Dear Dr. Jane,
I'm married to a wonderful person who uses the pronouns they/them. Our sex life is pretty good. Even though we only do it every few weeks, we both experience pleasure. When we're done, we wonder why we don't do it more. My problem is that they never initiate. A few days later, I'm interested but I'm the only one who ever suggests it. I wait around but nothing happens. It feels awkward. I wish my partner would show me that they want me. How can we fix it?
—Waiting for the invitation
Lots of my clients talk to me about the problem of initiation. When one partner feels like they're the only person who suggests sex, they feel like the other person is participating out of obligation.
This is understandable but not necessarily correct.
If you want to know why your partner isn't initiating, you need to investigate the fundamental nature of sexual desire. Many people have "responsive desire" as described by Emily Nagoski in her great book "Come As You Are" (2015).
What is Responsive Desire?
Nagoski defines "responsive desire" as desire in response to sexual pleasure, such as physical stimulation like kissing or touching. This type of desire is especially common in people who need higher amounts of pleasure to get turned on. It's very different from "spontaneous desire."
What's Spontaneous Desire?
Nagoski defines "spontaneous desire" as when a person wants sex immediately after getting turned on by a specific stimulus — a sexual thought, image, sound or scent. Another way of thinking about this type of desire is that it's desire in anticipation of pleasure. People with spontaneous desire typically require less stimulation to get turned on.
As the spontaneous desire person in your relationship, you might have decided to "wait out" your responsive desire partner. That might seem like a good idea, because you think that your partner will eventually hit you up for physical intimacy. I get it. This is how you would feel. But, waiting for your responsive desire partner to initiate sex while you get frustrated doesn't work. Your partner isn't likely to get turned on without you providing sexual stimulation.
Don't worry, even if you're the spontaneous desire partner, you don't always have to be the one to initiate connection.
Even though your partner has reactive desire, you don't have to always do the heavy lifting of initiating physical intimacy. Do these three things to make the situation better:
1. Talk about it
If you've been following my advice here in Understanding Intimacy, you won't be surprised to hear my first suggestion — talking! Talking about your sex life — including who makes the invitation for connection — is often challenging. I know this is true, but it's important to get your feelings out into the open. Tell your partner how you feel when they don't offer physical intimacy or affection. They may not understand that the situation makes you feel unattractive or even unloved.
2. Don't take it personally
It's tough not to take it personally when physical intimacy is maybe the most personal part of your life. But the truth is that your partner's desire is more about them than it is about you. The issue of responsive vs. spontaneous desire is important, but there are many things that might keep your partner from getting turned on. They include hormone levels, fatigue, distraction, a lack of privacy, body image issues, power dynamics, erotic fantasies and more. Your relationship is only one of the things that impact their desire.
3. Make a plan to alternate initiation — but make it easy for your partner
You can make a plan to alternate initiation even when the way you get turned on is very different from the way they get turned on. Understand that being overt can be challenging for your responsive desire partner. Allow them to signal you their willingness without words. One idea would be for them to light a specific candle when they're open to connection. Your job will be to notice the invitation and then to take time kissing and touching so that they can get warmed up slowly after opening the door to you.
You got this.