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Willing vs. Wanting

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

One of the nearly unavoidable truths of relationships is that people have natural differences, and navigating those differences becomes a fundamental part of building the relationship. One of the big places this shows up is in a couples’ sex life. As we talked about in other posts (It’s not a me problem, it’s a we problem), partners with different levels of desire is a completely normal experience. It’s very common for one partner to want sex more often than another partner, or want sex at a different time than their partner does. Today we’re going to talk about an important way of understanding how to begin navigating this difference.

In order to understand this, we need to go back to the different models of sexual response. Initially, sex was seen through a linear lens where an individual goes through progressive stages of excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. In this model, desire is seen as a necessary precipitant for arousal or excitement. Later models of sexual response shifted from the linear model to a circular model. In this new model, desire isn’t viewed as a necessary condition that precedes sexual excitement or activity. Instead, desire may result from various environmental conditions (both sexual and non-sexual) that then might lead you to engage in sexual activity, and desire or arousal might follow that. For more information on these two models, see here.

An important consideration that emerged as we expanded our understanding of healthy sexual response from something that spontaneously and automatically emerges inside of people, to something that might not emerge due to an internal spontaneous desire but instead from a response to external conditions is the difference between wanting and willing.

Wanting sex comes more naturally from the realm of spontaneous desire. It’s when one feels an internal urge for sex. When someone initiates sex because they feel aroused or turned on or “in the mood.” It’s when someone agrees to have sex with another person because he or she wants to and saying no would mean missing out on something they genuinely desire in this moment. Willing to have sex aligns more with responsive desire. This is where you might not have the sudden, automatic urge to have sex, but you’re willing to engage in sexual activity for any number of reasons. This willingness can take many forms. For some, willingness can come from knowing “I don’t necessarily want sex right now, but if I have sex, I know I’ll enjoy it” or “I wasn’t really thinking about sex at all, but I’m willing to make out and see where that takes us.” Willingness can be not necessarily wanting sex right now, but believing you might start wanting it when you get started. Willingness can be about wanting to want sex. Willingness might also not come from an interest in the experience of sexual pleasure at all. Willingness can also come from a person who isn’t experiencing physiological desire for their partner, but cares about them and therefore is willing to have sex because it’s important to their partner. You might feel a willingness to have sex because you’ll feel closer to your partner when you do so, and that closeness is something you want. Willingness adds important nuance into the conversation about sexual desire. It moves the conversation away from the question of: am I in the mood, yes or no? Binary questions such as this make it hard to navigate sex effectively. If this was the parameter for a green light for sex, does that mean you and your partner need to have identical desire for sex? Do you both need to want it the same amount? Adding willingness into the conversation about sex gives permission for people who don’t feel the natural desire for sex to still make intentional choices about engaging in sex.

(As an aside, although we’re attributing spontaneous desire to wanting sex and responsive desire to willingness for sex, this demarcated distinction isn’t quite accurate. People with spontaneous desire can have times they want sex and times they don’t want sex and times they don’t want sex but are willing to have sex. Similarly, people with responsive desire can have times they want sex, times they don’t, and times they’re willing. Having responsive desire doesn’t mean you don’t want sex. You could have a responsive desire and want sex as soon as someone asks if you do, or want sex because it’s your birthday and you want physical intimacy, or want sex because you recall the last time felt incredible, for example.)

Willingness becomes an important concept when you have someone with a low libido, or low interest in sex. Low interest in sex isn’t problematic on its own, unless it causes you distress. But if you have low desire and want to figure out a way to navigate sex with a partner who has a higher sex drive than you, “willingness” can be an important path forward. I’m going to go through a few ideas relevant to this “willingness”.


First, let’s bring the idea of values into this conversation. Someone might not have the internal urge for sex, but might still choose to initiate or engage in sex because doing so is consistent with their values. These values might be values of connection, relatedness, closeness, adventure, levity, companionship, etc… When faced with the choice of whether to have sex or not, instead of just focusing on “am I in the mood”, you can consider this moment as a choice point: an opportunity for you to move toward your values or away from your values. In this moment, how do you want to choose to show up for yourself, for your relationship, for your partner? Now, there will certainly be times that the way you want to show up is by saying no to sex, and that’s perfectly ok. But instead of using “turned on” as the barometer for whether or not to have sex (a measure that might be something that rarely or never applies to you, for instance if you have low desire or are asexual), add in the consideration of whether or not you’re willing to want sex or willing to make choices to engage in this activity because it’s consistent with values that are important to you or moves you closer to connecting with important values you hold dear. When we consider values, someone with low or no desire for sex can still choose to initiate sex with their partner because it’s something they’re choosing to do to move them toward the way they want to show up in this relationship. Instead of waiting around for the desire to strike you–which might never come–you make the choice to create an environment where sex happens. It places agency and responsibility in your hands for nurturing the sex life that you want.


Second, let’s expand the conversation to include enjoyment and pleasure. Willingness isn’t just about willing to engage in the activity of sex. Anyone can agree to have sex, but this doesn't mean they are connected to their experience of pleasure while doing so. Willingness also means a willingness to allow yourself to enjoy sex, allow yourself to embrace the erotic experience of sex, the pleasure, sensations, intimacy, adventure, excitement, curiosity, and the felt experience of sex. Willingness is about recognizing that you are responsible for your own pleasure, so showing up to sex to just get it over with means denying yourself an opportunity for enjoyment and vitality.

Enjoyment is also important because in order to feel a wanting or willingness for sex, that sex needs to be worth having. If a block to wanting sex is that sex is painful, then addressing the pain will be important in order to facilitate the creation of the conditions where willingness for sex is more likely. Same thing if sex isn’t specifically painful, but isn’t pleasurable. If you have concerns about how sex feels for your body, getting help in navigating that is going to be the first step in increasing satisfaction with your sex life. Willingness can show up here too: even if you don’t have the automatic, natural urge to address the pain or make sex more enjoyable for yourself (“What’s the big deal about sex? I don’t get why people like it.”), see if you can find willingness to want it or willingness to do it because it moves you closer to your values.


Third, we must be aware of the motivation for sex. Willingness can be a wonderful framework to empower you to take control of your sexuality and sex life and make intentional choices about your behavior. Willingness can help you create a sex life that is satisfying and meaningful to you even if the internal urge for sex isn’t one that you feel very strongly. At the same time, willingness can be a dangerous thing that reduces safety, mutuality, pleasure, and honesty. Willingness might stem from a desire to bring “conditions” into the relationship (“I’m willing to have sex on the condition that you do XYZ”), or as a way of avoiding discomfort (“I’m willing to have sex because then you’ll step bothering me about it”). Someone might be motivated to say yes to sex because doing so gets them what they want from their partner. For example: your partner is in a better mood, they’re more affectionate, they’re more generous, or more helpful when you have sex. Someone might be motivated to say yes to sex because when they don’t have sex, their partner becomes less pleasant. For example: your partner is more irritable, impatient, withdrawn, snippy, or less helpful when they don’t have sex. Your willingness to have sex might not come from a true wish for the sex or connection itself, but for what sex will get you or prevent for you if you engage in it. This type of willingness is less about sex and more about an important relationship dynamic that should be meaningfully explored and addressed if necessary. To this idea, we need to talk about the role of workability.


Workability has to do with whether or not the choice you are making is working for you. In order to evaluate this, you must determine what the goal of your choice is (e.g. manage your feelings, connect you with your values, avoid a difficult conversation, maintain self-respect, etc…) and whether or not the choice you make worked to help you achieve your goal. In addition, you must also consider what the cost of this choice is in both the short term and the long term. For instance, if you agree to have sex because when you don’t agree, your partner doesn’t help with the kids, is this behavior working for you? Are you achieving your goal? Is the cost of this choice worth it in the short term and long term? Perhaps having sex to get more help with the kids does help you achieve a goal of having an extra helping hand and in the short-term it allows you to get support and avoid a difficult conversation with your partner about the distribution of labor. But in the long-run, this likely will lead to resentment and bitterness, a tainted relationship to sex (for instance, as a tool to get you what you need from your partner) that will likely influence how you feel about sex more broadly, ineffective communication about getting your needs met, and greater disconnection in the relationship. On the other hand, agreeing to have sex because you’re willing to see how it goes, open to enjoying it, and connecting with your values of intimacy and building the relationship, you might experience short-term discomfort about doing something that pushes you outside your comfort zone, but long-term satisfaction of a connected, fulfilling, and satisfying relationship. The workability of your choices is going to be unique to you, so taking the time to really consider if your approach is sustainable for yourself, your partner, and your relationship is important. When thinking about the motivation for your willingness, it’s important to consider the workability of that approach as well.

In short, navigating differences in sexual desire requires nuance, honesty, openness, bravery, respect, graciousness, and willingness to face discomfort. Opening yourself up to “willingness” can provide a path forward. If you are struggling with your sex life, reach out to a professional to help you navigate the complexities of these issues.


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