Illustration by Tamara Valencia
by Jo Murphy
It’s totally okay to not want sex, even with a long-term partner, but this doesn’t mean you can’t maintain intimacy. While we all need physical touch, since this stimulates the release of healing hormone oxytocin, we don't all need sex—yet if you stop having sex, all the other kinds of touching might stop, too. So how can you reconnect with your partner when you’re not in the mood?
Do You Know Your Relationship?
“If you’re dating once a week, you’re probably having sex each time you see each other,” says psychologist and sex coach Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey. “This is a different rhythm to a long-term relationship—unless you’re in the honeymoon period, which can last up to two years. During this time, your libido will be higher than normal, so you’ll have sex more often and do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.”
When the honeymoon period comes to an end, however, your libido will likely return to the same level it was before you hooked up with your partner. Cohabiting may also have an impact on how often you have sex, as the excitement of seeing each other every day diminishes. So, what exactly is your “normal” and what was your sex life like before you were in a relationship?
Do Know Your Libido?
Your libido is likely to fluctuate, since its constantly responding to all kinds of psychological and physiological factors. Anything from poor diet to money worries, relationship troubles, or even too much time (or not enough time) at the gym can take its toll on your ability to get aroused. So your sexual brakes might not be related to your partner in any way.
It’s actually stress that’s far more likely to steal your libido, says psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury. “It’s an increasingly common cause of loss of intimacy between couples, and we’re having to adapt to busier lives.” When the body’s stress response is triggered, it ups the production of cortisol, which counters the production of testosterone—the sex hormone that drives a healthy libido in both men and women. Besides, if one hormone is off-kilter, they’ll all be out of balance.
“Get blood tests to check the levels of all your reproductive hormones,” Drury says. “You need to know if this is a physiological or psychological issue.” And if this is a hormonal issue, you can start making the appropriate lifestyle changes right away, such as getting more sleep, eating healthier food, and balancing your HIIT training with yoga or meditation.
But if your medical evaluation reveals no sign of hormonal or physical dysfunction, your relationship may need some TLC. If sex and intimacy mean different things to both of you, or you don’t place equal value on them, it’s time to get talking rather than touching.
Do You Want the Same Thing?
If you’d rather hold hands than have penetrative sex, make sure your partner knows, Drury says. “Physical intimacy can mean different things to different people, so communication is where sex begins—but don’t have these conversations in the bedroom.” Instead, “choose somewhere neutral and relaxed, like the sofa. Then turn off your phones and give each other space and respect as you each voice your needs.”
Avoiding blame can help ease your vulnerability. Drury recommends using a template phrase like “I need” or “I feel a certain way because…” rather than saying “you make me feel” which can come across as antagonistic. Dr. Bisbey agrees: “When physical intimacy goes, emotional intimacy decreases, too, and if you’ve been having the same conversation (or argument) for two years, you’re stuck in a loop and probably need professional help.”
Now That You’ve Talked, Can You Take It Slow?
If you don’t need couples’ therapy, you most certainly need time, but don’t wait until you’re in the mood because you may never be in the mood—the best way to start is by starting. “We have this idea that sex is supposed to be instant and spontaneous, which isn’t true, Drury explains. “You can begin with basic touch and no expectations and see where it takes you. This doesn’t have to be a hyper-sexual experience. Think of it as learning to dance with each other again, which makes it okay to step on each other’s toes and fumble around a bit.”
Basic touch might leave you wanting more, or it could feel like pressure. At no point should you ever feel obliged to have sex with a long-term partner—even if you’re married.
Moreover, if your partner is proving to be the sex brakes, try getting intimate with yourself instead to see how it feels. “If masturbation purely serves as a mechanical release, and there’s no fantasy involved, your libido is definitely low, but that might be your normal state of being,” Dr. Bisbey says. “And you should know that doesn’t have to change.”
Can Your Relationship Survive Without Sex?
Depending on your definition of “sex,” there are many ways that a relationship can survive your mismatched libidos from masturbation to kissing and cuddling to opening the relationship up to other people. “The key is making sure that both of you get your needs met, and that the person who’s not in the mood doesn’t feel dysfunctional or pressured. Know that your needs are valid, too,” Drury says. Dr. Bisbey agrees: “Know that it’s possible for libido to be so low that you don’t even think about sex, but that doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy it when you have it. You may never be in the mood, but once you get started, it can feel really good.”
So maintain your communication, keep up the touching and stroking, and take your time. And let masturbation be as much a part of your sex life as it needs to be—you don’t have to change to please someone else, no matter how much you love them.