As a sex therapist, relationship expert, and neuroscientist who studies sex and the brain, I get tons of questions about how to deal with a sex life that no longer sizzles. Here’s the secret: The biggest issue that stalls a sex life after the honeymoon glow of new relationship energy (NRE) wears off boils down to one basic problem: a simple difference in libido.
What I mean by libido is way more complicated than a high or low sex drive. In a recent column, I explained that sexual desire comes in different forms. We can have active desire, when we feel "horny" and have the urge to merge. Increasing your active desire can be as simple as whipping out a vibrator and tuning into your own arousal. But there's also responsive desire that lurks below the surface and can be jump started by romantic wooing or physical stimulation.
Your Sex Drive Horoscope
Beyond active and responsive desire, there's another important factor that shapes our libidos. I call this our unique erotic "love styles," which include both what turns us on and how we like to have sex.
It's important is honor your own erotic love style while respecting your partner's. The key to this is understanding how your styles intersect. Think of it like your sex drive horoscope—some love-styles mesh easily, while others might seem mismatched. Understanding our partner's needs and wants as well as our own can empower ways to build bridges between different styles and provide good fuel to keep your sex drive alive.
Over 30 years of working with couples, I've identified seven main love styles. You may find yourself in more than category, depending on your mood or current situation.
Likes eye gazing, romance, and tender lovemaking. They're the touchy-feely type of lover, enjoying contact and closeness above all. Soulful Lovers tend to be allergic to partners who are more fixated on intensity. For the Soulful Lover, wild and crazy sex may be less satisfying than sex that's primarily about connection.
Feels it isn't sex unless some furniture goes flying. They tend to have high set points of active desire which makes them a bit on the randy side. Because sex for them is more like an athletic event, they don't often mesh well with a Soulful Lover who needs things gentle, warm and fuzzy.
Is needy in general, not just in terms of sex. Because they focus on their own experience, their partners might feel “used” as a form of stress relief. The Giver (see below) and the Soulful Lover might not mind fulfilling this function if the needy partner stays present and isn't just concerned about getting his or her rocks off. A Rough and Tumble hot sex lover might enjoy this kind of partner because the Needy Lover's need to connect might make them willing to dial up the intensity of sex as a sport.
Gets turned on by giving their partners pleasure. Their turn-on is literally the partner's turn-on. These lovers can be an absolute delight for individuals with tons of turn-ons to share. These people aren't going to mesh well with lovers who have trouble with arousal or generally low levels of spontaneous or responsive desire. And having two "Givers" as partners might end up as an impasse while each awaits the other's turn- on.
Can be so incapacitated by performance anxiety that self-consciousness squashes sexual desire period. This proves to be more of a problem for men since they're often expected to initiate sex and perform. As the NRE bump declines, the Anxious Lover feels loss when their partner may not be so insistent in pursuing them. The self-doubt, worry, and self-consciousness tend to build, making them a tough match for any but the most patient Soulful Lover or most enthusiastic Explorer (see below).
Typically has a low baseline of desire—regardless of circumstances. NRE may bump up sexual appetite which makes for a satisfying honeymoon period. If the Low Sex Driver gets into a long-term relationship with an individual with a high sex drive (like the Explorer, see below), the responsive sex drive in the Low Sex Driver might be sufficient to keep the sex life alive. Otherwise, this kind of person is a tough match for any other erotic love-style except of course another Low Sex Driver.
Is someone unconstrained by norms and not only willing to explore sexuality in all sorts of ways but often requiring intensity and novelty. Some may think of Explorers as “kinky." The Explorer is simply someone who enjoys tons of new sex activities as play and experimentation. Explorers can range from the toe dipper to the major full tilt arctic adventurer. They may not mesh well with Soulful Lovers who need sex to be gentle and predictable or Anxious Lovers who find it all too scary.
To see where you and your partner may fit, you can also take this quick quiz.
So, what do you do when erotic love styles seem to clash?
1. Don't panic. Take a deep breath and see this as an opportunity for figuring out what works for each of you.
2. Don’t be afraid to get vulnerable. In my book, Why Good Sex Matters, I devote a whole chapter to learning how to cultivate ongoing long-term sexual potential with partners. This comes from leaning into the edges of what feels scary and prioritizing communication where we take big risks in being authentic, exploring needs, wants, fears and fantasies. Aligning your libido with your partners is often about sharing your most intimate selves.
3. Prioritize your pleasure. And last but not least, remember, pleasure is not a luxury. It is a necessity for a well- balanced emotional life. Make exploring your erotic style a priority and cultivate healthy hedonism—pleasures that feel good and are good for us.
Nan Wise, Ph.D., is AASECT-certified sex therapist, neuroscientist, certified relationship expert, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Follow her @AskDoctorNan.
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