Highs and lows: Sexual distress in couples with different levels of sexual desire

By Heather Oliveira

This blog is a summary of our published article: Jodouin, J.-F., Rosen, N. O., Merwin, K., & Bergeron, S. (2021). Discrepancy in dyadic sexual desire predicts sexual distress over time in a community sample of committed couples: A daily diary and longitudinal study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(8), 3637-3649. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.dal.ca/10.1007/s10508-021-01967-0

Sex is an important part of romantic relationships and boasts many benefits. When couples have regular sex, they often report feeling happier with their relationships and overall well-being and couples who enjoy regular sex report lower levels of anxiety and depression. [1,2] Even though sex is beneficial, many couples in committed relationships report that they are unsatisfied with their sex lives. One of the most common sexual issues is when partners have differences in sexual desire, termed sexual desire discrepancy (or SDD). [3] A common negative outcome of sexual issues is sexual distress (i.e., negative thoughts or feelings about their sexuality). Even though sexual distress is common for couples who experience sexual issues and that SDD is the most frequently reported issue, there is little research examining how they are related.

What did the researchers do?

Considering this, researchers wanted to investigate how SDD and sexual distress were related and what factors lead to greater distress. To do this they recruited 217 diverse couples in committed relationships and asked them to report on their own sexual desire and sexual distress both daily (for 35 days) and 12 months after they enrolled in the study. Researchers analyzed the data and determined each couples’ SDD by comparing the level of sexual desire reported by both partners.

What did the researchers find?

Jodouin and colleagues found that when couples had higher than average SDD on one day it predicted higher than average sexual distress on the next day for both partners. They found the same association when comparing SDD at the beginning of the study with sexual distress 12 months later. That is, when couples had greater differences in sexual desire between partners it predicted sexual distress for the couple and this was true on a daily basis and over time.

Why does this matter?

Coping with and treating SDD is difficult, and these findings may contribute to interventions and education for couples who experience SDD. New research from our lab proposes an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Model (IERM) that suggests that when couples experience sexual difficulties they may use less-optimal strategies to deal with their negative emotions which can result in negative outcomes like sexual distress. [1] When applied to SDD the IERM suggests that daily increases in SDD may result in the couple using strategies like avoidance and conflict instead of greater communication. These results can be applied to treatments that focus on increasing emotion communication for couples coping with SDD instead of increasing sexual desire or aligning desire for the couple. In fact, recent research in SDD recommends focusing on the dynamics of the couple rather than focusing on levels of sexual desire. [2]


[1] Heiman, J. R., Long, J. S., Smith, S. N., Fisher, W. A., Sand, M. S., & Rosen R. C. 2011). Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior 40741–753. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-010-9703-3

[2] Mollaioli, D., Sansone, A., Ciocca, G., Limoncin, E., Colonnello, E., Di Lorenzo, G., & Jannini, E. A. (2021). Benefits of sexual activity on psychological, relational, and sexual health during the COVID-19 breakout. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 18(1), 35–49. https://doi.org /10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.10.008

[3] Leiblum, S. R. (2010). Treating sexual desire disorders: A clinical casebook (S. R. Leiblum (Ed.)). Guilford Press.

[4] Rosen, N. O., & Bergeron, S. (2019). Genito-pelvic pain through a dyadic lens: Moving toward an interpersonal emotion regulation model of women’s sexual dysfunction. Journal of Sex Research, 56(4–5), 440–461. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2018.1513987

[5] Dewitte, M., Carvalho, J., Corona, G., Limoncin, E., Pascoal, P., Reisman, Y., & Stulhofer, A. (2020). Sexual desire discrepancy: A Position Statement of the European Society for Sexual Medicine. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8(2), 121–131. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esxm.2020.02.008