8 Reasons You’ve Stopped Having Sex in Your Relationship—And How to Address It
These are the most common romantic roadblocks you might encounter.
As a therapist who specializes in modern love and studies the science behind connection, I inquire about the sex lives of dating individuals and couples constantly. What I hear in my sessions mirrors recent data, which indicates an upward trend in the number of U.S. adults who reported having no sex in the past year. That number peaked at 23 percent in 2018, according to a report from the General Social Survey.
Social scientists, psychologists, and economists have weighed in on rationales for the “sex recession,” citing everything from the increase in social media and phone use to newfound awareness of unwelcome and assaultive sex. And while there are surely societal influences that may be impacting our sex lives at large, there are also elements that are unique to our individual relationships. That said, here are some of the most common interpersonal reasons people in relationships stop having sex, as well as how to address them.
1. You focus on cultivating intimacy but not desire.
Desire, our capacity to succumb to our pleasures without guilt or shame, is selfish by definition. On the contrary, long-term relationships are built on mutual respect and mindfulness of the other person’s needs. In order to have a thriving sex life, we must wrestle with the contradictions between our values and our innate desire. Intimacy thrives on security and stability, while desire feeds off newness and is stifled by routine.
One intervention is to find opportunities in your relationship to be sexually transgressive. Consider writing or stating an erotic fantasy to your partner. Identify a new space (room, city, state) to have sex in. Simply talking about breaking the rules, even if you don’t actually break them, can invite a playful and adventurous spirit into your sexual connection.
2. You don’t spend enough quality time together.
In 2010, research from the National Marriage Project found that couples who spend time alone with each other at least once a week are 3.5 times more likely to enjoy above-average levels of sexual satisfaction than spouses who did so less frequently.
Investing time and energy in your relationship promotes attunement and could lead to increased sexual satisfaction. If life feels “too busy” to carve out this time, consider scheduling date nights or sex like you would a meeting or workout class, to ensure it is prioritized.
3. You don’t know what you want—or how to ask for it.
Experiencing pleasure requires that we have a clear sense of what we want. Pleasure is sometimes viewed as self-indulgent and narcissistic, two qualities that most people don’t want to be defined by and therefore resist exploring. But instead of judging our preferences, we must own them. Masturbating on a regular basis can help nurture a relationship with ourselves. Through experimentation, we can identify what feels good and how we like to be touched.
It is our right to have our needs met—and clearly stating our sexual preferences to our partners is like giving them the roadmap to helping achieve that. Show or tell your partner how to satisfy your needs. You’ll both be better off for it (and so will your relationship).
4. You’re not comfortable with your body.
Several aspects of body image, including weight worries, sexual attractiveness, and preoccupations about the body during sex, predict sexual satisfaction in women, according to 2009 research published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Men are also impacted by these concerns; one 2016 study published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity found that around 20 percent of “normal” weight men report hiding an aspect of their body during sex.
This evidence suggests that it is not our bodies themselves that impact our gratification, but rather our feelings toward them. Implementing positive self-talk has not only proven to increase confidence but also to internally remodel the negative grooves in our brains. Additionally, building awareness of what we allow into our field of view by limiting our intake of body “inspiration” on social media can positively impact our self-concept.
5. You’re experiencing a life transition.
In all rites of passage—consider the shift from childlessness to parenthood, singlehood to coupledom, married to divorced, or rebuilding after an affair—there are role exits and entries, where we must let go of an old identity in order to inhabit a new one. Anxiety, depression, and inner conflict tend to ensue when we experience a role transition. Walking into the unknown, even if it’s the most beautiful uncharted territory, is going to ignite fear.
The primordial human response to fear is to self-protect and clamp up. Normalizing this transitory period by removing expectations to behave like you “used to” or “do better” may help you relax and therefore open up sexually. Start by executing small and approachable sensual acts that will support you and your partner in building a track record of success. Couples that view their sexual narratives as continuous know that transition periods are chapters and not endings.
6. Your sex life is a reflection of another impasse in your relationship.
Our sex lives can be a barometer for other roadblocks in the relationship. For example, if you’re constantly being told that what you’re doing is wrong, you may notice a decreased attraction to your partner. Power struggles outside of the bedroom bear down on what transpires beneath the sheets. Underneath each criticism we have about our partners is a wish, an unmet need longing to be granted. To break the negativity cycle, begin to phrase your disapprovals as requests. When we state our desires with intention and vulnerability, making it about ourselves rather than others, there is a higher likelihood that they will be well-received and met.
7. Your technology addiction is inhibiting your sex drive.
Modern life provides ample material for stimulation. Having more modes of conveniently accessible distraction on our smartphones can intercept our appetite for human connection. Start to build cognizance of when, where, and how long you are using your phone. Get curious about how your engagement with technology may be distracting you from stressors in your life or impacting the quality of your face-to-face relationships.
Making intentional decisions to engage and disengage from technology—such as removing TVs, laptops, and phones from the bedroom space—may help you have more satisfying experiences with both your digital and human interactions. Keeping the bed sacred for sleep and sex can train the brain to associate this place with these two acts, increasing the likelihood of both.
8. You’re not in the mood (for a variety of reasons).
A lack of sexual desire may be influenced by physiological challenges, psychological issues, or a combination of the two. Certain health conditions, like diabetes, or medications, like anti-depressants, may impact how turned on you feel. Life stressors, subsequent worries, low self-esteem, and a history of sexual abuse can all promote sexual distance. Expressing these mind and body experiences to a trusted partner, friend, or therapist may reduce their grip on the sexual connection.
On top of sharing our truths, building scientific knowledge about how our bodies are wired, may reduce guilt and shame related to low desire or arousal. The sexual response cycle that we witness in movies and other forms of entertainment—which is desire, arousal, and then orgasm—does not align with most of our lived experiences. In consensual sex, many of us do not feel desire or arousal until the act begins. Meanwhile, some individuals may not even be seeking physical satisfaction with sex, but rather emotional closeness. Deemphasizing and reducing the pressure to achieve orgasm may enable couples to enjoy more aspects of the journey.
Approaching our sex lives as living, and therefore malleable, gives us permission to change the dynamic at any time. Having the will to revisit the erotic narrative in a relationship encourages us to look deeper into our own desires and those of our partners, having the potential to lead to more and better sex. And if you’re not sure if your sex slowdown is a bigger issue than you might think, check out the 27 Subtle Signs That Will Predict the End of Your Relationship