Opinions

You’re Not Responsible for Your Partner’s Sexual Satisfaction

The most common sexual challenge I see as a sex therapist working with couples is something we refer to in the biz as “desire discrepancies.” This happens when one person wants to have sex more frequently than the other person in the relationship. 

This difference in and of itself isn’t a problem — it would be incredibly rare for two people to want the same amount of sex at the same time for their entire relationship. 

But it can still cause a lot of shame, tension, and distress. 

One of the biggest ways I see desire discrepancies cause relationship problems is when people make themselves over-responsible for solving the desire gap. 

Let me say it loud and clear: You’re not responsible for your partner’s pleasure. Full stop. 

I want to make bumper stickers, I want to make t-shirts, I want to shout this from rooftops with a megaphone. Pressure is the enemy of desire. 

So, what’s the best way to deal with desire discrepancy? Let’s dig in. 

Focus on quality over quantity

We get funky messages in our society about what sexual frequency means in a relationship. Some people have internalized that sexual frequency equals relationship security. 

Sex therapist Peggy Kleinplatz has spent many years studying what makes extraordinary sex. Her research findings suggest that when it comes to sexual experiences, people should focus on quality rather than quantity. 

When you fixate on hitting a sexual quota, you’re more likely to struggle when a relationship goes through typical ebbs and flows of desire. 

Many factors — not just sex —help cultivate a strong relationship, like emotional maturity, generosity, and clear communication. 

In one of Emily Nagoski’s Ted talks, How Couples Can Sustain a Strong Sexual Connection for a Lifetime, she highlights research that suggests a strong friendship and valuing sex is important for a satisfying sexual relationship.

She also cites a study that found the strongest predictor of relationship and sexual satisfaction was not how often people had sex but whether they cuddled afterward. 

For the higher desire partner

In my practice, I see a pattern in higher-desire partners: they panic when they feel they’re not getting “enough” sex. This might be because they’ve learned that having a lot of sex means their partner is attracted to them and indicates relationship security. 

Other times, it seems to be that they have learned to funnel all of their connection needs through sex. Their partner may be providing emotional support, but it’s almost as if anything apart from sex is being communicated in a language they haven’t yet learned to speak, so the support doesn’t register. 

I feel for these folks. When their partner doesn’t want sex, it can feel like a kind of emotional starvation. 

They might respond to this feeling by demanding, pressuring, or dumping worry onto their partner. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting sex. But how you communicate your desire can get in the way of genuine connection. Pressure kills the desire for sex. 

For the lower desire partner

The lower desire partner often ends up in my office because they feel they “should” want sex. It can come from a well-meaning place of wanting to help their partner feel happy and sexually fulfilled. They may even want to want to have sex themselves. But, time and time again, when I work with these clients, if their motivation to have sex is primarily for someone else, the motivation soon burns out.

It makes sense to want to do something to make your partner happy. But overriding your needs, wants, and boundaries can be a recipe for resentment, disgust, and bodily dissociation. 

If your desire for sex is low (or you believe it is), know there’s nothing wrong with you. Desire is like emotion. It ebbs and flows over your lifespan. It also falls on a spectrum — some people may even identify as asexual.

If you have low desire but find yourself wanting to connect with your sexual self, I recommend focusing on Kleinplatz’s idea that the sex worth wanting is sex that is pleasurable. 

The goal is to identify what kind of sensual touch and play is enjoyable. This can be a radical concept in a society that teaches us to be attentive and attractive to others at the expense of ourselves. It can be revolutionary to sink into your own pleasure.

Consider whether any of the following statements from “Positive Motivations for Sexual Healing” in Staci Haines’ book Healing Sex, ring true for you:

  • I want to gain freedom in my body. I want to be able to move, make noise, and express myself fully.
  • I want to heal the shame that runs my sex life so that I feel relaxed and excited during sex.
  • I want to enjoy touching myself.
  • I want my body back, all the way.
  • I want pleasure and being present in my sex life to be the norm instead of fear and checking out.
  • I want to have sex in the ways I am interested in. I want to be more courageous sexually.
  • I want to be able to respect and communicate my sexual boundaries.
  • I want to learn that I am loved for me and not for sex alone.
  • I want to make my own sexual choices.
  • I want to have sex and intimacy at the same time.

Bottom line

To have a satisfying sexual relationship, you need to know and communicate your psychological, emotional, and physical boundaries. 

You can’t do this if you feel responsible for your partner’s desire. 

To feel pleasure requires a state of presence and mindfulness, of being in your own body. It’s from this place that you can have the most satisfying sexual experiences.

Erin Davidson, MA, RCC, CST
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Erin Davidson (she/her) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Sex Therapist working in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a firm believer in the healing power of pleasure and being kinder to ourselves. Erin is the author of two books Break Through the Breakup and Thriving in Non-Monogamy. She is most proud of her new fluffball Marv who recently graduated top of his class in puppy preschool.

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