Sandra Pertot

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Understanding Mismatched Libidos

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Dr. Sandra Pertot,

Clinical Psychologist

(Adapted from When Your Sex Drives Don’y Match: Discover Your Libido Types to Create a Mutually Satisfying Sex Life. New York: Marlowe & Co, 2007)

We love each other, but . . .

Do you feel hurt, rejected or frustrated by your partner’s attitudes to sex, or what he or she seems to want, or not want, in sex? Even though you love each other, do you worry that your partner doesn’t love you or find you attractive because he or she rarely initiates sex? Do you feel offended by some things your partner wants to do during sex, or, refuses to do? If so, you are not alone, many couples are in the same position.

In an age when there is so much information about sex, it might seem strange to say that there is still significant sexual ignorance in our society, but that is the case. This ignorance isn’t about our bodies and the mechanics of sex and reproduction, as it was a few decades ago. Today’s lack of knowledge arises from expectations of how our bodies should work, and what should be happening in our sex lives. If we don’t perform sexually as we think we should or our partner doesn’t meet our sexual needs so that we don’t get the sex life we want, surely something is wrong somewhere? After all, aren’t there countless books and articles that tell us we can have great sex if we just follow the right advice? So why isn’t it working for us?

The problem is that, despite all the "out there", in your face focus on sex in our society, and our tendency to believe that we live in a liberated, "switched on" sexual culture, there is a glaring contradiction in our attitudes to sex. On one hand, if you ask any sex therapist whether people are all the same sexually, you will always get "of course not, everyone is different." Yet if you look at the way sex is portrayed in our society—from movies, books, the internet, and even self-help books written by sex therapists—you get the message that there is one way to have great sex—he should last a long time, she should come easily, sex is hot and passionate, or at the very least playful—and everyone can do this if they put enough effort into it, or love each other enough.

So, despite apparently celebrating sexual variety, the effect of all this is to blur individual differences and promote sameness.

Surprisingly, now the most common sexual problem is not low libido, rapid ejaculation, or difficulty with orgasm: it is that people are not prepared for the extent of individual differences in human sexuality. When you enter into a relationship with a partner whose sexual wants and needs are unlike your own, you do not know how to interpret this discrepancy or to resolve the mismatch to achieve a mutually satisfying sex life. Does this mean we don’t love each other or my partner doesn’t find me attractive? Surely if he or she tried harder they could give me the sex life I want? Am I inadequate or abnormal? The resulting hurt and confusion can lead to doubts about your sexuality and the depth of your love for each other.

What really matters when it comes to dealing with the sexual problems you and your partner are struggling with is identifying what is happening now, understanding the current issues, exploring strategies that might help, and then being honest about what you are prepared to do to address the distress you are feeling in your sexual relationship. Even people with secure, happy personal histories can end up in unsatisfying sexual relationships, because it is how your individual sexuality interacts with your partner’s that defines what is a problem and what isn’t. What you need to know, then, is who are you: what are your sexual wants and needs, and how do they match or mismatch with those of your partner?

Commonsense tells us that people are different, and want and need different things from sex. Sexual expression takes many forms in different people, often even in the same person at different times in his or her life. From the beginning of my career as a sex therapist more than 30 years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the issue of difference rather than sameness. This has led me to develop my theory that the sexual issues that couples struggle to deal with are usually not evidence of individual pathology or relationship problems, but reflect the fact that just as there are different personality types, there are different sexual types – I call them libido types. Libido types are not scientifically validated concepts but a shorthand method of describing people with differences in sexual desire and expression.

I have developed the concept of libido types to offer a new way of thinking about the sexual problems that cause you and your partner such distress. Think about how you relate to your friends and family who have different personality types: is there only one way of having a good friendship, or a loving family relationship? The same is true for your sexual relationship. Libido typing allows you to understand what is important to you in sex, and how that might be the same or different to your partner’s priorities. If you are prepared to put aside the stereotype of what a good sex life should be like, and to take the time to explore your own sexuality and to be curious about your partner’s sexuality, you will find that using libido typing allows you to open up new lines of communication and challenge hurtful misinterpretations to discover hidden strengths in your relationship. As with singers who are in harmony, a harmonious sex life is not necessarily one in which you are both wanting and doing exactly the same things in the same way, but one which is characterized by blending the strengths that you each have to create an agreeable and pleasing sex life.

· The Sensual libido type values emotional connection above sexual performance. Sex is an important part of the relationship for Sensual lovers, but it is more important for them to know that their partner is happy to be physically intimate with them as an expression of their love and commitment to each other rather than what is actually done during sex.

· The Erotic libido type believes that sex should be intense and passionate, at least some of the time. Mild Erotic lovers can cope with periods of ordinary sex provided there are regular opportunities for adventurous and sizzling sex, while strong Erotic lovers believe that intense erotic sex is a cornerstone of a good relationship and get little pleasure out of low key sex.

· The Dependent libido type needs sex to cope with daily life. Typically the Dependent lover has used masturbation in the teenage years to cope with bad feelings such as stress, boredom or anxiety. As an adult this dependence to cope with negative feelings continues, but the Dependent lover may not recognize this and interpret the partner’s unwillingness to go along with sex whenever he needs it as lack of love and caring.

· Individuals with a Reactive libido get most satisfaction from pleasing their lover during sex. Either the Reactive lover has low sexual needs but gains genuine pleasure from keeping his/her partner happy, or he/she needs to see his/her partner aroused in order to become aroused him/herself.

· Entitled lovers assume that it is their right to get what they want in their sexual relationship. Some Entitled lovers are influenced by the idealization of sex in our culture and believe that everyone else is having hot, great sex so they are entitled to it as well, but others don’t think much about sex other than to expect to have it when they want it.

· People with an Addictive libido find it difficult to resist the lure of sex outside their long term relationships. The essential characteristic of the Addictive libido, like any addiction, is that the behavior has control over them rather than vice versa, and some feel distressed by their actions while others feel what they are doing is acceptable. An Addictive lover may not be continuously having sex outside his/her relationship, but when the opportunity is there he/she finds reasons to pursue it.

· A Stressed libido may be present from the beginning of a person’s sex life, or it may develop over time from other libido types where the individual previously experienced regular sexual desire. Stressed lovers feel under pressure to perform, and constantly worry that they are sexually inadequate in some way. The Stressed lover increasingly avoids sex for fear of failure, even though he/she may still feel sexual desire, which some find easier to satisfy with masturbation.

· Some people have always had little or no interest in sex, while others find their sex drive dwindles over the years. The Disinterested libido type may develop from a Stressed libido type, where sex has become so distressing that any sexual interest disappears. However, many people have a naturally occurring low physical libido. Sometimes this is associated with little or no pleasure if they do have sex, but for others, they can become aroused and enjoy sex once they get into it.

· The Detached libido type usually feels sexual desire but is too preoccupied with other life issues to seek out partnered sex, usually masturbating to relieve sexual frustration because it is the simple solution. The Detached lover’s withdrawal from partnered sex may be the result of a sense of overwhelming stress from financial or work pressure, or it may reflect unresolved issues in the couple’s relationship.

· While the Erotic lover wants to explore all the wondrous variety of sexual activities that are now openly discussed in our society, the Compulsive lover has one main sexual object or situation that triggers sexual arousal. In its mild form, the Compulsive libido type takes advantage of opportunities to use the specific sexual ritual that causes intense arousal, and in its stronger form, the Compulsive lover can only arouse using the sexual object or ritual. Some sexual compulsions can be incorporated into a sexual relationship, but other, such as the compulsive use of Internet pornography, excludes a partner.

An individual may be a blend of two or three libido types, and your libido type may change over time: for example, almost any libido type may develop into a Stressed Libido type which can also lead to a Disinterested Libido type. Conversely, a Stressed or Disinterested Libido type may become a Sensual or Erotic Libido type if the right circumstances occur for that person.

Two people with different libido types can find that their sexual relationship becomes unsatisfying and tense, despite their love and commitment to each other, by the process I call the Cycle of Misunderstanding. Beginning with differences in expectations about their sexual relationship, a couple with mismatched libidos often differ in the appropriate initiation of sex, and their critical reaction to each other’s wants and needs leads to hurt feelings. Communication is flawed by misinformation about normal sexual function and sexual diversity, leading to misinterpretation of each other’s sexuality. As a couple become more defensive, each partner feels pushed to a more extreme position than he or she really wants, resulting in polarization, which may lead to increasing isolation and eventual separation.

In a culture that is seen as sexually enlightened, it is usually the partner who has "low libido" who is most likely to be seen as the one causing the problem, yet understanding differences in libio types hows that this is an oversimplification of the complexities of an intimate relationship. As the differences in libido types reveals, libido is much more than how often a person wants sex: it encompasses many elements, including what triggers arousal and what dampens it, the importance of sex compared to other parts of a relationship, the meaning of sex for each individual, what is pleasurable during sexual activity, and so on.

One of the things I have discovered in working with couples with mismatched libidos is that
the great majority of the people who consult me abut their sex lives are good people doing the best they can. If they are causing hurt to their partner, it is rarely done consciously and maliciously, but most commonly arises out of their beliefs about what a good sexual relationship should be, fears that they might be at fault for the "failure" of their sex life, and distress as they wonder why their partner is not meeting their needs in some way. With this in mind, as you read about each type, it might seem that some are "better" or more "normal" than others. Nevertheless, I’d like you to suspend judgment, because it has been my experience that there are reasonable and caring people in each type, and while there are individuals who are selfish and inconsiderate, these characteristics are not tied to a particular sex drive. Also, remember that my libido types are descriptive categories and are meant to be used as a tool to identify and understand the many ways individual differ sexually.

Usually the major stumbling block to effective problem-solving is that each of you can only see the problem in terms of your own libido type, and therefore look for solutions that make sense for that libido type. For example, you may be a Sensual libido type and your partner an Erotic libido type. Both of you want the sexual relationship to reflect the love and commitment that binds you as a couple. As a Sensual lover, you feel hurt that your partner puts so much emphasis on sexual variety; you believe that if you love each other it doesn’t matter whether sex is quiet and restrained or whether you become hotly aroused and have powerful orgasm, rather, what is more important is that you both want to be physically intimate in an easy, familiar, comfortable way. Your Erotic partner believes that with love and commitment comes passion and sexual energy, and is bursting to explore all the many ways you can experience emotional intimacy through shared erotic experiences. The solutions you look for as a Sensual lover would be to slow things down, and to choose sexual activity that is more about reassurance through gentle touch, skin contact, and being present together in periods of physical stillness, whereas your Erotic partner wants reassurance through a preparedness to do more to make sex prolonged and passionate. The conflict between you arises because of the differences in what you each enjoy sexually, but the hurt comes from your belief that if your partner loved you, he or she would want the same solutions as you.

The first step towards achieving a harmonious and mutually rewarding sexual relationship has to be acknowledging that you are individuals not only as people but also as sexual beings. Finding meaningful solutions to mismatched libidos can be best achieved by mutual respect and generosity within a "different but equal" framework. Focus needs to be on what is right in your relationship, and what are the good things you each bring to your sexual relationship rather than what is missing.

The next section contains a series of exercises to begin the process of working towards a mutually satisfying sex life.

© Sandra Pertot