My Approach To Working With Desire Discrepancy

blog Jan 24, 2021

If you’re struggling working with desire discrepancy in your practice, first off, I want you to know that you’re not alone. My #1 request from therapists, by far, is for help treating desire discrepancy. There’s a good reason for that. Desire discrepancy is tough. It’s incredibly complex and multifactorial, involving everything from physiology to spirituality to relational dynamics. In fact, my 16-week online course, Assessing and Treating Sex Issues in Psychotherapy, started as a full guide to working with desire discrepancy and expanded from there! 

Over the years, I’ve written and taught a lot about working with desire discrepancy, so in this article, I want to point you to all the different free resources I’ve created. I’ll walk you through when and how to use each resource, so that you can fit them into a framework for approaching desire discrepancy, however it happens to be presenting in your practice. 

As you approach tackling a desire discrepancy, it can be helpful to understand just why it’s such a challenge. This article explains some of the underlying dynamics at play in a desire discrepancy in order to offer an account of why it can be so difficult to work with.

A great first step for working with desire discrepancy is normalizing both partner’s experience of desire. It’s common for partners to feel shame about their level of desire, whether they fear that it’s “too high” or “too low.” Often, that’s the result of societal expectations. Perhaps they believe that it’s wrong for a female partner to have higher desire than a male partner, or they’ve been led to believe that relationships should reflect the perfect compatibility of “soulmates.” 

In fact, part of the reason desire discrepancy is so common is that it’s completely normal and expectable for partners to have different levels of desire–and if you frame things in that way to your clients, you can quickly reduce their distress and get them on the path to making progress. This article explains why normalizing all levels of desire is so useful, and shares some questions you can ask your clients to help them understand where their assumptions about desire come from, and how they could begin to change them. Likewise, this article presents some guidance for framing desire discrepancy as a very normal difference in preferences, similar to how one partner might prefer a cleaner kitchen than the other. 

You may have heard that the best way to treat a desire discrepancy is to encourage the partners to “just do it.” This article responds to that common advice, lays out a series of questions your clients can consider in order to identify whether or not they are willing to try such an experiment, and offers guidance for framing the experiment in a way that ensures no harm is done. 

One thing you should certainly be on the lookout for is a particular, very common dynamic that tends to worsen desire discrepancies: pressure from the higher-desire partner, or even internalized pressure within the lower-desire partner. Whether pressure from a partner appears in the form of anger and resentment about not having sex, pushiness around physical contact, or anything else, it causes relational issues that often result in worsening the desire discrepancy. This article explains this dynamic and offers suggestions for what to do about it. Another key underlying cause of desire discrepancy is sex pain; this article focuses on how sex pain can destroy desire, and points to further resources for identifying its presence. In the most dramatic cases of desire discrepancy, one partner may be experiencing sexual aversion. In that case, turn to this article for ideas on where to go with a treatment plan. 

It’s also very common for desire discrepancies to begin after one partner gives birth; in my series on postpartum low desire, I pick apart the physiological and emotional causes of postpartum low desire, and offer suggestions for how to help partners move forward. Read this article to gain an understanding of the physical causes, with tips for how to help your clients access medical help; read this article for an in-depth account of the emotional causes; and check out this article for guidance on improving intimacy postpartum. 

Once some of the blocks to desire have been removed, many couples find that reconnecting sexually after a long time feels a bit awkward. This article offers some tips for making “breaking the ice” a little easier and more comfortable, as well as some advice for lower-desire partners who are looking to reconnect with their bodies and their sexual selves.

If you’re not certain how to present this advice to your clients, I just published a version of this article intended for partners experiencing a desire discrepancy; you can borrow my language, or just send it to your clients. It’s available here.

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