1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Libido mismatch? You're not alone

February 28, 2024

It's common for couples to have different sex drives. Here's how you can fix it.

https://p.dw.com/p/4cway
A couple in bed. A man kisses a woman on the cheek, while she appears to be asleep.
'Not tonight, I'm tired!' — sex drive mismatch is extremely commonImage: McPhoto/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

Andrea, a woman living in Berlin, was dating a supportive, kind and creative guy named Ben. She felt they were intellectually compatible and communicated well. But there was a problem from the very start: he wanted less sex than she did.

At first, she thought this just meant he wasn't interested in her. But he insisted he was — sex was just lower on his list of priorities.

"In terms of our connection as humans, there was not much to work on," she said. But she still felt lonely in the relationship, like something was missing.

DW has changed their names to protect the couple's privacy, but their story is real — and more common than you might think. Here's why sex drive mismatch happens and how you and your partner can handle it for a happy relationship. 

Sexual desire is not a fixed 'trait'

Sex drive mismatch is "pretty inevitable in long-term relationships," said Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher and professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

To understand the factors underpinning mismatched sex drive in relationships, such as in the case of Andrea and Ben, the researcher said it was important to understand that sexual desire is not fixed.

"We used to think about sexual desire as this trait, this thing that's stable over time, like an 'I'm just a low sex drive person' sort of thing," said Mark. "That's not really the case."

Instead, she said, sex drive shifts over time.

"If you have two people whose sex drives are fluctuating over their lifetime … there are going to be moments ... sometimes longer periods of time, where you may have a mismatch," said Mark.

Same sex, female couple sitting, dressed, and kissing seductively on what looks like a hotel room bed
Sex researcher Kristin Mark said heterosexual couples could learn about variations in sexual desire from experiences made by same-sex couplesImage: Wosunan Photostory/Zoonar/picture alliance

Factors that influence sex drive fluctuation

Mark groups the things that influence libido into three categories: individual, interpersonal and societal factors.

Individual factors are things like stress, health or lack of sleep.

"For some people, stress really dampens their desire. For other people, stress actually increases [it]," said Mark.

Interpersonal factors relate to the relationship itself — whether you are happy in your relationship or your level of attraction. This can be basic, Mark said. "We hear from lots of people who think they have low desire, but really, it's just like, 'No, I just don't really like my partner that much.'"

But these factors can also include issues with communication around sex within an otherwise happy relationship, said the researcher.

"In long-term relationships especially, some couples get into [a] pattern of how to initiate sex that can become a pretty sensitive dance. If you get rejected a few times, for example, that can have a really negative impact on your sexual desire. Because you just don't really want to approach anymore."

Andrea mentioned experiencing this in her relationship with Ben. She abstained from initiating sex with him out of fear of appearing pushy, she said, or getting rejected.

Societal factors, such as gender inequality, can also influence sex drive, said Mark.

Women who take on the bulk of household duties may feel less inclined to have sex with partners they feel are not doing their fair share around the home — or that their partners are actively contributing to their feelings of stress.

Sexual desire isn't always spontaneous

Mark said it was also important for couples to understand that sexual desire is often not what we think it is: A spontaneous drive to have sex out of the blue. This exists, said Mark, but it's less common than responsive desire: A desire in response to stimuli.

"You may not feel like having sex before you start having sex, but then once you start having sex, it feels great, and you're really rewarded, and then the cycle begins where it's, like, quite beneficial," she said.

Ways to bridge the libido gap

While the partner with a higher sex drive can end up feeling lonely in a mismatched sex drive dynamic, the other partner may "end up being sort of pathologized or thought of as the one having a problem," said Mark.

This results in a lot of pressure on the partner with the lower sex drive to bring their desire up, while little or no pressure is placed on the other to bring theirs down, she explained.

"For couples who navigate this well, what they do is they meet in the middle," said Mark.

Couples experiencing a mismatched sex drive, one that is causing problems in the relationship, should have a "really frank conversation about sexual needs," said Mark: You should try to figure out how your individual needs can be met in ways that work for both of you.

For many people, Mark said, the desire for sex is really about a desire for closeness and intimacy. Good sex in a relationship can serve as confirmation of being wanted.

Verbal reassurances and touching that doesn't lead to sex, like hugging, holding hands, kissing, or showing affection in public, are ways some couples are able to bridge this gap, she said.

A couple having sex in bed
Sex doesn't always need to be penetrative to be satisfying in long-term relationshipsImage: Sunan Wongsa-nga/Zoonar/picture alliance

Andrea's relationship with Ben wasn't the first time she had experienced sexual mismatch. Years earlier, Andrea dated a man who could not have penetrative sex for health reasons. But with him, said Andrea, she never saw the mismatch as a problem.

"He made me feel very wanted. He complimented me a lot. And I knew he was attracted to me. I knew he thought I was a beautiful woman. And there were ways in which he was flirting with me or trying to satisfy me with any kind of alternative to conventional penetration," said Andrea.

There is no 'normal' sex drive

Mark said there was no "normal" amount of times to be having sex with your partner per week. 

In her work, Mark encourages couples to relieve themselves of the pressure that their sex life is "abnormal" or worse than that of the couple next door.

Some research indicates that sex once per week is the sweet spot, said Mark, but "it's really individual."

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

What happens in the body during sex?

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration