Does how I respond to my partner’s low desire matter?

By Justin Dubé

This blog is a summary of our published article: Rosen, N. O., Corsini-Munt, S., Dubé, J., Boudreau, C. & Muise, A. (2020). Partner responses to low desire: Associations with sexual, relationship, and psychological wellbeing among couples coping with Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 17, 2168-2180.

Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD) involves significant and prolonged distress about one’s experience of low sexual desire. [1] It is one of the most common sexual concerns for women and a top reason why couples seek therapy. [2] Biological, psychological, and interpersonal factors (e.g., hormonal changes, a history of depression, and relationship duration, respectively) all contribute to the development of this condition; yet, studies examining interpersonal factors in couples affected by FSIAD are rare. This is notable: women in romantic relationships are 5 times (!!) more likely to experience distress about low desire relative to unpartnered women. It is therefore likely that interpersonal factors–whether a partner responds to low desire with warmth vs. hostility to the sexual problem, for example–are important for couples’ adjustment to FSIAD.

Our goal for the current study was to examine the associations between responses to low desire and the sexual, relational, and psychological well-being of couples coping with FSIAD. We were also curious to see whether the link between partner responses and aspects of couples’ well-being changed over the course of a year.

What did we do?

First, we assessed whether interested study participants met criteria for FSIAD through a clinical interview. Then, we asked 89 women diagnosed with FSIAD and their romantic partners to complete measures assessing aspects of their sexual, relational, and psychological well-being. We measured women with FSIAD’s perception of their partners’ responses to low desire by asking them to rate a series of word-pairs. For example, if a participant with FSIAD believed their partner responded to their low sexual desire with warmth, they would indicate this belief by selecting 7 on a scale between two opposite words: 1= hostile vs 7 = warm. Partners used this same measure to report on their own responses to women with FSIAD’s low sexual desire. A year later, we reassessed couples’ sexual, relational, and psychological well-being.

What did we find?

When women with FSIAD viewed their partner’s responses to low desire as more positive (e.g., warm or supportive responses), they reported greater relationship satisfaction and had partners that reported lower levels of anxiety. When partners’ responses to FSIAD were more positive, they reported greater relational, sexual, and psychological well-being. We did some exploratory analyses and found that the links between partners’ positive responses and women with FSIAD’s higher relational and psychological well-being (i.e., partner effects) were explained by women’s perception of their partner’s responses. This means that women with FSIAD needed to view their partners’ responses as positive for these responses to be linked with their better well-being–make sense, right? Finally, we didn’t find any association between partner responses and the data for relational, sexual, and psychological well-being that we collected a year after the initial survey.

What does this mean?

Our findings suggest that interpersonal factors have important associations with the adjustment of both members of couples’ with FSIAD. Specifically, partner responses to low sexual desire that were perceived and rated as warm, compassionate, and understanding were related to one’s own greater sexual, relational, and sexual well-being. It is likely that positive responses to FSIAD convey support and understanding within the couple. Given that problems with sexual desire can provoke feelings of embarrassment and fears about infidelity, [3] couples coping with FSIAD may therefore feel more secure in their relationship and less anxious when partners respond to the sexual concern with support and understanding. Likewise, these types of responses may facilitate effective emotion regulation strategies related to low desire, like problem solving or reframing the situation. Taken together, partner responses represent an important interpersonal factor that can be targeted in couples’-based interventions for low desire.


[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

[2] Doss, B. D., Simpson, L. E., & Christensen, A. (2004). Why do couples seek marital therapy? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35(6), 608–614.

[3] Kingsberg, S. A. (2014). Attitudinal survey of women living with low sexual desire. Journal of Women’s Health23(10), 817-823.