What is Sex Drive?
By: Corey Silverberg
The term sex drive was first widely adopted following the introduction of the concept by Sigmund Freud in his writings about sexuality and personality development. Freud used the term sex drive as well as the more specific term libido to refer to what he initially conceived as the human biological sexual instincts. In this context, sex drive or libido was a source of human motivation and action throughout the developmental process. Later, Freud expanded his definition of libido to refer to a life energy that drove both the sexual instincts but also other human drives.
Today, the term sex drive isn’t used much by researchers or sexologists (they favor libido). But, in popular culture it has become synonymous with sexual desire or an individual’s interest in engaging in sex with a partner. If someone doesn’t want to have as much sex as you do, you might say their sex drive is low.
That said, there is no measurement of sex drive and no definition of what a healthy sex drive is like. While research into sex drive usually focuses on a single aspect, most researchers would agree that there are biological, psychological, and social components to sex drive. Biological research has focused on testosterone, which is thought to be related to the sex drive, although the exact nature of the relationship is still under investigation. Social science researchers have also explored the relationship between both sex drive and social factors, like work and family, as well as internal psychological factors, like personality and stress
What Causes Different Sex Drives in Relationships?
Reasons for Discrepancies in Sex Drive in Long Term Committed Relationships
It is common for couples in long-term, committed relationships to get to a point when they don’t have the same level of or desire to have sex. Discrepancies in sexual drive or sexual desire in a long-term, committed relationship might be the result of a range of factors. Here are just a few possibilities:
Conflict in other parts of your relationship play out in your sex life. So, you might really be fighting about money or family or work/life obstacles, but you end up playing out the fight in your sex life. Sometimes, one partner is blamed for doing this and told he is “withholding” sex out of spite. This may be the case, but the accusation can also be used as a cop out. If one of you is feeling genuinely angry or hurt or isolated, not wanting to have sex seems like a reasonable response, and not simply something done out of spite.
Lack of information or education about sex. If one or both of you were raised with little or no information about sex or with negative messages about your right to experience sexual pleasure, that history may get in the way of you taking your sex life to a more creative or deeper level. This isn’t about finding the right sex position or the perfect vibrator. But, a lack of sexual creativity can be sexually stifling, and this can lead to frustration and eventually a feeling of inevitability that your sex life won’t ever change.
Psychological issues unrelated to your partner. We all come to relationships with our histories and these histories become part of our relationships. One or both of you might be struggling with issues related to any number of factors (such as sexual identity, orientation, problems with physical or mental health, medical or recreational drug use, previous trauma, etc…) and these struggles can leave us without energy or interest in sex.
Difference in baseline sex drives. While our sexual desire and drive isn’t a fixed quantity, at any given time we all have our baseline interest in sex and a sense of how important sex is in our life. You and your partner may simply have different baseline sex drives and/or may prioritize sex differently. This difference may not reflect some deeper issue or difference; it might just be what it is.
Too much intimacy, not enough passion. Another important possibility, one that is the focus of therapist Esther Perel’s excellent book Mating in Captivity, is that the intimacy you have developed in your loving relationship is actually putting out the fire of eroticism that fuels your sexual relationship. Perel suggests that the pressures and expectations we put on our intimate romantic relationships can directly work against maintaining passionate and erotic sexual relationships.
Problems with discrepancies in sex drive can also be the result of many factors. Instead of considering the above possibilities a point of comparison, try to use them as a starting point to think about your own relationship and what you think might be going on. You can also share this article with your partner and see how they feel about it.
How To Talk About Differences in Sex Drive
When partners in a long-term committed relationship hit a point where there is an obvious difference in sex drives any difficulties in talking about sex can quickly become magnified, and while you may have tried to talk about the issue on several occasions, it can quickly feel like something neither of you wants to talk about. At that point talking may not be the best thing to do, but eventually you have to start communicating about the issue in order to get through it, around it, or even end the relationship in a respectful and loving way. Here are some ideas on what to do when talking isn’t working anymore.Time Required: Talking about sex drive may require many conversations over timeHere’s How:
What Do You Mean By Sex?
Whether you want more or less sex, what does it mean to you when you say you want sex? Do you want specific behaviors, specific outcomes (e.g. an orgasm)? Do you want more intimacy, more connection or more attention paid to you? We all assume we know what we mean when we say “sex” but sex has many meanings, and you should start by clarifying for yourself what sex means to you. At some point that’s something you can communicate to your partner.
Define the Issue for Yourself
It’s rare that one of you will be dissatisfied while the other is completely happy. Even if you like things the way they are, how do you feel about your partner’s dissatisfaction with your sex life? Does this issue feel like a relationship “deal breaker,” something that will have to be fixed or it will destroy your relationship? Does this feel like something that is less important to you than finding compromise on raising kids, or work or family? If you find out that your partner prioritizes sex differently than you, are you willing to compromise to stay in the relationship?
Describe Your Sex Drive
Your interest in sex is connected to many parts of your life. Have you taken the time to think about how your own history and your current life have influenced your interest in sex? One way to explore this for yourself is to write out your sexual history. This may not be something you share with your partner, but having a better understanding of your sexual desire can help you take responsibility when talking with a partner.
When Talking Won’t Do, Write a Letter
Don’t worry about floral language or grammar. Writing down what you want to talk about is a great step to clarify your issues for yourself and practice the way you might communicate it to your partner. Some people actually write their partner a letter, and end up giving it to them at a later point. Letter writing can be a powerful way to communicate your thoughts and feelings, and if done along with talking it can increase intimacy in a relationship in surprising ways.
Compare Notes with Your Partner
Have a conversation about what sex means to each of you. Don’t make this conversation about the current problems you have with your sex life. Instead start by keeping it broad, with the goal being that you each get to understand the role sex has played in each others lives before and during your relationship. Before you have this conversation, emphasize the importance of listening and reflecting back what your partner is saying. The goal of this conversation is just to eliminate problems of miscommunication and mistaken assumptions.
Do You Have a Goal?
One reason conversations about sex may get stymied is that you don’t have a goal in mind. Your goal might be specific or general. It might be that you want to know yourselves or each other better. It might be that that you want to find a way to stay together and both of you be happy. It might be that want to figure out if the relationship is worth saving. Maybe you have more than one. You can also change your goals. This tip isn’t one that will work for everyone, but for some people having a goal to work toward can help keep them on track.
Avoid Blaming, Take Responsibility:
It’s easy in this situation for one partner to be labeled as the “problem” and for the other to deny any responsibility, claiming that they are happy with the way things are. If you’re that partner, ask yourself if you’re really happy knowing that your partner is unhappy? In reality, if one partner in a relationship is dissatisfied often the other is as well. When you do talk about issues of difference in sex drives avoid the temptation to blame each other and make an effort to each take responsibility for the situation.
Remember You’re a Team:
Sometimes differences in sex drive are so great that a couple will choose to end the relationship. Ultimately this is the couple’s decision to make. But regardless of the outcome, if your partner is someone you love and respect, try to cultivate a sense of teamwork between the two of you rather than being on opposite teams battling it out. The ultimate goal is one you want to arrive at together, but when defenses go up and we feel challenged its often easier to get into a fighting posture than a cooperative one.
Make Change a Possibility:
Often we can talk about ourselves and our partners as if we are incapable of change (“I’m just not that kind of person.” “She would never do that,” “I can’t see him offering that in a million years.”) The fact is that we are all capable of change, probably far more change than we imagine. This doesn’t mean we will change, but it does mean we can. But when we talk about our situation as if change were impossible we shut ourselves and our partners down and may actually make change harder to accomplish.
Talk About Your Options:
There are many causes of sex drive discrepancies in a relationship and many ways of addressing the problem. Read over the above tips and talk about the options available to you. Are you both willing to try counseling or therapy? If you found a good book to help you navigate through these issues will you both be committed to reading it and talking about it regularly? In the end if only one of you is willing to work on this issue there may not be a lot of hope for a mutually satisfying resolution, so making sure you’re both on board seems like a crucial step in working toward change.