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Dueling Libidos

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Ruby asks:

I have been with my boyfriend for 3 years now and I am lucky if we have sex once every week or once every 2 weeks.
A healthy sex life means a lot to me, I would rather every day or every couple of days, but when I ask him for sex he is tired, he uses the excuse that he works shifts and we have a baby. Well, she is my baby too, but I always have the time and energy for sex. How do I explain that it's just not enough for me without really upsetting him? I should know after 3 yrs but I'm still none the wiser.

Heather Corinna replies:

One of the biggest facets of a healthy sex life with someone is being sure that we respect when they do NOT want to have sex, and that they do the same with us. Healthy sex has a whole lot to do with both partners only having sex when that is what each truly wants to be doing.

When it comes to working out who wants what when, all of us always need to know that it's important that we defer to the person who does NOT want to do something. In other words, that person gets their needs put first.

That's a big deal because sex out of feelings of obligation to provide sex is pretty rank, and having sex when we do not want to but do so because someone else does -- either due to verbal or emotional pressure, or physical force -- isn't sex at all, it's rape and sexual abuse. As well, I think we can probably agree that someone having sex with us because we pressure them into it, or because they feel they have to, is about the most un-sexy thing in the world. It's not a recipe for healthy sex nor for good sex, and while you may want sex more often, not only am I pretty sure you don't want to sexually abuse anyone, I'm also pretty sure that the quality of the sex you do have probably matters to you.

That is not to say there is anything at all wrong with your desires, or you wanting the frequency of sex that you do. There is no amount of sex to want which is the "right" amount or a "normal" amount: people vary widely when it comes to libido. There is nothing wrong with having desires for sex, period: those are natural and normal desires. The problem isn't you wanting sex or wanting it more frequently, but that you seem to be suggesting your partner should be the same way you are in this department because that's what you would prefer, or should have sex even when he doesn't want to because you do want to.

Absolutely, you both are new parents. But it seems that he feels more worn out by it than you do, and that you have both more energy and a higher libido than he does right now. The fact that you two are different in that respect doesn't mean that one of you need to pretend you don't feel that way, or try to have sex when you don't want to or don't feel up to it. It means that you each need to respect where the other is at, recognizing that your wants are different, but accepting that difference, rather than trying to get what you want when someone else doesn't want it.

It shouldn't be that huge of a deal to compromise in this way. After all, when we feel strong sexual desires, we don't need another person to fulfill those urges if we want to. We can have sex, all by ourselves, with our own two hands or with aids like vibrators. If we need physical affection or emotional closeness, we have many ways we can share that with a partner, and sex is only one of those ways. But now and then, sometimes a partner just isn't going to be feeling up to some or all of that -- for any number of reasons -- so we need to be prepared in partnerships for how people can wax and wane a bit.

Not every couple has sex every day or every couple of days. In fact, particularly, for couples who have been together for a while, I'd say sex at that level of frequency is atypical. The Kinsey Institute reports that:

  • 18-29 year olds have sex an average of 112 times per year, 30-39 year olds an average of 86 times per year, and 40-49 year olds an average of 69 times per year (Piccinino, Mosher, 1998).
  • 23% of non-married men reported they have never had sex in the past year, 25% reported only a few times in the past year, 26% reported a few times in the past month, 19% reported 2-3 times a week, and 7% reported 4 or more times a week (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994).
  • 32% of non-married women reported they have never had sex in the past year, 23% reported only a few times in the past year, 24% reported a few times in the past month, 15% reported 2-3 times a week, and 5% reported 4 or more times a week (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994).
  • 1% of married men reported they have never had sex in the past year, 13% reported only a few times in the past year, 43% reported a few times in the past month, 36% reported 2-3 times a week, and 7% reported 4 or more times a week (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994).
  • 3% of married women reported they have never had sex in the past year, 12% reported only a few time in the past year, 47% reported a few times in the past month, 32% reported 2-3 times a week, and 7% reported 4 or more times a week (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994).
  • 13% of married couples reported having sex a few times per year, 45% reported a few times per month, 34% reported 2-3 times per week, and 7% reported 4 or more times per week (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994).

For new parents, daily sex or sex several times a week would be even more unusual, since new parents tend to both be frequently exhausted, physically and emotionally, and also have less leisure time than those of us who are child-free, or than people who have older children. I'd say that the frequency of sex you say you have now sounds pretty average for me for couples and new parents. It may not be the frequency you'd like, but it is pretty common, so I'd say it's sound to just factor that reality into your expectations.

You ask how to explain that the sex you are having isn't enough, but ultimately, I'd suggest that you don't, not because saying that will upset him, nor because your wants are invalid, but because saying that exerts sexual pressure on him. Being pressured or guilt-tripped about sex tends to make sex seem even less appealing, so on top of all the other reasons not to push a partner into sex they don't want, the fact that it tends to produce the opposite of your wanted result is a biggie. Taking the pressure off of him is going to be best for you both. You can certainly voice -- though it sounds as if you already have -- that you would like to have sex more often, and ask if he would like to have sex more often, too. If he, too, would like to have sex more frequently, but is just feeling too darn wiped, you could talk about ways to help with that, such as perhaps seeing if you can't structure both of your lives a bit differently (if he's working two shifts but you aren't working, for example, you might see if you're both happier with each of you working one job and splitting childcare more efficiently, or enrolling your child in daycare sometimes), see about getting some extra help from family with your kid so to lighten the load for both of you and give you some extra time alone, or try and make time for sex during the times he's least likely to feel tired, like early in the morning.

I want to add that it's common for new mothers to feel like they need some extra reminders that they are still sexually attractive and still sexual beings. Motherhood can do a serious whammy on how you feel about yourself and your sexuality.

Going from the hot girlfriend to the wife to Mommy are all huge changes in the role you have in the world, your own head, and your relationships. Post-partum depression can also impact your sexual self-esteem. Your partner might be grappling with some similar adjustments, finding that it's taking him some time to get used to the fact that you can be someone's Mom and still be someone's lover: if he's feeling that, you might be getting that sense from him, too, which may make you feel even more insecure about your sexuality or sexual partnership. Conflicts or struggles couples can have with parenting together can also create sexual problems or decrease desire. In addition, you two are having different experiences when it comes to parenting: some men, for instance, feel more isolated and left out due to the kind of relationship mothers have with their infants. Some even feel guilty about sex or conception due to the pain or discomfort a partner may have experienced in birth, or the discomforts nursing can dole out, and that can create conflicting feelings about sex. I'd strongly encourage both of you to talk to one another about your feelings right now in an atmosphere that's as free of pressure and judgment as possible: having some open, honest talks about all of this can make a big difference. Even if it doesn't result in a frequency of sex you'd like, it's bound to improve your relationship and get rid of some of the tension which has likely increased with this conflict.

All this given, it may be that now, more than ever, you feel like sex is a really big deal to you, and that's understandable. Just be aware that even when a partner isn't up for sex, they can express sexual desires about you, or their attraction to you, in a myriad of ways and you can absolutely make clear to your boyfriend that you really need that right now in some way that works for him. For example, he could be sure he's giving you more verbal affirmation of your desirability, more physical affection in general (like hugs, kisses and cuddles), or making time for some special dates together. You might also want to be sure you're doing things for yourself when it comes to your sexuality, like making quality time to masturbate or doing things which make you feel sensual or can express your sexuality (like dancing, taking a long bath, getting a massage, dressing up now and then if that's something you like to do, etc.). That's another way your partner can help you out here without having sex he doesn't want: he can help with childcare so that you can do some of these things for yourself. You can also be sure that the times when you do have sex -- both with your partner and by yourself -- it's you both really enjoy: sometimes when the sex we have is highly fulfilling, it's not as much of a big deal if it occurs less frequently than we'd like.

Check in with yourself to see if you can't get more clear -- just in your own head -- about what it is you want and are looking for. When we can best clarify what our needs really are, it tends to be easier both to communicate them to someone else and also to resolve conflicts. If it's about wanting to get off, coming primarily from a physical place, then again, you can masturbate as much as you would like in order to meet your own needs (and if it really is about that alone or primarily, since that's not about both of you, I'd say masturbation is the better choice, period). If it's about, or also about, feeling like you want to get close to him, you can think and talk about ways for you to feel and nurture more closeness together in ways that work for you both, without anyone having to do something they don't want or don't feel up for. If you are feeling insecure about yourself or your relationship, or this divide in your sex life seems symptomatic of other divides, you might consider some solo or couples counseling.

Lastly, it sounds to me like you may be saying that the two of you have always had this difference in libido. If that's the case, then it's relatively safe to assume that if you have always wanted sex as often as you do, and he has always wanted it as often as he has, you're unlikely to see any big change in those patterns after three years of being together. In other words, this may well not be temporary, but just how the two of you are. If that's long been the case, but you have still stayed in this relationship, then I'm bound to assume -- and he probably is, too -- that that's okay with you, otherwise, you would have sought out a different relationship that better suited your needs with someone more like you in this regard.

I may be stating the obvious, but do know that that is always an option. While even relationships which are primarily sexual (rather than romantic or familial) tend to be about more than sex, if frequency of sex is a big priority for you, you are absolutely entitled to only seek out or remain in romantic or sexual relationships where that need is better met. For sure, you're always going to still need to be flexible when someone doesn't want sex with any given partner -- and understand that what a person's libido is like in one year or partnership does not mean it will always be the same at another time or in a different partnership -- and find ways to meet your needs yourself when you want to be sexual and a partner does not. But there are other folks out and about in the world whose level of libido is more similar to or the same as your own, and you have the option of choosing to partner with those folks, rather than with someone with your boyfriend's level of desire.

Not knowing anything else about you but what you have shared here, I'm in no position to guess at what the whole of your needs or priorities are, nor at what the overall quality of your relationship with your boyfriend has been and is currently like. If it's been awesome for you otherwise -- after all, we're unlikely to have every single need we have met by any one person -- and you want to stay in it, then sparing the advice I've given here about improving things in a way which respects your differences, you may have to just accept that sex a few times a month is what is available to you. If it's lacking in more than this area (for instance, maybe this isn't just about him not wanting sex, but about him being generally unaffectionate, distant, cold or unloving to you overall, or even abusive in some way), or what benefits it brings you just don't outweigh not having your sexual needs met by a partner, then it may be time for you to consider changing the nature or model of this relationship -- perhaps to a co-parenting-as-friends relationship, or perhaps opening up your relationship to secondary partners -- so that you can seek out partners with whom you are more compatible, sexually and otherwise. And if the latter is the case, I hope that you can honor your own wants and needs and know that there's nothing at all wrong with them: we all have the right to choose partners and relationships who suit us best.

Here are some additional links which may be of use to you:

written 21 Nov 2008 . updated 31 Jan 2014

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