Sometimes, desire is not all kisses that last a lifetime and glances that leave the nape of your neck burning with the promise of what’s to come. Sometimes desire cannot be grasped by a fist and acted on without regret (for obvious reasons that start and end with consent). What happens when desire becomes complex? Muddied with traumas, triggers, upbringings and connotations. Real life blockages that aren’t erased by the perfect kiss, cannot be unstitched by a favourable scenario with just the right lighting. When desire is simply hinged to the experience of being alive, it can sometimes be hard to let the door swing open without the right key. When put into the context of relationships, both parties can feel this challenge.
Desire discrepancy can evolve in a myriad of ways for varied reasons. In today’s climate, where we are more stressed than ever, working longer hours, having trouble disconnecting – and connecting- relying on hustle culture to carry us through and letting our true selves, our true experiences, feelings, and pain fall to the wayside, it feels more than ever that our desire styles can become unmatched with our counterparts. Sex Therapist, Aleks Trkulja is an expert in desire discrepancy and has run multiple workshops on the topic. She is warm, sarcastic, and the only kind of person I would be able to follow as closely as I did when turning analogies of sex into those about eating lasagne (same pleasure centre, right?). We spoke with her about ways to communicate and navigate desire discrepancy in long term relationships, when they come loaded with conversations around trauma, consent, and making out of it with our ego’s intact.
What is your definition of Desire Discrepancy?
Essentially desire discrepancy is this idea that different people have varying desire styles. Each are unique. Desire discrepancy is when you’re in a relationship with a difference in those desire styles. A really basic way to look at it is that there’s usually someone who has a really high sex drive and someone who has a lower sex drive, or libido. So there will always be one person who is more open to initiating, and someone who’s probably not as open to doing that. That difference in approach, and in general state of being in your own desire, when there’s a difference there, that’s what desire discrepancy is.
Do you feel like it is more common or more of an issue in couples and relationships then it is really in casual sex?
Yes, because in relationships I think you spend a bit more time getting to know each other, and your desire styles have more of an opportunity to vary. Within a long-term for example, you get used to certain dynamics or roles throughout the relationship, so your desire style has a chance to change. And I think with casual sex you’re giving a lot just off the desire and there is a lot of energy that goes into it, whereas within a relationship it’s after that honeymoon phase where that kind of attitude shifts in a long-term relationship.
What is your theory on desire?
There is a scientific theory on desire called the dual-control model of desire and essentially the way that your desire, or your brain works, is that your brain and the nervous system are constantly sending messages throughout the brain and the body back and forth. There are all these on and off switches. So, on a physiological level your body is sending all these on and off signals that help the body function.
Desire works in a similar way where your brain notices things in your environment that you’re not consciously aware of, and it uses that information to decide whether it wants to turn off or on. The best way to describe it is being in a car, the turn-ons are the accelerator, like: that smells nice, the lighting’s good, I feel safe, this is a person I trust, and I am attracted to. Your brain will take in all these signals from your environment to get you going. However, you also have the brake pedal which does the exact opposite, it picks up things in your environment, for example: I don’t trust this person, the doors not locked or there’s laundry on the ground, the lighting is too bright. These are the things in your environment that tell your brain “no, this isn’t good. I need to hit the brake pedal because desire is not happening.”
You also have a handbrake which is another form, which is chronic no thank you. Maybe there’s a trauma history there, perhaps there’s some kind of chronic stress. A lot of women who experience pain for example, that’s a big one for them they’ll go into a sexual interaction thinking “well what if I feel pain?” and that’s enough to switch everything off. The idea here, is when you use the analogy you can recognise what works for you and what shouldn’t be in the environment in terms of desire.
How do you feel we as individuals can work through these moments where your partner is not on the same page desire-wise without feeling like we have bruised egos or that we’re not in balance with our relationships?
This is a classic dynamic between different desire styles. Esther Perel talks about how desire is like a hunger, where it’s similar to a drive, and you could be sitting with someone and just decide that you’re hungry in that moment. John Gottman describes desire as based on closeness and connection and the building of trust in a relationship, so there is an exchange like “we should make dinner together tonight.”
Essentially you have one person who is hungry and wants to eat, and another person who feels like cooking lasagne, and wants to cook it together as part of the process, in order for the desire to flourish. Often what happens is you find yourself with two people who have different desire styles. This can apply for all kinds of relationships and dynamics, the important thing is that each individual has a different desire style which is completely normal – but if there is one person who finds it easier to recognize that they’re hungry, they need to invite their person to cook a meal, instead of just jumping in. It’s important that they use the power that they have of being instantly ready to create the space that is needed. You can’t force someone to eat if they don’t want to eat, it’s important to make it feel enticing for the other person to invite them to cook together, which makes it a different experience, using your desire style with theirs to create the space. Recognize that you’re different to each other in your functioning and even if you don’t get there, it’s ok, the important thing is that it’s not always goal oriented, make space for the opportunity of closeness.
What is your advice for those understanding these different desire styles but still feeling a bit exhausted and apprehensive to engage with their partners out of fear they will be shut down?
The first thing I would encourage is looking at what it is that you need to put your foot onto the accelerator and off the break. It’s important to communicate what you’re ready for, to let your partner know where you’re at and make sure they won’t be disappointed if you’re not into it. Negotiating what you’re open to, and deconstructing expectations. A lot of people whose desire style is more around wanting to cook, are intimidated by the hunger.
What about for people who are more energetic than their partners and are feeling a bit let down by their S/O’s unmatched sex-drive?
It’s important to ask questions and challenge the expectation of how often you think it should be happening. Obviously, you have this desire that you can’t satisfy as much as you want, but it’s important to look at what the role of sex is in your relationship. Is it down to quality and connection with that person? Or is it just the physical act? In which case, look at ways your partner can help you get off without having to actually be fully in the act. If it’s more about connection, then it’s worth challenging.
What do you think is the best way to articulate consent when your desire styles feel imbalanced and partners need more encouragement?
Essentially, the idea there is that if you are suggesting something and someone else isn’t into it, that doesn’t mean that it can’t all together not happen, you just need to find a space where both of you are comfortable, which is when communication is key, and negotiating is really important. For example, if I ask you for a back scratch, and I ask you to go under the shirt, you could say “Aleks I’m not comfortable with that”, then I could say “okay, what would you feel comfortable with? And you could let me know that you wouldn’t mind doing it over the shirt. Negotiating in ways where both partners feel comfortable with what’s at hand. Also understanding that sometimes some people aren’t into it and that’s ok.
How can we create a space where people feel comfortable letting you know they don’t want to ‘scratch under the shirt’ so to speak?
There are a lot of people who don’t know how to say no and just tolerate stuff, so I think firstly it’s about starting with non-sexual things. Starting with something like a back scratch or a massage to communicate what feels good and what doesn’t, outside of a sexual context, and then translating those skills into a sexual context. I don’t think anyone can go from never being able to say no and then being able to practice it during sex. A lot of people really struggle with this. Yes, it’s uncomfortable sometimes but as long as you follow it up with a direction of what feels good, you’ll always be improving that connection.