If either of you dreads sex but would rather desire it, therapy may be your best strategy. If you’d like to try a therapy-like approach on your own, you can adapt the following ideas from Come As You Are in whatever way suits your relationship.
Here’s the basic structure.
1. No Sex. That means no genital contact and no orgasms for, say, a month—or two weeks, or three months. Long enough to feel like a substantial barrier. The purpose of this is to remove every trace of expectation or demand that sex will be the result of any physical contact between you. There might be other things you put off limits, too—anything that the lower-desire Partner B resists because of feeling pushed. Without the dread of, “Ugh, what if this perfectly pleasant kiss turns into an expectation of sex that I still don’t want?” both of you can relax and enjoy the physical intimacy you do share.
2. Alternate Initiation. Each person initiates at least once a week. Or once every other week if that seems like too much. Or three times a week if it seems like too little. The number doesn’t matter much, just negotiate a number that both of you feel is doable. The function of this rule is to break down the chasing dynamic so that neither feels pressured and neither feels deprived.
Since you have the no-sex rule, what you’re initiating isn’t sex, but rather sensual touching (see the stages below for details). No demand, no expectations, no pressure to “perform.” Just touching and pleasure and affectionate awareness of bodies. At some point during the day or else right when you go to bed, one partner indicates that they are initiating sensual touching—verbally, nonverbally, whatever works. Find at least twenty minutes of uninterrupted time when you can focus on each other and be attentive and present, without distractions. If initiation happens at an inconvenient time, negotiate a better one and do it then.
A standard approach to sex therapy is to progress along stages. You spend a week or two at each stage, alternating who initiates the gradually escalating sensual touching. Like this:
Stage 1. One person touches the other (excluding body parts that underwear covers) for the toucher’s pleasure, and then they switch.
Stage 2. One person touches the other (excluding body parts that underwear covers) for their own and their partner’s pleasure, and then they switch.
Stage 3. One person touches the other, now including genitals and breasts, for both partners’ pleasure, and then they switch.
Stage 4. Simultaneous touching for mutual pleasure.
And then penetration, if that’s a thing that happens in your relationship, first without any thrusting (“vaginal containment”) and then, in the final stage, with thrusting but without orgasm. But you don’t have to follow this series of stages. You can negotiate a variation that works for both of you.
The person doing the touching must practice “self-assertion” and the person being touched must practice “self-protection.” That is, in the first stage especially, the toucher must do what feels good, and the touchee must say when the toucher should stop doing something that feels uncomfortable. Some couples find it useful to use a scale, like –10 to +10, and the toucher stops doing anything below a –2. Some couples use a traffic light system—green light for pleasure, yellow for neutral, and red for “Stop that.” The purpose of self-protection and self-assertion is to untangle the knots in sexual communication by simplifying it down to “This feels good to me” and “I don’t like that,” without blame or judgment.
As you can imagine, Feels emerge in this process, Lots of Feels. The real challenge with this strategy is not the stages or alternating initiation, but creating space for both people’s Feels, even when they conflict with each other. If you’re good at creating that space as a couple, this approach could be really terrific for you. If you are too stuck in your own points of view to take each other’s points of view seriously… therapy. Really. It helps! The research says so!
The larger solution underpinning all three of these approaches is attitudinal rather than behavioral. Feeling like there’s something wrong with you (or with your partner) or feeling like your partner feels there’s something wrong with you—these are desire killers, every time.
So look, I’ve got a message for Partner B, the one who feels chased. I’m going to say something, and you’re going to believe me because all the scientific evidence is on my side. Actually, you’ll believe me because what I’m about to say is true. Because in the patient corners of your heart, you’ve always known it’s true. It’s this:
You’re not broken. You are whole. And there is hope.
You might feel stuck. You might be exhausted. You feel depressed, anxious, worn out by the demands of taking care of everyone else, and in desperate, dire need of renewal. You might be tired of feeling like you need to defend yourself and tired of wishing your body would do something different. You might wish that, for a little while, someone else would defend you so that you could lower your guard and just be. Just for a while.
Those are circumstances, they’re not you. You are okay. You are whole. There exists inside you a sexuality that protects you by withdrawing until times are propitious.
I completely get how terribly frustrating it can be that your partner’s body feels like times are propitious right now, while your body is still wary. And it’s even worse because the more ready your partner’s body seems, the more wary your body becomes. It sucks, for both of you.
But it’s in there, your sexuality. It’s part of you, as much as your skin and your heartbeat and your vocabulary. It’s there. It’s waiting. Just because you’ve had no call to use the words “calefacient” or “perfervid” lately doesn’t mean they’re no longer available to you. If the opportunity arises, there they will be, ready, waiting. Like your best friend, your sexual desire is waiting for your life to allow it to come out and play. Let it, whenever it feels safe enough.
And a brief message to Partner A—the one who wants sex and keeps asking for it: I know that it can feel like Partner B is withholding and I know that that can feel deeply awful. Your role in untangling your relationship knots is very difficult because it requires you to put down your hurts and be loving to the person who, it sometimes seems, is the source of those hurts. Boy, is that hard.
I know, too, that sometimes you may start to worry that you want sex too often, that you’re making unreasonable demands or that you’re sick to want sex as much as you do. No, you just have a higher level of sexual interest than your partner does—your parts are organized in a different way. It’s normal. Neither of you is broken, you just need to collaborate to find a context that works for both of you.
Give Partner B space and time away from sex. Let sex drop away from your relationship—for a little while—and be there, fully present, emotionally and physically. Lavish your partner with affection, on the understanding that affection is not a preamble to sex. Be warm and generous with your love. You won’t run out.
Put simply, the best way to deal with differential desire is: Be kind to each other.
Untangling the knots of sexual dynamics in a relationship takes time, patience, and practice, but consistently using these strategies, which are based in the best available science, can put you on the right track.