Sexual Desire Discrepancy

Issues regarding sexual desire are among the most commonly
reported complaints among couples.”

Sexual Desire Discrepancy: A Position Statement of the European
Society for Sexual Medicine

This page is still under construction


  • Sexual desire is the (subjective) experience of being attracted to or pushed towards objects or behaviors with potential rewarding effects. 9
  • Sexual desire discrepancy (SDD) was first defined by Zilbergeld and Ellison (1980)to describe when 2 partners in an intimate relationship desire different levels or a different frequency of sexual activity.
  • Basson (2000, 2001) also distinguished betweenspontaneous and responsive sexual desire, where sponta-neous desire is the drive that is more characteristic inearlier relationships and responsive sexual desire is more consistent with longer-term relationships


  • Sexual desire in long term relationships
  • Impact on relationships
  • Strategies used by couples
  • inevitability: individual levels of sexual desire ebb and flow for several reasons over the course of one’s life


  • “it is remarkable that low and high sexual desire are typically approached from an individualistic perspective that reduces the problem to the individual desire levels of the partners, thereby disregarding the dyadic interaction in which it develops.” 7.
  • From this follows that the experience of sexual feelings is a consequence of an incentive energizing the sexual system. Feelings of sexual desire and excitement result from the awareness of the sexually excited state of the body and the brain. Hence, the experience of sexual desire can only come about through sexual excitement. Contrary Kaplan’s proposal sexual desire does not precede sexual excitement; excitement precedes sexual desire. 9
  • More recently, it has been proposed that sexual desire in a relationship should be conceptualized, studied, and treated as a relative and dyadic concept,rather than an individual characteristic or trait. Instead of pathologizing the low-desire partner and using the high-desire partner as a benchmark, it has been proposed to reframe sexual desire problems as a mismatch in desire. 7
  • “and although sexual desire is related to the frequency of sexual behavior, it can be problematic to rely on sexual frequency as a proxy for sexual desire (Brotto, 2010). Sexual desire is not a purely behavioral construct (Brotto, 2010; Clement, 2002; Mark, 2015). Using sexual frequency as a proxy for sexual desire removes the important contextual components of sexual desire, such as the relationship dynamic (Mark, 2015), distress (Clement, 2002) and the relevance of sexually diverse relationships where the frequency of sexual activity is not a marker of desire or quality (Blair & Pukall, 2014). In addition, sexual desire is not necessary for sexual activity (Brotto, Heiman, & Tolman, 2009), and sexual behavior is often engaged in for reasons other than sexual desire (Basson, 2000; Cain et al., 2003; Meston & Buss, 2007; Muise, 2017) or with the absence of sexual desire altogether (Beck, Bozman, & Qualtrough, 1991).” 10
  • Realistic expectations that sexual desirewill ebb and flow throughout the relationship has been shown in multiple studies to impact the maintenance of sexual desire in long-term relationships. 10
  • Autonomy. Maintaining a level of autonomy in arelationship and being able to continue to have an identity that is separate from the couple identity has been shown to contribute to the maintenance of sexual desire in the context of a long-term relationship 10
  • Individuals high in avoidant attachment tend to be at risk for maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships. 10


  1. Strategies for Mitigating Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Relationships – 2020
  2. Maintaining sexual desire in intimate relationships: the importance of approach goals – (“Results showed that approach relationship goals buffered against declines in sexual desire over time and predicted elevated sexual desire during daily sexual interactions.”) – 2008
  3. Sexual Desire Discrepancy as a Feature, Not a Bug, of Long-Term Relationships: Women’s Self-Reported Strategies for Modulating Sexual Desire – 2014
  4. Does a Long-Term Relationship Kill Romantic Love? – (keen to read this: “A review of taxonomies, theory, and research suggests that romantic love, without the obsession component typical of early stage romantic love, can and does exist in long-term marriages, and is associated with marital satisfaction, well-being, and high self-esteem.”) – 2009
  5. Heterosexual Men’s Sexual Desire: Supported by, or Deviating from, Traditional Masculinity Norms and Sexual Scripts? – “It is suggested that researchers, therapists, and sex educators be mindful that men face pressures to exhibit sexual desire in stereotypically masculine ways and that outward demonstrations of sexual interest may not always be accurate representations of men’s true experiences.” – 2017
  6. Treatment of Desire Discrepancy: One Clinician’s Approach – 2020
  7. Sexual Desire Discrepancy: A Position Statement of the European Society for Sexual Medicine – 2020
  8. Leiblum S. Treating sexual desire disorders. New York. NY:Guilford; 2010
  9. Desire emerges from excitement: A psychophysiological perspective on sexual motivation – 2007
  10. Maintaining Sexual Desire in Long-Term Relationships: A Systematic Review and Conceptual Model – 2018

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