Marriage counselor David Schnarch thinks every romantic relationship consists of a high desire and low desire partner. And it’s not always the guy who can’t get enough.
Question: Are women always the low-desire partner?
David Schnarch: No, that's the stereotype. The stereotype is always the guy can't get enough, and the woman wants to know why he wants it all the time. And that's the stereotype, but in half the couples that we see the man is the low-desire partner. And if you think it's tough being part of the stereotype, where you're the put-upon woman or you are the sex-starved man, you ought to see what happens to couples where it's the woman who can't get enough and it's the guy that feels like he's being chased around, being pushed for sex, where both the man and the woman think it's the guy that's supposed to be making all the approaches. And so you're not only having sex; you're also going against conventional stereotypes. And that happens to about half the couples. In half the couples it's the woman that really wants more sex than the guy does. You just never hear about them because they're both so embarrassed about the roles that they're in.
But also what's problematic about this picture about men and women falling into these typical roles, it doesn't deal with the same-sex couples. And it turns out you can take two women and put them together, or two guys and put them together, and in two years they look straight in the sense of they're not having sex either. So even when you take two women and put them together, you would think, well, they wouldn’t have that problem, right? They have the same temperament and they have the same biology, and the answer is wrong. You take same-sex couples, you put them together; even if they started out at the same level of arousal and desire, two years in, one of them is the high-desire partner, one of them is the low-desire partner.
And you realize what we're talking about transcends sexual orientation. It transcends culture, religion and even time and place in history, because if you look at the earliest recorded history, people were bitching about the high desire/low desire problem even then. It's what's made people go out and look for aphrodisiacs. That's the attempt to overpower the system, and you won't make it. There's no aphrodisiac that will make your partner have sex with you when they don't like you.
Lots of couples start out at the same level, but within two years it gets polarized. And I'm picking two years; for some couples it is six months. For some couples it's as soon as they move in together. And yes, on most issues in a marriage there's always a low-desire partner and a high-desire partner. So for instance, you could be the low-desire partner to have sex and the high-desire partner to have a baby.
And also it's not uncommon for people to switch roles. So for instance, I mentioned that in about half the couples the woman is the high-desire partner. I've seen a number of couples where they start out -- the woman is the high-desire partner; she's been a good girl; she figured, you know, I'll wait until I get into this committed relationship, and then I'll let it all hang out. And she's ready to go. And lo and behold, she turns out to be partnered with a guy that doesn't want it as long or as frequently as she does, and she becomes the low-desire partner with a vengeance. So people very often switch roles. So the person who starts out to be the high-desire partner may end up being the low-desire partner at a later point in the relationship.
And what it points out is, we're not talking about childhood or personality. So for instance, let's say you like to have sex three times a week, and in your first relationship you're partnered with someone who wants sex five times a week. Well, you want it three times a week, and you're the low-desire partner. You get divorced, you partner up with somebody who wants it once a week. You still only want it three times a week; that hasn't changed, but now you're the high-desire partner. So high-desire partner and low-desire partner, we're not talking about absolute frequency; it's positions in a relationship. And there is a high-desire partner and a low-desire partner on virtually every issue, whether it's having sex, or having sex with your eyes opened or closed, or having a baby, or having your spouse's mother-in-law move in with you, or switching careers, or making more money -- there is usually a high-desire partner and a low-desire partner. And on many, many issues in marriage, in what you're interested is collaboration, the low-desire partner runs the show.
Recorded on October 29, 2009