Sex can play a different role in relationships. What goes on behind closed bedroom doors can vary from couple to couple, or even change between the same couple over time. Even further, your definition of a healthy sex life might not be exactly like your partner's. So, how can you tell if the lack of sex is harmful to your relationship?
Our views about sex are influenced by many factors, and it's hard to know what's normal when comparing your love life to those of your friends (or the extravagant displays of passion we see in movies). There are several reasons you might find yourself in a sexless relationship. Some couples become less intimate over time, while others are having less sex from the beginning. You may even wonder if you should leave—but if something has changed between you and your partner, there are many ways to revive the spark. The first step is taking a look at your relationship to understand why you're not having as much sex as you want.
Below, read on for therapists Isadora Alman and Susan Krauss Whitbourne's advice on how to approach a sexless relationship.
Meet the Expert
- Isadora Alman, MFT, CST, is a board-certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and relationship therapist in California.
- Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Why Is Your Relationship Sexless?
It's not uncommon to go through different stages in your love life. For some couples, it's normal to be less intimate, while others may see a decline over time. If you're wondering whether a sexless relationship is healthy, you'll first want to understand what's causing it: Examine your relationship from a few different angles. Are you feeling too busy and struggling to find time for intimacy, or does it feel like your emotional connection with your partner is fading?
When life gets in the way, you might find that you're not as close to your S.O. as you used to be. Sometimes, we simply fall out of the habit. "This happens more often than you might think. Some event like an illness or a new baby will interrupt the couple’s normal sexual schedule, supposedly temporarily, but sexual relations just don’t resume," says Alman. Mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, can also impact sexual desire and libido.
If sex stops once children enter the picture, some couples find it challenging to view their partners as sexual beings rather than just parents of their kids. Postpartum depression, which can affect both parents, can also have an impact on desire for sex. "The sexual drought continues and, quite commonly, nobody brings the topic up until it becomes critical to one or the other. This situation can last for years." When sex is seen as a chore, it's important that both partners make time to be intimate. After all, sex is an essential part of connecting with the one you love most—and getting back in bed together can be exciting after some time away.
In sexless relationships, it's important to talk openly with one another to communicate what you both need (and seek help when it's necessary).
In other cases, a sexless relationship comes in different forms. One partner may no longer feel turned on by the other, or they may not desire sex because they're attracted to someone else. "The complainer usually gives a 'reason,' such as the partner’s weight gain or unwillingness to engage in the type of sex [they] prefer," says Alman. "A person can learn to love the partner again by focusing on what is loveable, what originally turned them on, or what might be changed that might reawaken love and desire."
There are also couples who never treated sex as a key component of love to begin with, and they may view their partner as a companion rather than a romantic mate. Some people are fine with living in a sexless relationship; the key is ensuring that both partners are on the same page. On the contrary, other couples lose sexual desire for one another after infidelity. Broken trust can also break the desire to be intimate going forward.
How Important Is Sex in a Relationship?
While many of us love sex for its obvious physical benefits, it's also an important part of connecting emotionally with our partners. Many people view the desire and frequency of sex with their mate as an analysis of how healthy the relationship is. When we're intimate with our partners, we strengthen a unique emotional bond that comes with being physically close to one another. But how often we have sex doesn't always measure our happiness—and like all other things in love, our desires can only be defined by ourselves. "I think often what is being asked when the 'how important is sex' question is posed is: 'How often should my partner and I have sex in order to be considered normal?'" says Alman. "Once a year or once a day; if whatever is happening between them is sufficient sex, there is no problem. Asking for outside validation is irrelevant." In other words, as long as both partners are happy, there's no need to compare the frequency of your sex life to others.
When you've suddenly lost the desire or are rarely intimate with each other, this may be an indicator that your connection is fading. "If a couple is celibate because their sexual relationship was unsatisfying or unfulfilling, then it stands to reason that they will experience high levels of sexual dissatisfaction," says Whitbourne. "[Emotionally], a couple may remain together in a sexless marriage because their partner is their best friend or their 'ideal' partner." That's not to say that you'll be stuck in a sexless relationship forever—if you're not getting what you need, consider discussing the topic with your S.O. There are plenty of ways to improve your sex life when you're in a rut.
How Important Is Sex to You?
Your happiness in a sexless relationship depends on what you need as an individual. Even if your partner is perfectly fine with less intimacy, your desires are still an important part of keeping a healthy balance. You'll need to assess how important sex is to you before deciding whether your partner can meet your needs.
For some people, sex is an absolute necessity in a relationship. A romantic situation where sex is rarely an option is off the table. For others, having an emotional connection with their partner is enough to sustain a meaningful, successful, and long-lasting connection. Some couples even opt for open relationships to satisfy their sexual needs while being fully committed to each other emotionally.
When it comes to sex in relationships, the bottom line is that you have to decide what's right for you. There are no cookie-cutter answers; it all depends on the importance that you personally place on sex. If you're unhappy in a sexless relationship, try communicating with your partner to express your feelings. You may even seek support from a professional to determine what's holding you back. Relationships are complicated—so having an expert in your corner can help provide the guidance you need to move forward.