What to Do When You Want Sex, and Your Partner Doesn’t

lonely woman with sleeping man

Have you ever tried to initiate sex, but your partner wasn’t interested?

It can be a strange feeling to deal with, especially if it’s a topic you feel you can’t talk about. 

There are a lot of ideas out there about what a “normal” sex life is, and it can be a source of shame to feel like your experience doesn’t measure up. However, sex is such an individual experience that it’s hard to compare yourself to others – that can often leave you feeling bad about yourself or your experiences.

Communicating about sex is tricky if you don’t have much practice. Luckily though, it gets easier the more you try it. You may also find your partner uncomfortable talking about sex or your sex life. Everyone has their comfort level, so it can help to ease into talking about sex (like discussing sex from a TV show instead of your personal sex life at first). Remember, though, the key to a great sex life is being able to communicate. It can be upsetting if you don’t know what your partner is enjoying or their boundaries. Also, there’s the issue of consent – consent requires communication throughout the experience, so practicing this kind of communication is a big deal.

If you’re unsure where to start, try exploring the stories you tell yourself about sex. 

  • Where did you learn these stories? 
  • Are they true, or are they no longer relevant to the information you have now as an adult? 
  • How do you feel when you imagine talking about sex with your partner? 
  • Where in your body do you feel those things – do you feel anxiety in your throat or chest, or maybe butterflies in your stomach? 

Pay attention to what’s going on in your body and start there.

person breathing with plants behind

Why people might not want to have sex

Sex drive isn’t always as simple as being turned on. Sometimes we’re too tired to act on any desire we feel. Sometimes medicine we take lowers our sex drive or makes sexual dysfunction more likely. Here are some other reasons why people might not be into sex at a particular moment: 

  • They had a hard day at work and just needed to chill out.
  • They ate something that didn’t agree with them, and they’re having a stomachache. 
  • They’re feeling a lot of pressure from family members to visit for a week over the holidays.
  • They’re in the middle of a stressful move and don’t have the energy for sex.
  • Someone they love is in distress, and sex is the furthest thing from their mind.
  • There’s been a breakdown of trust in the relationship, and they’re not sure how to repair it. 
  • They are having a tough time with their mental health, and sex isn’t on their mind. 

These are just a few examples, but there are a million reasons why someone might not be in the mood for sex, and very few of the reasons have anything to do with their partner.

How does desire work?

Desire doesn’t work the same way for everyone. There are different types of desire–spontaneous or responsive–we don’t all get turned on in the same way. Some people feel desire without any physical stimulation – they’ll go from zero to horny in 3.5 seconds. That’s spontaneous desire – the desire to have sex pops up without needing any build-up time. 

Other people experience reactive desire, which builds in reaction to physical or mental stimulation. You might watch a movie with a hot sex scene and then get in the mood. Or you might not feel like you want sex until you and your partner start touching or kissing.

However you experience desire, know that there is nothing wrong with you. There’s no requirement for the amount of passion you feel or how you feel it – it just takes some time to learn what works best for you.

What is going on underneath the tension?

Whenever we argue with a partner, it’s a pretty good bet that there are some attachment needs underneath contributing to what’s going on. Attachment needs are requirements we need to feel secure, like knowing that you matter or won’t be abandoned.

We need connection to survive as a species and are wired to get it. So when your partner turns down sex, it might not feel in the moment like they’re just too tired or they’re under a lot of stress. It can feel like what they’re saying is “I don’t want you” or “I don’t desire you,” even when that’s not what they mean at all.

To find out what’s genuinely occurring, communication is necessary. Nothing will get better if you don’t talk about what’s happening and what each of you feels when sex comes up. When you try to ignore or avoid a problem, it doesn’t go away; it just leads to resentment and frustration. The same is valid here.

If you’re struggling with wanting sex when your partner doesn’t, here are some suggestions for the following steps to take after talking about it:

1) Take sex off the table (but not touch)

Sometimes, the pressure to have sex can take away the excitement of touching and playing with one another. If there’s an expectation that you’ll have sex every time you touch, purposefully, casual, affectionate, or playful touch might be the last thing on your mind. 

If this is the case for you, try taking sex off the table for a while. With sex gone as an option, playful or sensual touching might feel more enjoyable because you both know it doesn’t have to lead anywhere. You can take the time to act on it when you’re feeling affectionate or playful. You can take the time to slow down and sensually appreciate each other instead of rushing right to the main event allowing you to discover or rediscover what your partner loves and what excites you about physical intimacy.

arms with the blurry woods

2) Try using toys 

Another fun way to mix things up can be to incorporate sex toys into your routine. It’s 2022, and the sex toy industry is booming! There is truly something out there for everyone at all different price points, so you can start small if you like. 

colorful sex toys

It might seem scary to buy a sex toy when you’re not sure if you’ll enjoy it, and due to the nature of these toys, you often can’t return them. It can be enlightening to read reviews from different shops or sex educators to find what works for other folks and why because everyone is built differently and experiences pleasure differently. There are many options, so there is most definitely an option for you.

Some toys work via Bluetooth, for couples who don’t live together or want to play from a distance. Some toys are designed specifically for people with disabilities or mobility issues, and there’s also positioning furniture available if finding a comfortable position gets in the way of intimacy. There are toys for folks with vulvas and folks with penises, so everyone has something to try, and the best part is that 99% of sex toy shops ship discreetly, so you can keep your new toys a secret between you and your partner if you want to. 

Playing with sex toys can be an exciting way to incorporate different sensations into your play, work with the bodies of everyone involved, and add novelty or excitement to your sex life.

3) Check with a doctor 

Sometimes a lack of interest in sex can indicate something is going on medically, so it can be helpful to get checked out by a practitioner you trust. There are diagnoses out there that can impact sex drive, and sometimes medications also play a role in raising or lowering sex drive.

therapist patting the patient's shoulder

4) It’s important to remember that it’s okay if you simply don’t desire sex.

Sex is not required, and there’s nothing wrong with you if sex is not something that interests you. There are lots of writing out there on ways to increase your level of desire (mainly aimed at women),  but if it’s not something that bothers you, don’t feel like you need to change who you are for some cultural expectation. 

We often go through phases in life where things distract us from our sexual selves – new parenthood, for example. 

Sometimes sex is on the back burner, and that’s okay. That’s why it’s especially important to establish other ways to be intimate emotionally with your partner – when sex is off the table, you still have ways to appreciate each other and connect. 

5) Remember you’re a team.

Sometimes it can feel like you and your partner aren’t on the same page or even on the same team. It can be tempting to view the situation as you versus your partner, but that will leave you both feeling isolated and unsupported. Instead, try to look at things from a different perspective – you and your partner versus the problem. 

couple sitting on the sand

It’s hard to admit something isn’t working or talk about vulnerable feelings. Establishing that the two of you are a team that works together can help build a sense of trust and safety, which is essential to sexual intimacy. 

6) Work with a sex therapist.

Couples counseling might be a helpful next step if you and your partner are trying to get on the same page about your sex life. It’s a game changer to work with a sex therapist who practices from a holistic perspective because sex is an essential part of life for many people. 

couple greeting someone on their laptop

Working with a therapist that sees you and your partner as a whole person, instead of a set of problems to be fixed, can be empowering. 

Sex therapy offers a space where you and your partner can explore what you need to build and sustain intimacy and connection in your relationship without judgment. You can get to the bottom of misunderstandings, share vulnerable feelings, and explore different aspects of your sexuality together and on your own.

Are you frustrated because it seems like your partner is never in the mood for sex? 

woman thinking while sitting at the edge of the bed

Our expert sex therapists at the Center for Relationship Intimacy & Well-Being are experienced in working with couples from a holistic perspective, where you are seen fully for all of your humanity, rather than just being reduced to your relationship or your sexuality. No matter the sexual issue or concern, we see it as an opportunity to heal, grow, and expand your self-awareness. Contact our office today to get started.