Will opening up help?
This is a question we see a lot in the therapy room, especially as more people are becoming familiar with the concept of asexuality. Desire discrepancies in monogamous relationships are one of the most difficult problems couples, and therapists, face in couples therapy. This is even hard to deal with when both people want sex, just in different amounts. The answer for whether opening up will solve desire discrepancy problems is dependent on many factors, being asexual is one of them.
What kind of Asexual are you?
First, a personal story. I was given a pretty decent sex education in high school, which is disturbingly uncommon. I grew up being sex positive, but as a child of the 80s, I was given a lot of shitty messages about the role of sex in and out of a relationship. In a nutshell, I had no problem with people having sex for fun in or outside of a relationship. I also received a LOT of pressure from guys to have sex. I mostly did it because I thought they would like me more, and worse, I did it because I learned it would get them to stop harassing me a lot faster if I just did it with them. When I got into long-term relationships, I was usually interested in having sex with my partner in the beginning, but it didn’t take long for me to lose interest. This inevitably led to fights in every relationship I had through my 20s and early 30s, even after I became polyamorous. It took me a graduate education, and a whole lot of exploration, to figure out that I’m only interested in sex during the NRE phase of a relationship, and as soon as that wears off, it disappears. Completely. Now, as I head into my late 40s, I barely want to deal with NRE or sex. You might think it’s strange for a sex therapist to not be terribly interested in sex, but I love helping other people have the best sex lives they can imagine. I’ve also had a hell of a lot of sex, despite being mostly asexual. The way my libido works, and the drive to have sex, have also changed over the years. I was far more interested and willing to have sex in my 20s than I am now. I also have fun with certain forms of kink, though not due to the sexual nature of it.
There are different flavors of asexual, though, and like most things in biology, it’s a spectrum. The original asexual definitions developed in the 70’s mostly focused on not having any sexual attraction to others. They might still have a libido and want to masturbate, but they didn’t have sexual attraction to other people. As this term has gained popularity recently, it seems to have taken on some other identities, including people who don’t have a libido and aren’t interested in sex at all. Still, even an asexual might have an active sex life if they enjoy giving sex to their partner.
There may be some confusion around what’s going on, whether asexuality is an innate trait, or something that can develop with changes in hormones or circumstances. I’m not here to gatekeep the term asexual. If you feel the label applies to you, then use it. The things to think about are: Are you not interested in having sex with your partner at all? Have you always been uninterested in sex? Is your disinterest related to one of the following: not being physically attracted to your partner, sex being painful or uncomfortable, or having a responsive libido that isn’t getting addressed? Are you getting older and your hormones are dropping off? Fully understanding your reasons for not being interested in sex is one piece of the puzzle to knowing if opening up is right for your relationship. You might need to talk with a sex therapist to fully understand this problem.
How this looks in monogamy
In monogamy, what is a small discrepancy in sexual desire between partners can quickly lead to polarization in the face of beliefs about what is going on. The person with the lower desire often has all the power over when sex happens, even though they don’t want that power. This pressure to perform often leads to the further disappearance of what libido might be there. Resentment may build if they feel their partner is judging them for their lack of wanting more sex. They might build resentment towards themselves for not wanting more sex, since it would just be easier to solve the relationship problems if they were just more interested in sex. Unfortunately, both of these mindsets make increasing your libido more difficult. It can be very easy for someone who had a libido at one point to decide they aren’t interested in sex at all after several years of trying to manage this side of the dynamic.
For the partner who wants more sex, they feel powerless and dissatisfied. They might see their partner as strange for never wanting sex. More often, they end up worrying that their partner doesn’t love them, the relationship is over, or even that their partner is having an affair. In these circumstances, the libido might skyrocket, especially if they see sex as the primary indicator of their partner loving them. The more they need that validation of the partners love through sex, the more they feel starved for sex.
Often, the lower desire partner will try to have sex more than they want to avoid conflict, or because they feel bad about not wanting sex more. This strategy may work in the short term, but it doesn’t really work in the long term. The higher desire partner might do a dance of asking for more and then never asking for it, trying to figure out the sweet spot for getting their needs met. This strategy doesn’t tend to work at all and only leads to more frustration. When you have one person that doesn’t want sex at all and one person who wants it a few times a week, who gets to dictate the amount you have sex? Either way, you are locked in a power struggle with the person you love, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Much like the desire to have children, this often ends up being a deal breaker in monogamous relationships, unless someone is willing to be miserable for the rest of their lives.
As nonmonogamy has gained in awareness and understanding, more people are thinking it could be a good way to solve the desire discrepancy problem without having to burn down a relationship with someone you love. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it ends up blowing up the relationship anyway. There are things you can consider before trying this route. I don’t expect everyone to have their current relationship in perfect working order before opening up, but there are things you need to be aware of before you do. You might decide to fix some problems before making the leap, and some problems can only be fixed when you are already open.
What to consider when opening up when desire discrepancy is the driving force.
Are you both on board with being in an open relationship? This may sound like a basic question, but if one person is questioning if it’s the right move, they are likely to have a lot of difficulty navigating the many of the common difficulties involved in opening up. They will be more likely to find all the reasons it’s not working and move to close back up over working on the problem that nonmonogamy is presenting to them. If one of you wants an open relationship and the other doesn’t AND you have desire discrepancy problems, you may do better going your own ways.
How do you feel about the role of sex in relationships? If sex is deeply entwined with being in love, then the problem isn’t as much about how often you are having sex so much as it is a problem of not being able to have sex with the person you want to be having sex with. One human isn’t a substitute for another human. If you are only interested in having sex with the person who doesn’t want to have sex, opening up isn’t going to fix that.
How well do you communicate with each other and know how to repair from disagreements and arguments? Look, opening up is hard work, and people often find themselves in disagreements in the early stages. If your relationship has a long history of avoiding difficult conversations, and you aren’t putting work into fixing that problem, nonmonogamy is going to be a problem for you for a lot of reasons outside of sex.
How is your nonmonogamy going to look? Is the partner who has the higher libido just going to go get casual sex off tinder? Are you both going to be open to dating? Are you expecting other relationships to form? The way you set this up can lead to a whole host of issues. If you are both open to dating, and the asexual partner develops NRE, and a desire for sex comes along with that, the higher desire partner can find themselves jealous of how much their partner is having sex with someone else. If the higher desire partner is having a lot of sex, the asexual partner may feel inadequate, and fear they are going to be left for “not being enough”. Jealousy is more likely to come into play if you haven’t spent a lot of time tackling the relationship insecurities set up by the desire discrepancy.
If you feel good about the way you and your partner have answered the above questions, it’s possible that opening up will alleviate some tension in your relationship. Plenty of asexual/graysexual people exist in open relationships with allosexual partners and their relationships are working just fine. If you struggle to answer any of these questions, setting up time with a nonmonogamy friendly couples therapist can help you work on your communication and security while you open up the relationship.