Last year I interviewed Dr. Michael Sytsma and researcher Shaunti Feldhahn on mismatched sexual desire in married couples. The pair wrote a book all about sex and marriage and made some surprising discoveries. Many husbands and wives facing sexual challenges ask the same questions: How do couples overcome differences in sexual desires? And what strategies can help in resolving conflicts related to sexual intimacy?

Let’s dive deep into the episode to see what Shaunti and Dr. Sytsma had to say.


Begin effectively managing relationship conflicts.

While it’s not fun to deal with disagreements about sexual preferences, you have to talk about sex. Dr. Michael Sytsma, founder of Building Intimate Marriages and a certified sex therapist, says, “Communication makes the world of difference. Couples that were able to communicate more effectively with each other saw higher frequency and higher satisfaction.”


Three steps to resolve conflict in your intimate relationship:

  1. Take the argument outside of the bedroom. The best place for these conversations is in a place where both you and your spouse feel safe and comfortable. Try to avoid talking about sexual challenges in the middle of connecting sexually. Talk over dinner, on a walk, or on a short car ride, where both of you have space to walk away if needed.
  2. Read a book together to help you communicate and improve your sexual intimacy. Shaunti says, “Reading a book together can help couples find language about the ways they are feeling and the challenges they face.”
  3. Try relationship counseling. The sexual relationship is a relationship too! Find a christian sex therapist who can help mediate between you and your spouse and help guide conversations around sex.


Focus on building emotional intimacy.

Sexual intimacy isn’t just about sex. We are complex, interconnected creatures, and this means many different factors can affect libido. You and your spouse need to work on connecting in the greater context of the relationship in the day-to-day, not just on what is happening sexually.


Explore some different techniques for enhancing intimacy in relationships:

  1. Communicate better. “We see couples who don’t communicate well pulling further and further away from each other, which amplifies the pain.” Being able to say, “I could be receptive” or “I’m feeling really resistant today” builds trust, understanding, and emotional intimacy between you and your spouse. Help your spouse understand how you are feeling and invite them to share how they feel.
  2. Work on the relationship outside of the bedroom. A spouse who feels they were mistreated or disrespected is not going to want to engage sexually. How do you treat your spouse outside of sex?
  3. Live seductively. Learn what draws your spouse into drive beyond turning them on. What makes your spouse want to connect with you? This is your spouse’s unique language.


Overcome differences in desire.

Desire discrepancy is a common obstacle in many marriages. Many couples tend to think about these differences in terms of high libido and low libido. It may be more helpful to think about sexual drive in terms of spontaneous and responsive desire.

Spontaneous desire is when a person feels desire and pursues someone sexually, and receptive desire is when a person decides to get engaged sexually and then begins to experience arousal and begins to feel sexual desire. Dr. Sytsma says, “Husbands tend to underestimate their wives’ level of desire pretty consistently. The further apart the perceptions are, the more woundedness, the more damage, the more strife and conflict we have.”


Address differences in sexual desires:

  • Ask the right questions. Dr. Sytsma says, “Couples are far closer together in their desire than they believe they are.” Maybe ask the question, “How often would you like to have sex?” instead of “Why don’t you ever want to have sex?”
  • Work to understand your spouse. What type of desire do they have? Is it no desire as you’ve assumed, or could it be that they have a more responsive type of sexual desire?
  • Get on the same side of the table. Work together to try and figure out what is preventing you both from having the type of sexual relationship you both would like to have.


Understand that improving sexual connection is a journey.

“[For] the bulk of couples, there’s a discrepancy [with one partner having a higher libido than the other].” A healthy sex life is still going to ebb and flow. In some seasons the wife may be the one with the low libido. At other times it could be that the husband struggles with a lower sex drive. The key is to build a long term connection that is strong enough to deal with the mismatched libidos in whatever form they take.

Coping with intimacy issues in relationships is a valuable relationship skill. This is especially true when it comes to sex in marriage. There are many different tools available to assist you and your spouse on your journey. A richer, more connected, and more intimate shared sex life is closer than you think.


The referenced episode is part of the Authentic Intimacy member archive. Members can listen to the episode here.

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