When one person in a relationship wants sex twice a day and the other is fine knocking boots once a week, the couple faces what researchers call a "sexual desire discrepancy"—and risks suffering from deeper relationship problems over time.
But are all desire discrepancies created equal? No, as a matter of fact. Notably, a new study on these discrepancies within heterosexual couples found that sexual satisfaction drops for both partners when the man is the one who wants sex more—and not vice versa.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada and the University of Dayton in Ohio conducted two studies, one using 84 couples aged 21 to 65 and the other using 191 individuals, with a mean age of 32, recruited online.
For the first study, the researchers brought the couples into the lab for three hours and interviewed them about their sex lives. They measured the couples' sexual desire for their partners by asking them to rate phrases like "I look forward to having sex with my partner." They measured their general sexual desire by asking them to rate phrases like "I daydream about sex." The couples were also asked to complete questionnaires that measured their sexual function, communication, and relationship commitment.
For the second study, every participant completed a questionnaire that included questions like "In general, how does your sexual desire level compare to that of your partner?" and "How different would you say your sexual desire level is from that of your partner at the present time?’’
In the first study, a sizable 70 percent of the couples experienced some sort of sexual desire discrepancy. And in 59 percent of those couples, the man who desired more sex than the woman. In 11 percent, the woman desired more sex than the man.
In the second study, men and women reported experiencing a sexual desire discrepancy in their relationship pretty equally, but more men than women attributed the gap to their desire being higher than their partner's (56 percent of men said it was "higher than partner's" versus 25 percent of women).
So okay, men appear to want sex more than women in committed heterosexual relationships. But the question is: How does this difference in desire affect overall sexual satisfaction?
According to the authors, "Women who had higher desire than their partner did not differ significantly in sexual satisfaction from those who had lower desire than their partner." In other words, even when women want more sex than their partner, they're still pretty satisfied.
However, when men were not having sex as much as they wanted, sexual satisfaction took a dip. "The results showed that men who reported having higher desire than their partners were less satisfied with their sexual relationship than those with desire equal to or less than that of their female partner," wrote the authors.
Not only that, but women who want less sex than their partner also experience lower satisfaction with their sexual relationship. "Women who reported experiencing lower levels of desire, as compared to their partners, were less sexually satisfied than women who reported equal or greater desire than their male partner," the authors report. So in the case of those couples where the man wants more and woman wants less, it's a lose lose.
Why the double whammy? The authors point out that the sexual desire discrepancy measured in couples in which the man wants more sex was actually much larger than the discrepancy measured in couples in which the woman wanted more sex—making it harder for couples to bridge the gap.
As the authors point out, though, with the exception of couples in which the man wanted much more sex than he was getting, most people were sexually satisfied with their relationships even when small discrepancies were present.
"Our findings for actual desire discrepancy suggest that variation in desire levels between partners is not necessarily a problem in the relationship," the authors write. "Just as partners learn to deal with differences in values, goals, and priorities in other domains of life, most couples have likely developed adaptive ways to handle desire discrepancies without such discrepancies adversely impacting their sexual satisfaction."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.