SWM 046 – Responsive desire is a blessing

Whether you have a spouse who experiences it, or you do yourself, responsive desire is a blessing.  You just need to learn how to work with it.

I get two types of emails when it comes to the topic of responsive desire.  If you don’t know what responsive desire is, I suggest reading the responsive vs. spontaneous desire post first.  

The first type of email comes from spouses (generally, but not always husbands) who are angry/frustrated/hurt/sad/etc. that the person they are married to never seems to be interested in sex.  From their perspective, when their spouse initiates it’s out of duty and/or pity. In short – “they’re not attracted to me”, which often gets translated into “they’re not in love with me”.

The second type of email comes from spouses (generally, but not always wives) who feel inadequate/broken/confused about the fact that their spouse always wants to have sex, but they don’t themselves.  Usually they enjoy sex, when it happens, but on any given day, if you were to ask them “are you in the mood for sex”, the answer is almost always “no”.  

Those with responsive desire, once they learn about responsive desire, are relieved that they aren’t broken.  That doesn’t mean everything is resolved immediately. Some are able to simply flip a switch and learn to be open to being aroused rather than waiting to be “in the mood”, and they go on to have happy fulfilling sex lives.  Others have a hard time adjusting. Even though they now know they’re not broken, just different, they still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, etc.. 

The spouses on the other side face a similar split.  Some accept that their spouse isn’t broken, but that they just have to adjust, be okay with being the initiator and they go on to have happy, fulfilling sex lives.  Others have a hard time adjusting.

Unfortunately, when either spouse has a hard time adjusting, it tends to either hold back the other spouse, or actually undo their progress.

For example, if you have a spouse with responsive desire and you hold on to the belief that “I shouldn’t even initiate sex unless they want it”, even though you know they will never want it before you initiate, then you start to feel like you got the raw end of the deal in marriage.  They feel similar to someone learning to live with a spouse who has a disability.  They continue to go through the stages of grief about the death of what they assumed/expected their marriage to be.

This tends to make those who have responsive desire feel like they’re disabled and broken as well.  Either these feelings start over, or they get reinforced, while they’re trying to break free of them.  These responsive desire people who were often excited to learn that they’re not broken, just different, start to question it, because their spouse is still moping about it.  They start to feel like maybe they are broken.  Maybe they’re just fooling themselves.  Ultimately, it can be their spouse’s lack of acceptance of them as different that makes them feel inferior, and actually holds them back from learning how to work with this dynamic.

So, today, I want to tell both spouses about what’s good about responsive desire, whether you have it, or you have a spouse with it.  I want to share these things so that those who have it can see the benefits for themselves, and those who don’t can stop wallowing in pity about the short end of the stick they think they got.

What’s good about having responsive desire?

You aren’t constantly distracted by sex

Those of us with spontaneous desire, particularly when we have higher sex drives (by that I mean the spontaneousness happens more frequently), are inundated with sexual thoughts.  I mean, my wife can’t walk into the room without some thought about sex flitting through my brain.  

When I’m with her, it’s a constant struggle not to touch her, smell her, feel her.  I just want to be naked with her. Even when it’s completely inappropriate to do so.  And in those times, knowing that if I initiated sex she wouldn’t be up for it (you know, because she’s a rational person), it means that almost every day has this undercurrent of unfulfilled desire with a touch of imagined rejection.  

And yes, many of us know it’s neurotic and crazy, and we “shouldn’t feel” rejected when we haven’t even initiated, and especially when we know it’s the wrong time to initiate, but feelings don’t always listen to reason.

Now, I do my best to control my emotions rather than let them control me, so I don’t walk around in a constant state of depression.  But it is always there.  

Point is, I could probably get a lot more done in my life if I didn’t have spontaneous desire.  Maybe I never would have had to deal with a porn addiction. Maybe I could focus and actually do all the things I want to do.

But maybe this blog and podcast wouldn’t exist either.  Point is, you don’t constantly walk around with half your brain focused on sex, and the imagined rejection if your spouse actually knew what you wanted every time you’re in the same room, or are just thinking about them.

Unfortunately, I often ruin this for my wife, because I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to this stuff.  I am not very good at hiding that I want her, so from her point of view, I walk around all day looking needy, which isn’t sexy, and she often feels like she should be just giving in, even though it’s not a reasonable time to have sex, and that causes her a fair bit of constant anxiety, which also isn’t good for arousal.  I’m sharing this so you don’t think I’m perfect at it. I’m still learning too.

I also want to share it so you can see, there are downsides to spontaneous desire.  I have work to do on my end as well.

You might get more pleasure than your spouse

If you have responsive desire, you might get more pleasure out of sex than your spouse.  It generally doesn’t take much to get someone with spontaneous desire in the mood. They’re sort of always simmering.  

Really all my wife needs to do is say “Sex?” and that’s enough of an initiation for me.  I’m up for sex anywhere any time (within reason). I mean, even if it’s inappropriate, I’d be looking for ways to mitigate the inappropriateness of it.

What I’m trying to say is that there’s little to no work involved in getting someone with spontaneous desire in the mood, generally.  And because there’s little work involved, they generally don’t get much more aroused than the minimum required.

But for people with responsive desire, it’s a different ball game.  When people email me and say things like “I don’t see why all the activities you write about are neccessary”, then my guess is that they’re having some fairly easy, mediocre, and mundane sex where both of them get aroused quickly and have a low threshold.  I need a fairly large playbook to work with to account for various moods, types of days, time in her cycle, and to cut down on repetition so it’s not boring and/or monotonous. I’m guessing many of you do too, because a lot of you buy things like our Spice Jar and Sexy Memory, which are designed to help with just those things.

Because responsive desire people often need work to get them aroused, and because their arousal threshold can change drastically (that is, how aroused they need to be on a given day), those of us who are “leading” sex often tend to buffer and overshoot.  Which means that those with responsive desire often get to be greatly aroused during a sex session.

One of the most expressed confusion from husbands who have wives with responsive desire that I receive boils down to “I don’t understand it.  I mean, her orgasms look/sound so much better than mine. How can she not want those all the time?” Point is, sex tends to be really good for those with responsive desire.  I think likely better than sex is for those with spontaneous desire.

Luckily, those with spontaneous desire also tend to love giving pleasure, so what they lack in their own orgasms, they gain in being able to bring about pleasure in their spouse.

You don’t have to work so hard at sex

Spontaneous desire spouses tend to put more work into sex.  They tend to be the ones doing more of the research (not always though, I know we have a lot of responsive desire spouses who read our blog posts and listen to our podcast!), learning about new sexual activities, putting themselves out there when they initiate, when they suggest new things, when they share fantasies and ask for anything outside of the norm.

They also tend to be the “tops” during sex.  That is, they’re the ones who are “giving” rather than “receiving” an activity.  Sometimes this is the penetrator vs. the one being penetrated, but it can be the one doing the spanking, working the ropes to tie the other up, telling the erotic story to get the other aroused, starting the dirty talk, choosing the position, being on top in positions, and generally having to try and gauge the pace of foreplay so that sexual activities don’t get brought up before the responsive desire spouse’s brain is ready for those activities.

Those with spontaneous desire are often “responsible” for sex, from before the start to the finish, whereas those with responsive desire get to enjoy the fruits of their spouse’s labour.

That isn’t to say that responsive desire spouses don’t reciprocate during sex, or that they’re lazy at lovemaking (though my wife admits she’s a recovering lazy lover), or that they won’t sometimes climb on top, or start talking dirty on their own, or initiate sex occasionally.  In fact, once they’re aroused, many want to see their spouse pleasured. They become active partners, sharing the experience. But, over time, it’s clear that one spouse is definitely doing the driving more than the other.

So, I’m not accusing responsive desire spouses of being pillow princesses (or princes), it’s just that their work:pleasure ratio leans more to the right, which means you can enjoy sex with much less responsibility or work.  

Now, if you’re still working to shift your mindset to accept sex, accept that you have responsive desire and being willing and okay with being aroused, then there might still be a lot of mental work to switch gears and then stay in a sex-positive mindset without being embarrased, anxious or otherwise distracted by sex.  Changing that takes time for many people and can be a process. Hopefully, as you change you’ll see this benefit more and more over time.

The benefits of being married to a spouse with responsive desire

There are some real benefits to being married to a responsive desire spouse as well.  Especially if that responsive desire spouse has learned that if they give in to the flow of things, they can generally have a pretty good time (or a really good time, as mentioned above), and if the spouse who’s initiating has learned to lead well, how to pace things so that they don’t push through certain stages too fast, but wait for the responsive spouse to actually progress enough in their response to enjoy things.

You can pretty much have all the sex you want

I mean, within reason.  Sex during church is still not likely to happen (and probably shouldn’t), but if your responsive desire spouse has a mindset of “I’m willing to be aroused”, then the onus is on you to find opportunities and then arouse them.  Yes, it takes time and sometimes a lot of effort, but you could have sex whenever you like (within those opportunities). The problem most of us have is that we either psyche ourselves out of it or we get childish and start thinking things that start with “it’s not fair”.

Most responsive spouses like sex.  One of the most frustrating, or even infuriating, things about spouses with responsive desire is that they will, after sex, say things like “That was good!  Why don’t we do that more often?” which just makes you want to pull your hair out, especially if you’ve been waiting for them to want sex. But that’s the wrong approach.

You should never ask them if they want sex.  Because the answer will likely be “no”, which you’ll interpret as a rejection, and basically will end up rejecting yourself.  Instead, you offer things that you know will start to arouse them, like massages, brushing their hair, rubbing their feet, etc..  

Something that happens a lot for us is that my wife will say “Want to watch TV?”, and I’ll say “Sure, get naked and I’ll rub your back.”  I should point out that we have a TV in our bedroom (I know, one of those things some people say you should never do), we’re not getting naked in our living room.  I love giving her back rubs. Again, it’s more work for me, but I get to rub and touch her body for the next hour and she gets to be massaged. I’ve also spent time learning how to massage, and bought some really good massage oil that happens to work well as lubricant for sex and tastes good.

That way, by the end of whatever show we’re watching, her body is already warming up and getting ready for some more direct foreplay.

Point is, I can’t complain at all about how much sex I’m getting if the biggest reason we’re not having sex is that I’m not looking for opportunities and putting in the effort to get her aroused.  In short, I can have all the sex I want – I just have to put in the work.

You can have whatever kind of sex you want

Again, within reason.  I mean, you shouldn’t go pushing through hard limits, things they’re not ready for yet, feel morally opposed to, or acts that are immoral.  But, that still leaves a lot of activities for most people. If you’re having trouble finding then, then check out Our Sexploration List.

The other thing is that for responsive desire people, the activities they’re up for can change drastically depending on the context – in particular how aroused they are.  So, while everyone else will tell you not to bring up new activities in the bedroom, I say that, with some responsive desire spouses, there isn’t really any other time to bring them up.

For some wives, oral sex isn’t that appealing when they’re not aroused.  They’re not interested in giving, receiving, or even talking about it. But, if you get them warmed up, their interests change.  Some find they actually like giving oral sex, it might even turn them on more. Some are only interested in receiving oral sex if they’re already turned on, sometimes really turned on.

The point is, while with some spouses, their boundaries are their boundaries, with a responsive desire spouse, you’ll find that their boundaries shift completely depending on their level of arousal.  So, if you want to have some really crazy, exciting, adventurous (but still monogamous) sex, all you have to do is get them aroused enough.

Just a heads up though: Some responsive desire spouses (wives in particular) get embarrassed/ashamed of what they like while they’re aroused.  If you push too far when they’re turned on, when they “sober up” from arousal, they might get a bit upset at you. This is because the part of the brain that evaluates right and wrong, whether something is distasteful (gross, dangerous, etc.) is muted with arousal.  The more aroused the more it’s muted. But, when your arousal cools, it comes back to life and starts evaluating what you’ve been up to.  

Some spouses will look back and go “that was really good”.  Those spouses will actually appreciate being led where they were afraid to go.  Others will go “that jerk took advantage of me” which will seriously hamper your future initiations.  The difference depends on both their temperament and how hard and far you pushed. In other words, know your spouse, and you can bend some boundaries, but if you smash through them, you won’t be trusted.

But, if you go slow and take the time to get them aroused, most responsive desire spouses are happy to be led into an amazingly adventurous sex life.

Whether you have a spouse who experiences it, or you do yourself, responsive desire is a blessing.  The radical differences between a spouse with responsive desire and one with spontaneous desire force us to grow.  It also forces us to be more skilled lovers, which both spouses get to benefit from.

Now, it’s not all fun and games.  There are struggles as well, as there are with any dynamic.  Sometimes you can’t manage to arouse someone with responsive desire on a given day.  Sometimes there are too many sexual inhibitors involved.  Sometimes you just can’t get enthusiastic about sex, even if you know you like, want and/or need it.  Sometimes the initiating spouse just doesn’t have it in them to initiate, even though they desperately want sex.

But I hope you can see that there are definitely some benefits to having responsive desire.  It’s not a disability or a disorder. Spontaneous arousal isn’t the right or proper type. They’re just different.  Each have their pros and cons. If you can learn to make them work together, you both can have an amazing, fulfilling sex life.  It just takes some adjustments on both sides, letting go of some expectations as well as some guilt and shame.

So, if you have responsive desire, practice being more open to the idea of responding to invitations for arousal.  Want more information on that? Check out this post on desire vs willingness.  If you’re married to someone who has responsive desire, then practice getting them aroused.  Yes, it will take time and effort for you both, but it’s worth it.

Looking for more help?

9 thoughts on “SWM 046 – Responsive desire is a blessing”

  1. Scott says:

    I really enjoy when you write/speak about responsive drives. I first learned about the concept here, and it strongly applies to my marriage.

    I’d actually been thinking about this responsive/blessing topic some for a while now and felt that it was a message you were conveying between the lines on some other posts. One additional advantage I seem to have experienced (as a spontaneous spouse) by taking it slow in order to best meet my wife’s needs (as the responsive spouse) is that I enjoy sex that way too, both during and after the act. By avoiding the wham/bam quickie, the act is more fulfilling, often with longer orgasms, though they aren’t necessarily stronger. My ejaculate volume even seems to be larger sometimes. Better still, the next day, I have a deeper sense of satisfaction, feel even closer to my wife, but yet still have the physical and emotional drive “just in case”. Actually, the emotional drive for additional intimacy the next day seems stronger if anything.

    Finally, despite getting to the point of shaking with anticipation with the long, drawn out foreplay, I usually seem to last longer when meeting my wife’s responsive needs prior to intercourse. I don’t know if this is because my peak intensity has cooled off a bit by the longer wait or what. It’s also possible this “last longer” side effect is in my head because I’ve only been intentionally doing this for a couple months and have worn a condom every time then to be super sure to avoid pregnancy until my vasectomy checks out…

    Have you heard of anyone else experiencing these additional benefits?


  2. NoGames says:

    “I need a fairly large playbook”. Are you joking? I’ve been married 15 years now (9 years the first time), and I’ve never had a playbook. That just sounds sad to me. You should want sex because you love your spouse and want to provide for their needs. Needing a play book sounds so mechanical and impersonal that I’d rather not have sex.

    1. Jay Dee says:

      I think you might have taken that more literally than I meant it. I don’t have an actual playbook. I just mean that our sex life is varied and exciting.

  3. MB says:

    This whole concept of spontaneous vs. responsive has been so illuminating and helpful… now I’m just waiting for what to do when the responsive spouse really just can’t get into it…ever…and it’s always out of duty. And not for lack of trying by the other spouse, but just no desire to be touched or pleasures or anything. The body feels shut down and off limits, so sex is a chore of duty and work. 🙁

  4. Joe says:

    I’m confused. Are spontaneous and responsive desire biological or social constructs? How do such terms coincide with the traditional concept of libido? It seems easy to use the term responsive desire to blanket over the negative effects of medication, someone who simply only desires sex during ovulation, or just bad spousal behavior. I’ve listened to your podcast, as well as read a few articles on the subject, and the topic seem nebulous and reminiscent of the term “Post-Modern” and how it was used in the 90s theological discussions. I believe you should discuss “What’s NOT responsive or spontaneous desire/arousal” to provide better context for terms.

    1. Jay Dee says:

      Responsive desire describes the behaviour, not the cause. So, yes, it can be caused by medication, health, sleep, stress, spousal behaviour, context, upbringing, belief, etc.. Or it might be a natural disposition.
      The point of this post was to say – rather than treating it like a disease to be cured – which would be difficult, if at all possible, instead, look for the benefits so you can enjoy it.

  5. Vlad says:

    Thank you so much for this insight. It should be taught in schools or something; it needs to be a common knowledge. My marriage is a union of both desires but I never knew, and blamed everything under the sun for my lack of sex, variety, and even care. All I had to do, I think, is to get informed, stop complexing, and change approach. But my journey has just begun… Better late, 20 years late, then never.

  6. mnb says:

    I first learned of this spontaneous/responsive dichotomy about six months ago, and it was something of an eye opener. Like the hypothetical couple with mismatched libidos, I though we just had differing interests, and sex just wasn’t on the menu, as we have averaged monthly for over 20 years. But this notion does offer hope.

    I’ve done a little reading, and watched a few YouTube videos on the subject, and it seems to fit the description. Your article, and I mean to read it again, goes farther. You offer possibilities. Thank you for that.

    I must confess though, it’s difficult. Difficult to shoulder the burden of having sole responsibility for initiating with a woman who seemingly has little interest in my overtures, let alone the act. And then, knowing that for all this time, I’ve felt like she just wasn’t into sex – wasn’t into me – how am I supposed to put all of that behind me?

    1. Jay Dee says:

      By loving her. You’re past experiences and hurt were all misperceptions based on a false assumption. That’s not her fault. Now you have an opportunity to know your wife more fully, to understand her.
      Focus on that. The feelings of past rejection will eventually fade.

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