Sex can take a backseat in a relationship for surprising reasons. Here are three ways to keep physical intimacy alive and prevent a sexless relationship.
At least 15 percent of American couples don’t have much sex at all. Which is fine, if that’s what you both prefer. But most people in sexless relationships are pretty unhappy about it.
Sexless relationships happen for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s that the sex just isn’t working. Either it’s unsatisfying, or it’s physically painful, or it just feels like the same thing, over and over again—and not in a good way.
Sometimes it’s because one or both partners have lost desire. Often for reasons that have nothing to do with sex itself.
People have sex for hundreds of reasons. And people lose desire for an equally large number of reasons—stress, overwork, exhaustion, feeling angry, feeling depressed, having been traumatized in the past, or simply not liking their own body very much.
What all sexless relationships have in common
Whatever the cause, there’s something specific that eventually happens in almost all sexless relationships that makes it much harder to start having sex again—at least with each other.
Psychologists call it The Westermarck Effect, named for Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck. He first noted something that, once you think about it, seems kind of obvious: People who live together under the same roof without being physically intimate eventually start registering each other as sexually off-limits. That's in the same way that siblings living under the same roof feel off-limits.
Relationship can become sexless for reasons that have nothing to do with sex.
As a sex and relationship therapist, I get a lot of calls from people in sexless relationships. They’ve stopped being physically intimate, and as a result they unconsciously register each other as forbidden. Once that happens, sex can start to feel pretty darn awkward.
People in sexless relationships can get back to physical intimacy, but it requires some fairly sophisticated therapy to overcome the Westermarck Effect. It's better to make sure your relationship doesn’t become sexless in the first place.
Tools for preventing sexless relationships
Sometimes the answer simply involves certain basic skills—like learning to speak your partner's love language. Or knowing how to manage your own basic needs in a relationship, so you can stay vulnerable with each other.
The most important feeling during sex is when you momentarily forget yourself.
We’ll be talking about those things a lot in future episodes. But today I’d like to focus on something more basic. Today I want to talk about sex itself. Mostly about sexual feelings, and how to sustain good erotic feelings in a long-lasting relationship.
The most important feeling during sex is when you momentarily forget yourself. For most of us, this involves losing a few IQ points—what I call “getting dumb and happy” and fully absorbed in the moment.
The most essential parts of arousal are psychological, rather than physical. Dumb and happy is definitely where it’s at.
Avoiding the slippery slope to a sexless relationship
The average American couple has sex about once a week, which is somewhat less than what couples had a few decades ago. No doubt some of that decline comes from overwork—and the fact that we’re all on our phones 3-4 hours a day.
Many sex therapists, myself included, think some kind of erotic contact once a week is really kind of a minimum if you want to keep an erotic relationship going. Of course, there are always exceptions—some couples who have sex once a month still feel totally connected. But for many couples, having sex much less than once a week can put you on a slippery slope towards sexlessness.
So, how do you make sure you don’t end up in a totally sexless relationship? I mean, assuming you’re not intending to shut down Facebook, go back to a flip phone, and retire to Costa Rica.
There are actually three things to remember. Let’s go through them, one by one.
1. Sexual arousal for its own sake
The first thing is to make sure you sometimes get aroused together even when you’re not going to have sex. It might be just a minute or two in the morning, or before going to sleep at night. Just because it feels good. In sex therapy, we call this “simmering.”
The real experts on simmering, of course, are teenagers. You take a couple in high school. They have 3 minutes between classes. They meet at one of their lockers, hold each other, inhale the scent of each other’s hair, breathe together, share a kiss ... then the bell rings. They run off in opposite directions and they each have trouble concentrating for the next ten minutes.
The happiest couples actually cultivate getting excited, just like teenagers. But unfortunately most couples avoid getting excited together unless they’re actually going to have sex. Big mistake.
Most couples avoid getting excited together unless they’re actually going to have sex. Big mistake.
Today especially, when most of us are working harder than ever to make ends meet, I’m convinced it’s the simmering, even more than the sex, that’s going to keep most relationships from becoming sexless.
2. Keep calm and carry on
The second thing is to remember not to freak out when you don’t experience desire. Desire can be kind of irrational. It comes and goes, according to its own logic. You can’t control desire any more than you can control the whims of a child.
Unfortunately, most sex advice talks about desire as if it’s something you can just crank up at will, like some kind of machine. Usually by engaging in some form of novelty—like a sex toy, a kinky accessory, or a sexy date or destination.
The most important thing is not to freak out.
The problem with this approach is that it usually doesn’t work. It’s like trying to keep a child entertained—you end up exhausting yourself and, in the long run, the child isn’t any happier. So what’s the alternative when you don’t feel desire for your partner? That brings us to the third and final thing I want to tell you about.
3. The mindful secret to lasting sexual happiness
The third and final thing, if you want to prevent a sexless relationship, is not to worry about desire at all. I know that sounds paradoxical, but trust me. You don’t really need desire to have good sex.
Instead, all you need is one simple technique. In my office we call it the Two-Step. It’s really a technique for cultivating mindfulness—which is just a fancy term for what naturally happens when you pay attention to the present moment with minimal judgment.
So here’s the Two-Step. Step One involves nothing more than going to bed together with no agenda except to do absolutely nothing at all. It doesn’t have to feel erotic, and it’s not intended to be mutual. Step One might involve nothing more than noticing your breathing, the sensation of your body against the mattress, and maybe the temperature in the room.
Good lovemaking doesn't necessarily require desire.
When you feel your mind quieting down a bit, that’s a good sign that you’re ready for Step Two, which means turning to your partner and opening yourself to arousal wherever you might find it.
If at that point you decide you want to have sex, then fine, go ahead. But if you do, see if you can hold onto that quietness of mind from Step One.
Arousal and inspiration
Arousal for someone in a committed relationship can be like inspiration for an artist—you don’t wait for inspiration; you go looking for it.
The three things I’ve shown you today—Two-Stepping, “simmering,” and remembering not to freak out when, for whatever reason, you can’t seem to find your desire—can be extremely useful tools for making sure your relationship never becomes sexless, despite the fact that you’re on your phone 3-4 hours a day.
But cultivating your own arousal in this way can also open up a whole new dimension to physical intimacy in a committed partnership. That’s one of the things committed partners are good for—even if you might lose desire for them from time to time.