About dead bedrooms: Is a sexless partnership about mismatched libidos?

Is there such a thing as ‘high libido’ and ‘low libido’? Dorothy Black looks into sexual response and the phenomenon of ‘dead bedrooms’

honey? psst. honey, are you awake?

honey? psst. honey, are you awake?

I was once asked to answer the question: Can a marriage survive without sex? My answer was simple. Of course it can. It can also survive without love, trust and honesty. But why would you even bother.

I didn’t pay much attention to the question as a phenomenon until later, when I came across the term ‘dead bedrooms’.

At the time, it was a term coined in the lesbian community for a commonly experienced phenomenon: relationships would start off all lusty heat, but then suffer the creep of cool disinterest in all things sexual. Soon, they’d just be roomies, hanging out and really loving each other (maybe), but not really in love or lust with each other anymore.

Not surprisingly, the catchy term made its way across the orientation landscape and into the backwater forums of Reddit.

I’ve seen enough ‘LL’ people suddenly become rampantly ‘HL’ once they’ve left the relationship they no longer want to be in

I found myself skimming through Reddit dead bedrooms, dedicated to thousands of couples yammering on about how terrible it all is. I couldn’t take it very seriously. All I saw were people spending their time whining about their shitty relationship to strangers instead of doing something about it with (or without) their partner.

Now I see it’s moving into mainstream use and media, with some media houses running wordy pieces about lost and lonely souls finding community and identification in the ‘dead bedrooms’ term.

I can’t pretend that my knee-jerk reaction isn’t to roll my eyes.

The deadbedroomers will talk about their HL (high libido) and LL (low libido) combination problems. The story is roughly the same: The HL person is suffering terribly from a lack of physical intimacy and cuddles, and the LL person is the one with all the power of being misunderstood or not giving a shit.

Everyone’s trying so hard and it’s all so rough.

I’ve no doubt it’s a really shitty position. But I’ve never bought into the ‘HL versus LL’ rationalisation of bedroom problems. I’ve seen enough ‘LL’ people suddenly become rampantly ‘HL’ once they’ve left the relationship they no longer want to be in. I’ve also never liked the ‘poor me I’ll just muddle along being unfulfilled because of my shitty partner’ response to relationship sex challenges.

I guess I’ve always taken a hard-line approach to compatibility in sexually exclusive relationships: If you’re not sexually compatible, don’t commit sexual exclusivity. But no hard-line approach has ever created workable solutions to complicated situations, and so I went digging around to find a better explanation for the ‘dead bedroom’ problem.

My favourite answer came from Emily Nagoski, author of the sex science bestseller, Come As You Are. She outlines ‘spontaneous desire’ and ‘responsive desire’ as the most common forms of sexual motivation.

People with responsive desire patterns might even start believing they have low libidos, when that’s not the case

Spontaneous desire is the kind that bubbles up from seemingly nowhere, while responsive desire grows in ‘response’ to stimuli. Basically, the former is the person ready to set up the party whenever, wherever; and the latter is the person who only knows that they want to party once they’ve heard the music and tasted the bubbles.

You can see how this might be a problem.

If you’ve got two responsive-desire people in the couple, the party is never going to start. For the mixed-response couple, the spontaneous-desire person might get tired of initiating party vibes all the time and might even feel rejected, while the responsive-desire person might not want to put in the effort to enjoy the party at all or start withdrawing from a sense of pressure.

And then you’ve got a pretty shitty situation where everyone feels angry, misunderstood or rejected and no one wants to party anymore.

surprise party

So the problem with ‘dead bedrooms’ is not misaligned libido, it’s how this ‘libido’ – this desire – is motivated differently in individuals.

Nagoski reckons that one of the biggest problems is that we’ve come to believe that spontaneous desire is the ‘healthy, normal’ kind of sexual response – and that responsive desire is lacking in some way, maybe even defective or ‘LL’.

In fact, people with responsive desire patterns might even start believing they have low libidos, when that’s not the case. They’re simply different types of sexual response. Yammering on about HL and LL and who’s more sexed or victimised in the relationship doesn’t help. Understanding, empathy, communication and a willingness to explore difference does.

And that’s where the real predicament is unveiled isn’t it?

Because fixing the root problem of a ‘dead bedroom’ means facing whether or not you’re actually sitting with a dead relationship. If there’s no room for understanding, empathy, communication and a willingness to explore, what are you doing? Sure, a relationship or marriage can survive without this. It can even survive without sex. But why should it?

This column was first published on Women24 [clickety click]