What You Need to Know About Masturbation in Relationships, According to Sexperts

Photo: Stocksy/Guille Faingold
Even if you’re in a relationship with someone who really lights your fire sexually, sometimes you still want to pleasure yourself—after all,  know one knows better than you do the exact right spots to hit. Or maybe you've walked in on your partner doing some self-pleasuring. Maybe you’ve even caught yourself wondering whether it’s normal or cool to masturbate at all if you’re in a relationship.

According to sex and relationship experts, masturbation in relationships is totally healthy—and a really good idea. Not only does masturbation help preserve and build your sense of sexual autonomy and confidence, but it can actually help you turn up the heat within your relationship and during sex with your partner, too.

Experts In This Article

Is masturbating when you’re in a relationship healthy?

Let’s get one major misconception out of the way first: Just because you're coupled up doesn't mean your partner suddenly becomes solely responsible for your orgasms (or vice versa). "From a physiological and psychological perspective, moderate masturbation is completely normal and should be viewed as a relational enhancement," explains clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD.

Self-love can be a great form of self-care, whether or not you're in a relationship. There are many known benefits of masturbation, including stress relief and bolstering body image and self-esteem. "Masturbation improves self-confidence, reduces stress, and helps you sleep better," explains sexologist Emily Morse, PhD, creator and host of the podcast Sex With Emily.

These benefits don’t change or become less important when you enter a relationship. “Even when someone is in a relationship, whether short-term or long-term, no one should feel ashamed of masturbation,” says sex and relationship educator Tara Suwinyattichaiporn, PhD (who goes by Dr. Tara), professor of relational and sexual communication at California State University Fullerton and host of the Luvbites by Dr. Tara podcast.

"Even when someone is in a relationship, whether short-term or long-term, no one should feel ashamed of masturbation."—Tara Suwinyattichaiporn, PhD, sex and relationships educator

In fact, masturbating can benefit your relationship, says Dr. Tara. Exploring various masturbation ideas, and using different masturbation positions, can help partners figure out what kind of pleasure and sensations they want to explore during sex together. For example, maybe bidet masturbation clues you into wanting some more external stimulation on your clitoris or labia because you orgasmed that way on your own. It’s even possible to masturbate without touching your genitals, for example through playing with your boobs or massaging or spanking your bottom. Once you learn a new skill or preference through solo explotation, you can use this knowledge to increase both partners’ sexual satisfaction.

People who masturbate on the reg actually have "higher levels of sexual satisfaction," adds Dr. Morse. "The more you reinforce the benefits of masturbation as a couple and as an [individual], while continuing to communicate about your sex life, the better sex you’ll have," she says.

Is masturbating akin to cheating on your partner?

Despite what masturbation can do, some people might think that their partner wanting to masturbate without them is an indication that something is wrong within the relationship, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Because “these widespread benefits are largely unknown, we often can’t understand why our partners would need to please themselves without us,” explains Dr. Morse. This can lead to some misconceptions that actually further entrench stigma against masturbation.

Dr. Mayer adds that some individuals and institutions may try to make people feel bad about masturbating simply as a means of control or discouragement. For example: the notion that you're cheating on your boyfriend by using your vibrator? A total myth.

Masturbating also doesn’t mean your partner has a sexual shortcoming or they aren’t satisfying you. "We often interpret their solo routine to mean that we don’t satisfy them, which means they must not be attracted to us anymore," says Dr. Morse. In most cases, this isn’t true (more below on the exception). Just like any other area of your life, you may find that you’d like to be alone sometimes and with someone else other times—the same thing applies to sex.

But can masturbation replace sex? As sexuality and relationship therapist Chanta Blue, LCSW previously told Well+Good, masturbation generally won’t replace someone’s desire for partnered sex because a key piece of what makes sex with someone else enjoyable is the social connection it provides, which is absent when you’re going solo. Think of masturbation and partnered sex as two different instruments in your sexual wellness toolbox—they're definitely not mutually exclusive.

When does masturbation become an issue in relationships?

While masturbation is a positive thing in so many ways, it can be an issue if it starts to come between you and your boo. "If masturbation is replacing connecting physically with your partner, then it could negatively impact the relationship," says psychologist Rachel Needle, PsyD.

You're avoiding initiation or even participating in sex with your partner in favor of masturbating, this is a sign something is amiss, too. “There are people who would prefer experiencing pleasure only through masturbation because it is more efficient, more reliable, and they don’t have to initiate sex with their partner, so it’s problematic if you neglect your partner and resort to masturbation for those reasons,” says Dr. Tara.

Another time masturbation could be a problem in a relationship? If one partner is “getting used to an idiosyncratic style of masturbation that is hard to be replicated by a partner,” adds Dr. Needle. Additionally, Dr. Morse says that depending solely on porn while masturbating may make it harder to get aroused by your partner. "If a person starts to escalate the amount of time or the graphic nature of the content, it can desensitize them to healthy intimacy with their partner,” she says.

It's also important to be mindful of your masturbation frequency. If your masturbation habits are getting in the way of your social or professional commitments and therefore are putting a strain on your relationship, that also points a potential issue, says Dr. Tara.

How to make room for masturbation in relationships the *healthy* way

Talk to your partner about it

At its best, masturbation in a relationship keeps both partners primed for satisfying sex with each other by letting each person discover what they do and don’t like in bed. "Sex is something we need to practice," says Dr. Mayer. "Masturbation shouldn't take the place of sex with your partner—it should be viewed as practice for the big game." When you masturbate and discover a new sensation or method you like, tell your partner so you can try to incorporate it during partnered sex. Start an open conversation about your masturbation habits, and listen to your partner's ideas, too.

If you or your partner feels insecure about the other’s masturbation habits, talk through it and get to the root of what’s up. "Reassure them that your masturbation routine has nothing to do with your feelings for your partner, or your sexual satisfaction," says Dr. Morse. "The more that you encourage the talk about your individual self-love practices in an open and honest way without judgment or shame, the better it will be for your relationship."

Try mutual masturbation

While we generally think of masturbation as only a solo activity, Dr. Tara says masturbating together can also strengthen a couple’s bond. “Mutual masturbation creates connection, empathy for each other’s sexual health, and an erotic feeling because when you watch your partner cum it can be very sexy,” she explains.

To try this out, she recommends asking what your partner thinks of this idea, how they feel about it, and what they might like to try together. You might also try watching porn together and watching each other masturbate. “You can also take turns doing manual stimulation for each other, or you could masturbate while doing other types of foreplay like kissing,” she says. Another way to test this out? Go in different rooms and try masturbating over video or phone together.

FAQs about masturbation in relationships

What’s a healthy level of masturbation in a relationship?

There’s no universally correct or healthy level of masturbation because how much is or isn’t enough depends on your own sexual baseline, says Dr. Tara. Let’s say you and your partner have what she calls a “sexual desire discrepancy,” meaning you both have different ideas and needs for how often you have sex. This misalignment typically causes couples to develop resentment and dissatisfaction within a relationship because one partner might feel like they're not having enough sex while the other might then need to compromise their own desires to fulfill their partner's needs.

In this case, masturbation can help fill the gaps and keep both partners satisfied. “If you have a really high sexual desire level and you only have sex with your partner once a week, you could try masturbating three or four times a week,” she says.

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