“A relationship can be healthy if there's not much sex happening if both partners are on the same page with their sex frequency,” says California-based sexologist Jill McDevitt, PhD. But, keep in mind that there’s no universally agreed upon measurement of “not much.” For one couple, that could mean once a week, while for another that could mean only on anniversaries—and no one is right or wrong in this case. “Folks shouldn't look outside their relationship to determine if their sex lives are satisfactory and healthy. They should only do what works for them,” Dr. McDevitt adds. Fair point.
Still, while there’s no universal formula for how much sex is enough for any given relationship to maintain its healthy badge of honor, intimacy expert with SKYN Condoms, Emily Morse, PhD, says unless both partners identify as asexual or mutually agree that sex is unimportant, some sex is important. “For non-asexual people, sex and intimacy is the glue that holds any relationship together. Although this might be over-simplifying things, without sex, you’re essentially just roommates.”
When libidos don't match up
A problem may arise within an otherwise healthy relationship if there's a discrepancy in desire, Dr. Morse adds. But if that describes your situation, don’t freak out: You’re not the first couple to be here, and you won’t be the last. “Mismatched libidos and/or interest in sex are totally normal. It’s impossible to always be on the same page sexually as your partner, so it happens to almost every relationship at some point,” says Dr. Morse.
“Mismatched libidos and/or interest in sex are totally normal. It’s impossible to always be on the same page sexually as your partner, so it happens to almost every relationship at some point.”—intimacy expert Emily Morse, PhD
Per Dr. Morse's suggested plan of action, both parties would be wise to understand that sex drive and interest in sex ebb and flow depending on what’s going on in life. Then, because certain medications, lifestyle choices, and health conditions can affect libido, she suggests ruminating on whether there’s a possible external cause (and then ringing your doc if you think there might be). Many reasons can explain why someone might not be interested in sex at all, like having a chronic illness, a history of sexual trauma, a general preference for non-sex related touch and intimacy, a result of menopause and/or aging, or any number of other factors.
Communication is key
“Sometimes someone is permanently not interested in sex, and other times it can be temporary,” Dr. McDevitt says. But no matter which camp most accurately describes your situation, communication is key, because when one or both partners’ needs are not being met or addressed, the consequence of not talking about it is huge.
“Without communication, feelings of rejection, loneliness, and disappointment can build and then lead to resentment and anger,” says Dr. Morse. “When both partners are sexually satisfied, it only takes up about 10 percent of the relationship's attention, but when you’re not on the same page, it becomes 90 percent of the relationships challenges.” To this point, she warns that unhappiness with sex life can spill over into the rest of the relationship, making it difficult to achieve a healthy partnership. It’s never a bad idea to seek out a couple's counselor or sex therapist who can help ease your comfort with having those conversations, says Dr. McDevitt.
While reasons abound to explain a shifted or lowered interest in sex, Dr. McDevitt says sometimes the absence of sex is symptomatic of no longer being in love or, that the relationship is about to be as toxic as a long-forgotten tampon. “Is one partner withholding sex to punish the other partner for something? Is the lack of sex being using to manipulate?” Basically, it’s one thing for a partner to be temporarily disinterested in sex, and it’s another to use sex like it’s bait and your partner is the fish.
Consider broadening your definition of sex
Furthermore, broadening the definition of sex can help a relationship stay healthy when there’s not much sex happening, says Dr. McDevitt. “I like to remind folks that there are hundreds and thousands of ways to have sex—and penetrative sex is only one of those ways. My definition is that if it's an intimate activity that you wouldn't do with your mother, it can be qualified as sex,” she says. This mind-set rebrand takes some pressure off reaching the destination and allows you to better enjoy the journey (hiya, foreplay).
Ultimately though, understanding why it feels to you like there’s not much sex happening can help you suss out what's going on beneath the surface of your relationship. If one or both partners is unhappy with the frequency, but you're both committed to compromise and communicating, don't worry about the possibility of serving a lifetime sentence in a sexless relationship if that's not what you want—it's possible for everyone to feel satisfied so long as communication and honesty are invoked.
Here’s a thought: Maybe you’re not having much sex because you don’t feel like you have time—consider scheduling sex to preserve the health of your relationship. Or maybe you’ve already figured out that when it comes to sex, quality > quantity.
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