Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When the One You Desire Doesn’t Want You (And Vice Versa)

Having sex when you don’t feel like it.

Key points

  • Sexual reciprocity is essential for sexual satisfaction of both partners.
  • The type of motivation underlying one-sided sex is crucial for its success.
  • Charity sex is more valuable than pity sex, which often involves suffering.

I wanted to have sex four times a week, and my partner was cool doing it once a week. So, our compromise was if the other person was ok doing hands stuff rather than the full-on experience, then that was an option.” —A married woman

“I have sex with my husband to maintain industrial peace in the home, but all my emotional resources are focused on my lover. After I check sex off my ‘to-do list,’ I feel bad about trading sex for this peace.” —A married woman

Sexual reciprocity, which is essential for sexual satisfaction of both partners, is based on mutual sexual desire and mutual motivation to sexually fulfill each other. However, the presence of differing levels of sexual desire often reduces sexual satisfaction. Is motivation to please each other enough to improve a stagnant sex life?

Sexual Reciprocity

Last night I had sex with my husband, but he did not actually touch me—just penetrated me. I was so sad, I could cry.” —A married woman

We have an active sex life and I enjoy it. I give him blowjobs or handjobs every morning with absolutely no reciprocation, and when we have sex, he usually just sticks it in. He almost never fingers me or goes down on me.” —A married woman

Extreme cases that lack sexual reciprocity are rape or sex with a sex worker. Typical cases, however, concern more moderate degrees, in which there is more or less sex than one partner wants. Such cases are found in relationships where people (typically men) do not take steps toward satisfying their partner (typically women), thereby hurting and humiliating them. Marilyn Monroe once complained that President John Kennedy’s love-making was always very brief and hurried. Powerful men like Kennedy might not invest much effort in lovemaking because they believe they deserve good treatment without giving much back.

One-sided sex
Source: pexels-cottonbro-4980381

A relevant concept here is “sexual communal strength,” which refers to people who are motivated to sexually fulfill their lover, leading to a stronger relationship and sexual satisfaction. However, the type of motivation in pursuing such sex is important. Studies show that engaging in sex for approach goals, such as increasing intimacy, relates to higher desire and satisfaction for both partners, whereas having sex for avoidance goals, such as the fear of losing one’s partner, may inadvertently bring about the negative outcomes that individuals are attempting to avoid (Muise et al., 2017; Day et al., 2015). Relatedly, Virginia Braun and colleagues claim that although reciprocity is a basic premise of egalitarian relationships and is typically depicted as a ‘good thing,’ “the notions of reciprocity are not necessarily as liberatory as they might seem, as they do not occur in a social or sexual vacuum.” They advocate Seidman’s characterization of an ethic for sexuality as based around “whether the erotic exchange is consensual, reciprocal in its pleasures, caring, and involves mutual respect and responsibility” (Seidman, 1989: 295).

Pity Sex and Charity Sex

Done it and I'm not proud of it. He was a 22-year-old virgin, I was horny and single and felt sorry for him. I don’t recommend pity sex. I did it because it made him so happy and meant so much to him, but it didn't mean anything to me.” —A single woman

Charity sex with my husband is not a big deal—a few hugs, some kissing, a very brief act of penetration and it’s all over. Such a small sacrifice for so much gain (making my husband happy). And then after a few experiences like these, it becomes easier and (surprisingly) even somewhat enjoyable.” —A married woman

A common option for coping with the presence of differing levels of sexual desire is participating in one-sided sex, such as pity sex, which essentially is having sex for avoidance goals, and charity sex, which basically is having sex for approach goals.

Pity sex is an experience in which people are not particularly attracted to someone who loves them and wishes to have sex with them. Nevertheless, they have sex with that person in order to avoid the other person’s suffering, while providing them with momentary happiness. Consider the following description by a woman of her pity sex experience: “I’ve been friends with this guy for five years. He is the sweetest guy and I know he would treat me like gold, but I’m just not physically attracted to him. He’s not attractive at all. After confessing his love to me, I had pity sex with him. I just wanted him to be happy and I do really care about him. I wish I’d never slept with him.” Another woman, who had pity sex with a friend felt similarly: “I would say my sex drive is about zero right now. Last night I had pity sex. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Even kissing him made me nauseous.”

Charity sex, which is common in enduring relationships, occurs in an effort to enhance the flourishing of a relationship. It is an investment in the relationship. Like other investments, we might not see the benefits at the beginning, but we increase the prospects of reaping these benefits later on. In charity sex, you love your partner, so you have sex despite the fact that you do not feel like sex at that moment. Charity sex might not be enjoyable, but it does not involve suffering, as pity sex does. In both pity and charity sex, someone engages in sex in order to meet the needs of another person, but in charity sex, it takes place in a more profound and enduring relationship and it is part of the motivation to enhance the flourishing relationship.

Charity sex may also be described as peace-inducing sex. In marriage, if the partners decide that the show must go on, they must find a way to peacefully coexist despite inconvenient circumstances. However, such peace has its own emotional costs. As one man described his wife’s response toward him: “Her sexual behavior was mechanical, as if she were doing me a favor.” Another type of peace-inducing sex, which is not one-sided, but also intends to achieve peace, is make-up sex, which takes place immediately after a fight. Make-up sex is often wild and gratifying since the overall relationship is essentially good, and the fight is typically local and limited (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019, Ch. 10; 2023; here).

Differing levels of sexual desire often generate conflicts, reduced sexual satisfaction, and frequency of orgasms. Yet, not everyone experiences similar levels of desire. Couples deal with discrepancies of sexual desire in various ways: doing nothing about it (i.e., ignoring it or hoping that time will resolve the issue), declining sexual interactions, having sex in the absence of desire, or trying to communicate with their partner. For most couples, these differing attitudes toward sex are viewed as a normal and expected part of the sexual relationship, rather than as a "bug" that needs to be fixed (Clark et al., 2024; Frost et al., 2017; Sutherland et al., 2015).

To sum up, it is natural that romantic relationships involve different levels of sexual desire between partners. However, not every discrepancy is a sufficient reason to leave the relationship. Likewise, being the very best in bed is not a sufficient reason to stay in the relationship (here). Compromises are necessary in relationships, but not at all costs.


Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2023). Is casual sex good for you? Casualness, seriousness and wellbeing in intimate relationships. Philosophies, 8, 2023, 25

Braun, V., Gavey, N., & McPhillips, K. (2003). Thefair deal'? Unpacking accounts of reciprocity in heterosex. Sexualities, 6, 237-261

Clark, A. N., Walters, T. L., & Lefkowitz, E. S. (2024). “It's an ongoing discussion about desire”: Adults' strategies for managing sexual and affectionate desire discrepancies in romantic relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.

Day, L. C., Muise, A., Joel, S., & Impett, E. A. (2015). To do it or not to do it? How communally motivated people navigate sexual interdependence dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 791-804.

Frost, D. M., McClelland, S. I., & Dettmann, M. (2017). Sexual closeness discrepancies: What they are and why they matter for sexual well-being in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 2353-2364.‏

Muise, A., Boudreau, G. K., & Rosen, N. O. (2017). Seeking connection versus avoiding disappointment: An experimental manipulation of approach and avoidance sexual goals and the implications for desire and satisfaction. The Journal of Sex Research, 54, 296-307.

Sutherland, S. E., Rehman, U. S., Fallis, E. E., & Goodnight, J. A. (2015). Understanding the phenomenon of sexual desire discrepancy in couples. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 24, 141-150

More from Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today