What People Get Wrong About Sexless Relationships, From A Sex Therapist
There are many reasons sex gets so much attention when it comes to discussing a healthy relationship: It's a uniquely connective experience where couples get to completely shed their walls, get playful with each other, and indulge in giving and receiving physical pleasure, all in a way that is (for monogamous folks) not shared with any other person.
That said, while sexual intimacy can certainly bring couples closer together, one of the biggest misconceptions—according to one licensed sex therapist we spoke with—is that healthy relationships require an active sex life.
It's OK for couples to not be having sex.
"Relationships absolutely can survive without sex," licensed sex therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST, recently told mbg.
In fact, while sex does offer many benefits, both for an individual's well-being and for a relationship, that doesn't mean relationships always suffer without it, or that a lack of sex is always a sign of trouble in the relationship. "Lots of relationships have extended periods without sex, circumstantially or intentionally, and are still fulfilling and sources of love and connection," she says. "This can ebb and flow or be a sustained context of the relationship."
Here are some examples of situations where couples might have little to no sex without it being a relationship crisis, according to Francis:
- When partners are long-distance or have opposing schedules
- When a partner is ill or unwell and therefore unable to have sex comfortably and safely
- When partners are tired or burned out
- When partners may abstain from sex for religious or spiritual reasons
- When one or both partners lose interest in it
As long as both partners are on the same page about it and are continuing to find other ways to enjoy intimacy together, Francis says it's not inherently a problem if a couple puts sex on the back burner.
Sexless relationships can be healthy and fulfilling.
There's a common assumption that sexless relationships are inherently unfulfilling, or at least less fulfilling than sexual ones. But that's actually a big myth, according to Francis.
"Not everyone wants to have sex, and not all people consider sex to be an integral part of their partnerships," she points out.
Of course, many people do have an innate desire for sex and see it as vital to their relationships, but it's important to recognize that that's not true for everyone. For example, ever heard someone say they could go the rest of their lives without ever having sex again? (Or maybe that's you?) Some people really do experience little to no desire for sex—also known as asexuality. "Asexuality exists as an umbrella and is an example of a group of people who may intentionally create relationships that have low or no partnered sex experiences," says Francis.
While much research has demonstrated a connection between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction1, it's important to remember "sexual satisfaction" can mean vastly different things to different people and different couples. A couple might have one single, fabulous sexual encounter a year and not really feel a desire to do it any more frequently; that's sexual satisfaction for them. Another couple might have sex every week, but one person wants it more often and the other finds the sex to be a chore. That's probably a pretty unsatisfying sex life, despite the fact that they're having frequent sex.
Likewise, for some couples, having little to no sex might actually be a pretty satisfying situation. As Francis puts it, "If both partners are in agreement to not have sex, then not having sex is not a problem and can bring people closer as they create the kind of relationship that honors their desires."
And for the record, one 2017 study2 found sexlessness in the past year had virtually no impact on an individual's self-reported happiness—even among married people. People who had no sex in the past year reported being about as happy as those who had been sexually active. This isn't to say that sex isn't important to some people (it definitely is!), but it may not be as universally necessary to everyone, as we're so often told.
The problem with compulsory sexuality.
Constant emphasis on how much sex couples are having and how to increase sexual frequency can contribute to what some experts refer to as compulsory sexuality.
Compulsory sexuality is that prevalent idea that all humans need sex and should be aspiring toward having an active sex life. In addition to invalidating the experiences of asexual people, compulsory sexuality can make everyone feel like there's something wrong with them or their relationship if they're not having a ton of sex.
"Societal pressure to have sex or have a certain amount of sex is harmful to everyone," Francis points out. "It is disembodying and coercive to feel forced to have sex, and people feel the impact of that even when the pressure is coming from a cultural script."
Some research backs this up, too: A 2015 study3 found that when couples felt pressured to have more sex, the increased sexual frequency that resulted actually decreased their overall happiness in the relationship—and resulted in them feeling even less motivated to have sex.
That means that, if you're pushing yourself to have more sex when you don't actually authentically want that, it might just harm your relationship even further.
On the other hand, as Francis points out, feeling like your experience of desire is being honored and accepted exactly the way it is can actually help couples feel closer to each other as they co-create a mutually satisfying relationship.
Put simply, "If folks do not want to have more sex than they are having, that is to be celebrated," she says.
Here's the long and short of it: If you're having less sex than you (or your partner) would like, and it's causing tension in the relationship, then the relationship will of course benefit from more intentionality and investment in this part of your lives.
But if you and your partner aren't having sex, and neither of you has a problem with that, then there's nothing to worry about. All those external voices around you telling you there's something wrong if a couple doesn't have an active sex life? Ignore them.
Sex isn't mandatory for a healthy relationship. It's up to you and your partner to decide what role it does—or doesn't—play in your lives.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter