“Not tonight, honey. I have a headache” is the well-known slogan attributed stereotypically to women who lack desire to have sex with their husbands. The slogan itself is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek joke at the expense of couples with discrepant sex drives, but the situation is actually no laughing matter.

A large portion of intimate partners struggle on a daily basis with incompatible desires to have sex and it can create serious problems in relationships. And yes, there is a clinical term for this scenario…it’s called inhibited sexual desire. The urge to be sexually intimate with one’s partner waxes and wanes all the time throughout the course of a relationship; no two individuals in a couple can be expected to be in-sync sexually in every instance.

It’s when sexual overtures are denied on a consistent basis and the relationship becomes devoid of any erotic or sexual fulfilment that trouble can start to brew. It tends to be more common that one partner desires the contact while the other distances and refuses participation in sexual activity.

It’s not just women who are popularly believed to kiss their partner goodnight and roll over to go to sleep right away after declining a seductive invitation for a hot lovemaking session. Men are also affected by inhibited sexual desire. In our society, men are viewed as being driven by their libidos; gay male culture in particular reinforces the image of gay men as being “sexual hounds” who can’t get enough sex and are constantly thinking about their next lay.

That’s what makes this situation so difficult. As men, we are socialised to link our masculinity with sexual prowess and experience. When a man lacks a sexual outlet when he’s in a relationship, this can negatively affect his self-esteem and identity…not to mention his mood. For two men in a gay relationship, the issues are compounded.

This article is prompted by the increase in letters and client presenting issues surrounding this topic I’ve encountered in both my therapy and coaching practices lately. It is hoped to give you a broader understanding of the dynamics involved in sex drive-discrepant relationships (Part 1) and how you can best manage and negotiate these differences to enhance your relationship and breed more sexual compatibility and satisfaction (Part 2).

The Faces of Inhibited Sexual Desire

You’ve dated for years, wondering if the day would ever come that you’d meet your Mr. Right and build a lasting, satisfying relationship with him that would enrich your life and meet your needs for companionship, security, affection, and sexual gratification. Then, after one crushing dating disappointment after the next, you finally meet him and the planets all seem to be aligned.

The courtship period proves to reinforce your conviction that this is truly a goodness-of-fit with your man and you decide to step things up to the next level and you identify yourselves as committed partners. Your relationship grows and matures and things seem to be going just as you had dreamed, when all of a sudden the unthinkable happens. Your partner no longer wants to have sex. He begins to distance and withdraw, avoiding any situations that could possibly become a prelude to sexual involvement. He declines your persistent requests for lovemaking and your discontent mounts as a rift begins to develop between the two of you.

What is happening? Things used to be hot, so what’s going on? Is he cheating on me? Is he bored or doesn’t he find me attractive anymore? Isn’t being in a relationship an implicit understanding of being sexually intimate with each other? Everything else in the relationship is great except this one department. And the questions, assumptions, and frustrations spiral and mount from there. This is just one example of multiple scenarios that can exist in relationships where partners have differing sex drives.

The common scene in such relationships is that the higher-drive partner is far more troubled by the lack of sex, affection, and touch. He begins to feel rejected, frustrated, and dissatisfied. He typically reacts by pressing his partner for intimacy, who in turn feels pressured and throws up obstacles in the form of excuses and avoidances, creating conflicts to defuse attention away from sexual possibilities, or making direct statements of refusal. A pursuer-distancer pattern then ensues and power struggles over sex begin to define the relationship if not carefully dealt with, which can erode the couples’ trust and connection.

Psychiatrist William L. Maurice has identified three subtypes of inhibited sexual desire in men. Understanding which category your relationship typifies is important in pinpointing the specific types of strategies that would best help overcome the particular desire impediment.

1. Lifelong/generalised: the man has never been interested in any form of sexual activity throughout the course of his life in any type of setting.

2. Acquired/situational: Type 1= the man begins a relationship with sexual enthusiasm, but soon becomes disinterested in partner sex; he still remains interested in solo play, however (eg. masturbation, pornography, Internet sex chats, etc.); Type 2= the man is able to be sexual when there is no possibility of an intimate relationship and becomes disinterested with sex with those whom he feels close or an attachment towards.

3. Acquired/generalized: Type 1= the man was once sexual, but he lost his desire due to medical problems; Type 2= the man is experiencing the effects of aging and andropause (“male menopause”) (Leiblum, 2007).

Potential Causes of Libido Loss

There is rarely a single factor that determines why a particular individual or couple is afflicted with low sexual interest and drive; the loss of libido usually accompanies a medical, psychological, relational, or other sexual issue that all interact with each other and the couple’s responses to them. Below is a listing of possible causes underlying inhibited sexual desire. If you and your partner are struggling with this issue in your relationship, take note of these factors in helping you assess what’s possibly missing or interfering with your sexual potential as a couple.

  • relationship problems; many bedroom issues result and are mirrored by conflicts and lack of fulfilment in other areas of the partnership

  • intimacy issues; fears of closeness, vulnerability, connection

  • other sexual concerns; problems with getting or maintaining erections commonly co-exist with inhibited sexual desire; sexual addiction

  • religious and family upbringing if sex-negative teachings were instilled

  • sexual or health difficulties in one’s partner or self/chronic illness and pain

  • childhood sexual abuse or trauma

  • mental health or substance abuse difficulties; depression and heavy alcohol use are big turn-on squashers!; stress, grief, boredom, fatigue

  • infidelity and breaches of trust in the relationship

  • inappropriate hormone levels (testosterone)

  • the effects of aging (although don’t buy into the myths about older guys. While sexual functioning does tend to slightly decline with age, you can still be sexy, senior, and sexual until the end of the life span!)

  • lack of attraction for one’s partner

  • low self-esteem and confidence, body image issues

  • medication side-effects; tranquilizers, antidepressants, and high blood pressure medications can all have adverse effects on sexual desire and aro

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