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Touch vs. Sex: Why The Difference Matters For Couples With Mismatched Libidos

Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Photo by Stocksy
October 30, 2020

It's common for couples to go through phases where their libidos aren't in sync, such that one person wants sex more often than the other. There are many reasons for desire discrepancy and many ways to bring sex back into the relationship, but in the interim, it's important for couples to find ways to continue maintaining intimacy even when sex is at a lull.

Unfortunately, when sex becomes a sore spot in a relationship, there's often another casualty in the crossfire: touch.

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Confusing touch and sex.

Here's how it plays out: A dynamic unfolds between a couple where one person wants sex more often than the other, such that one person is always initiating and the other is always rejecting.

For the person with the lower libido, things start feeling uncomfortable. They may feel guilty rejecting their partner's sexual advances so often, or they may feel frustrated that their partner keeps trying to initiate sex when they're really not feeling it. It may begin to feel like every touch is charged, like their partner will try to make every embrace or hand on the back turn into a sexual touch.

All these negative feelings start popping up every time they even vaguely touch each other, and after a while, the lower-libido person may begin avoiding being touched by their partner completely to avoid this difficult dynamic.

The person who's wanting sex more often may notice that their partner has been avoiding their touch. This might be particularly hurtful if their love language is physical touch, or it may feel like their partner is simply not interested in them sexually at all anymore.

The importance of nonsexual touch.

"Sex and intimacy are two different things, but we often use them interchangeably in our society," marriage therapist Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, tells mbg. "I often talk with the couples I work with about the importance of nonsexual touch in a relationship."

Nonsexual touch—like nuzzling up with each other in bed in the morning, kissing each other hello and goodbye, or simply resting a hand on your partner's arm or knee as you talk to each other—can be very important for creating feelings of warmth and closeness in a couple. For many couples, losing all physical touch in a relationship can really hurt their connection.

Of course, some people are simply not that touchy in general; different people have different love languages and might care more about different types of intimacy, and that's OK. As long as a couple is finding ways to mutually show affection that feel good to both partners, that's what matters.

But scientifically speaking, there are many benefits of touch, particularly for relationships. Any form of touch—from hugging to orgasms—triggers the release of feel-good hormones in the body, including serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, according to Jackson. "Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone. That hormone is the same hormone released between a newborn baby and its mother, which is why skin-to-skin contact is highly recommended for bonding after childbirth," she adds.

That means touch can be important for couples to feel close to each other, too—especially couples who are already feeling tension in their relationship because of a lack of sex. In fact, one reason couples in sexless relationships may struggle so much is because they've lost all forms of physical intimacy, not just sex.

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Prioritizing touch, without strings attached.

It can be helpful for couples to make a conscious effort to detach touch from sex. This way, even when their libidos aren't aligned, their connection as a couple doesn't waver because they still have other nonsexual ways of showing affection and cultivating intimacy.

"It is OK to tickle each other, rub your partner's back, or simply sit close side-by-side. Those things are intimate but do not have to lead to sex," Jackson says. "It is important for your partner to understand that every time you touch them, it is not always an invitation to jump your bones."

It might be helpful to have a conversation as a couple about how you can remove the pressure from touch, such that you're able to enjoy kissing, cuddling, and other forms of touch without any expectation that sex needs to come from it. It may even be helpful to establish "first-base dates," i.e., romantic time you spend together where you agree that sex is off the table.

Of course, it'll also be important to find ways to make sure the partner with the higher libido still feels like their sexual needs are being addressed in the relationship. But you might be surprised by how much cultivating more nonsexual touch can make both parties feel loved and satisfied. And more often than not, when there's an influx of warmth and intimacy in a relationship, sex can feel like a more desirable next step. You may even find that sexual desire in the relationship builds back up over time naturally.

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Kelly Gonsalves
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

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