Regulate and communicate: How couples with low desire can manage their emotions to encourage better sexual communication

By Grace Adele Wang

This blog post is a summary of our published article: Wang, G. A., Corsini-Munt, S., Dubé, J. P., McClung, E., & Rosen, N. O. (2022). Regulate and communicate: Associations between emotion regulation and sexual communication for men with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and their partners. Journal of Sex Research. Advance online publication.

Low sexual desire in men is more common than many might think–research points to a prevalence rate between 14% and 41%. [1] Despite this, men are less likely to seek treatment for low desire than women, maybe because they find it less socially acceptable to do so. Indeed, men with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) experience fewer or absent sexual thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity that negatively impacts their well-being, including feeling more stress, more negative emotions, and less self-confidence about their sexual performance.

An especially important part of sexual well-being for couples navigating HSDD is how they communicate their sexual needs and desires to one another. Effective sexual communication includes how much partners see their communication as positive and open, [2] as well as how comfortable they are being assertive and direct with each other about their sexual needs and desires. [3] However, couples coping with HSDD may find it hard to talk about sex because it might bring up negative emotions, such as worry, sadness, or frustration. [3] For instance, men might feel more anxiety and less self-confidence around their sexual performance, and in turn, their partners might feel frustrated or like their needs aren’t being met. To help prevent these negative consequences, it is important to understand the factors that might contribute to how couples coping with HSDD communicate about sex.

What did we want to know?

We wanted to determine whether emotion regulation–how people might manage their emotions–was linked to sexual communication in couples coping with HSDD. Prior research suggests that the strategies people use to manage their emotions can have different impacts on their sexual communication [4]. Specifically, suppression (hiding the way you feel from others) has been linked to more distress and stressful social interactions, so it might interfere with couples’ ability to communicate clearly about their sexual interests. In contrast, the use of reappraisal, (reframing an emotional situation in a more positive way), might help to lessen these negative feelings and help couples more directly and effectively communicate about sex. Therefore, we predicted that while suppression would be negatively associated with couples’ sexual communication and sexual assertiveness, while reappraisal would be positively associated with these outcomes.

What did we do?

We recruited 64 men diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and their partners to complete measures asking how they regulate their emotions in sexual contexts. We then assessed two facets of couples’ sexual communication, including their overall perceptions of their sexual communication and how direct and open they were willing to be with their partner (otherwise known as their sexual assertiveness).


What did we find?

As we predicted, using suppression generally had negative implications for sexual communication. Men with HSDD who suppressed their emotions more reported being less sexually assertive, and both partners reported poorer overall sexual communication. When their partners suppressed their emotions, they also reported less sexual assertiveness. In contrast, however, men with HSDD who reported rethinking their emotions in a more positive way were also more assertive with their partner about their sexual needs.


What does this mean?

Our main takeaway is that how people manage their emotions is importantly linked to how couples navigating HSDD communicate about sex, which likely impacts their sexual well-being. While hiding inner feelings from a partner could get in the way of effective communication, reframing an emotional situation might instead encourage men with HSDD to be more assertive and direct about their sexual needs and desires.


From a clinical perspective, emotion regulation strategies may be an important target for interventions to help couples cope with HSDD. Overall, by concealing emotions less and focusing more on reframing the situation in a positive way, couples navigating HSDD can more effectively and directly navigate these difficult conversations about sex and enhance their sexual well-being.


[1] Brotto, L. A. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for hypoactive sexual desire disorder in women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(2), 221–239. 009-9543-1

[2] Catania, J. A. (2011). The Dyadic Sexual Communication Scale. In T. D. Fisher, C. M. Davis, W. L. Yarber, & S. L. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of sexuality related measures (3rd ed., pp. 130–132). New York, NY: Routledge.

[3] Hurlbert D. F. (1991). The role of assertiveness in female sexuality: a comparative study between sexually assertive and sexually nonassertive women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 17(3), 183–190.

[4] Rehman, U. S., Lizdek, I., Fallis, E. E., Sutherland, S., & Goodnight, J. A. (2017). How is sexual communication different from nonsexual communication? A moment-by- moment analysis of discussions between romantic partners. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(8), 2339–2352.

[5] Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 348–362.