Can a sexless relationship
go the distance?

Sex is an important part of any relationship, but it’s important to remember that it’s rare for a couple to have exactly the same interest in sex over time. While you may get close at certain times in your relationship, it is likely to ebb and flow.

This article was originally written for Body & Soul.

This might happen late in pregnancy or after childbirth, when travelling for work, or after an illness or temporary disability. Periods of extreme busy-ness at work or being up all hours with small children can also mean the opportunity for sex is low, even if the desire is still there.

Different levels of desire

If one person always experiences higher desire than the other, it can be tempting to pathologise either one. The higher-desire person may be seen as overbearing and pressurising, while the lower desire person might be framed as inadequate in some way. These labels aren’t helpful – in another relationship, the role each play could be very different.

The right amount of sex will be the amount that the two of you agree keeps you close and connected, is mutually satisfying and makes you both feel your needs are reasonably met. That means that at any one time it might be a little too much for one of you, or a little too little for the other, but on balance, both of you believe it works.

Research shows that couples see their sex life as important for intimacy, along with a range of other things like caregiving and support. But when there is a problem in a relationship, it disproportionally affects intimacy. Its effect as an element of positive connection, therefore, is smaller than the effect it has when there is a problem. That is because sex, romance and intimacy are the defining features of a couple relationship. You can love, commit to, live with, be emotionally intimate with a whole range of people in your life, but romance and sexual intimacy bring this chosen relationship into a category all of its own.

Why does sex stop?

Sex can stop altogether for a variety of reasons. It might fall off the agenda, then time passes and suddenly a couple are confronted by its absence, no longer able to tell themselves it is a bad patch.

It may be that one cannot have sex anymore or unilaterally decides not to. This means that the other is presented with the option to stay under those circumstances or leave the relationship. Or it may be that both agree that the sexual aspect of their relationship has run its course, and they accept a different sort of arrangement. They may value the other aspects of intimacy, literally staying in the same bed, but not have sex.

Going without sex for a period without an agreed or well-understood reason can lead to additional difficulties. Couples who have experienced longstanding conflict or a relationship injury such as an affair, or let sex drift unaddressed because it wasn’t working for them, can have great difficulty re-establishing it. It might be a surprise to know that many couples say “it would be easier to have sex with a stranger” because they have great familiarity coupled with great awkwardness. Their relationship has become so “non-sexual” that it can feel embarrassing to re-expose themselves to each other. Breaking the ice can take courage and determination as well as strong agreement, and for longstanding couples, sometimes they’d rather continue to avoid this difficult and awkward topic than to tackle it.

A sexual “problem” is often framed in our minds about the quantity of intercourse. In fact, one of the key reasons a couple let their sexual relationship drift is because the quality wasn’t there, at least for one person. It may be that it was never great, but when first together the romance assisted arousal and the longing to make it work meant some deficiencies were overlooked, to be worked on later.

How do you break a sex rut?

Many couples also get stuck in their sexual routine, and so get bored and embarrassed to raise new preferences and possibilities. Further, a couple focused on intercourse as the main game, can have lost sight of other sexual possibilities. Many couples who can be creative with their sexual expression still view their relationship as healthy, even if some things, like intercourse, are off the agenda.

A period of not being able to engage in your usual sexual expression, such as penetrative sex, can enable a comfortable and creative couple to explore additional foreplay and in fact improve their sex lives by not rushing to what many might think is the “main event”.

For some, the period of absence can lead to greater longing and eroticism. If your partner is not available for sex, then it does not mean sexual expression is off the agenda. That can be a fast track to resentment.

Masturbation plays an important part of individual sexual expression both within and outside a good relationship. A couple might masturbate together or otherwise share sexual or physical expression, even if not conventionally defined in the way they might once have engaged with each other.

What is key is that couples have a common understanding of what is going on between them in relation to sex. All too often when there is an issue, further issues emerge, such as difficulty communicating about intimate subjects, being closed to improving sex, and even lack of practice at talking about sex itself.

Here are a few considerations to talk through;

  • Is it clear to you both why the sexual part of your relationship has stopped? Do you understand and agree on the reasons? Is it a discussable subject?
  • Is this actually a problem to be solved rather than a situation to accept?
  • Do you really accept the situation, or do you have fears, concerns and resentments? If so, even if you want to stay in the relationship, they will inevitably bubble up.
  • Is being sexual an important part of who you are? How do you balance this with a desire to stay in a relationship that you also value? Is there a tipping point as to when it makes sense to stay, and when it would make more sense to move to friendship?
  • Are you feeling pressured to go along with something that really doesn’t suit you? Is the dread of loss and separation such that you would stay on any terms?

If sex is “on hold”, make sure you agree to review it together every so often. Check-in on how each of you is going with the absence if it should still stand, and whether you are both working to bridge any sense of divide. It is normal to want to make things better in a relationship, and if the decision to stop sex was forced on you rather than agreed to, or if you feel there has been no effort to work around or compensate with increased intimacy of other sorts that you value, then your relationship will get into difficulty.

Good communication is everything.

Written by Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW.

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