had sex TWICE.
He seemed pretty proud of himself.
Men, I know what you're thinking: "WHOA, WHOA, Mika....I work my butt off ALL DAY and you want me to do MORE???"
Men, I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do. But if there's something that you want and need in your relationship that you're not getting it's your job to figure out how to get it. If this is the case, increasing your wife's low drive is your job, too.
Men: Speak her language and let her know you want to know when she's overwhelmed and that it's OK to ask for help and that you are not...in no way, shape, or form...a mind reader.
Ladies: Pay attention to your drive. Does it come back with a vengeance when you go on a vacation without kids? If so, there's probably a good chance that cutting yourself some to-do list and expectations-of-yourself slack could increase your drive and well-being overall. I suggest getting better at being kind to yourself: saying NO more and clearly asking for more support.
Having a lower sex drive than your partner, or than what's generally expected for your gender, can be a shameful thing. It's easy to start feeling defective and like a failure. It seems like it's really easy for the person with lower drive to take on all the responsibility and that just seems to turn into a whole lot of pressure. Super-romantic, right? Nope. Actually pressure is a sex drive killer.
I've found that taking a curious stance together regarding the one person's lower drive to be a more effective strategy (**read: more likely to get laid). This might include being willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations and really open to hearing complaints and suggestions about what gets her further away and closer to the bed. Ninja-like communication skills come in handy here.
This is just ONE way to increase drive: everyone's different.
Wanna learn lots more about the highly misunderstood topic of sex drive? Come to my Date Night Workshop Series in June. We'll cover this topic in great depth and I hope participants leave feeling less crazy and more empowered to work through their differences in drive in a way that leads to some really clear next best steps instead of tears, anger, defensiveness, and shut-downs. Lots more info and tickets here. Early bird pricing still available :)
You deserve happy relationships...sex included,