The spark between two people at the beginning of a relationship can be magnetic. There’s an attraction; it’s irresistible. You touch all the time, kiss, cuddle, and, in many cases, have lots and lots of sex. That New Relationship Energy is real — but how long does it last? Even in a relationship with intense sexual chemistry, there’s often a drop-off in sex as the partnership progresses. Sometimes this means the sex becomes infrequent. Sometimes it means the sex stops completely. If your sexual connection was really foundational to your relationship, it may seem like lack of sex is a reason to break up. But that doesn’t have to be the case if you don’t want it to be.
Lucie Fielding, sex educator and author of Trans Sex: Clinical Approaches to Trans Sexualities and Erotic Embodiments, says there’s a never-ending list of reasons why sex might stop in your relationship, and most of them have nothing to do with you or your desirability. But still, when sex becomes unavailable in a partnership where it was once a regular expectation, it can be painful. For some, it can feel like something has been lost that can’t be replaced.
“Is it OK to end a relationship because of this? Absolutely,” Fielding says. “I’ve definitely seen relationships where this is a dealbreaker for some people and they just can’t move past it.” But does it always have to be a dealbreaker? Definitely not. “There [are] a lot of other avenues of exploration that can take place before that happens,” she explains.
“I always want my clients to focus on finding the other forms of intimacy and pleasure and connection that they share with their partner, because maybe sex isn’t all that important in the final calculus,” Fielding says. “And if it is, what can you nurture to bring sex back into the relationship?”
Asexual sex educator Aubri Lancaster explains that compulsory sexuality, or the expectation that all people want and need sex, often plays a role in this kind of desire difference. This societal expectation makes those people who don’t want or need sex — whether they’re on the asexual spectrum, or they’re just in a phase of life where sex is not a priority — feel they need to be fixed, or feel they still need to “provide for the sexual needs of their partner,” even if they don’t want to be having sex themselves.
Losing the sex in your relationship can be a difficult challenge to overcome. But whether the lack of sex breaks you up or not, the choice is between you and your partner. A romantic, fulfilling relationship is not defined by sex unless you want it to be. “If you have enough else in your relationship that works for you, lack of sex won’t destroy you,” Lancaster says.
Read on for more about why you may have stopped having sex, the ways you can still keep your relationship alive without it, and the potential avenues for bringing it back — if you both want to.
Why Did We Stop Having Sex?
Fielding explains that there are a lot of reasons why sex might drop off in frequency, and much of it has to do with context.
There are plenty of things outside your relationship that could lead to a slow-down or even a complete halt in your sex life. If you or your partner is feeling especially stressed out about something at work or with family, sex might not be all that important to you right now. Depending on the severity of your stress, sex might not even be something you can currently envision.
Maybe you or your partner is experiencing some kind of physical pain, and the type of sex you usually have suddenly doesn’t feel good anymore.
“We also age!” Fielding adds. “Our bodies change and are constantly in transition. We expect our bodies and the sex we have will remain the same at various points in our lives, no matter the contexts.” But the truth is, the kind of sex you have and the kind of sex you fantasize about will change over time, she says. And that’s OK.
The most important thing is to communicate with your partner. Understand what’s driving their disinterest in sex: If it’s an external circumstance like work or family stress, find other ways of supporting them and encouraging their relaxation.
“When there’s a drop-off in frequency, there can be a feedback loop that gets created,” Fielding says. “If one partner is continually being put off every time they try to initiate sex, they might start projecting and thinking it’s something about them. So they start withdrawing.”
Should We Break Up Due To Lack Of Sex?
Fielding and Lancaster both acknowledge that plenty of relationships have ended because of a lack of sex. But neither believes lack of sex has to be the determining factor.
“Incompatibility can absolutely be a good reason to end a relationship, but sexual incompatibility is only one kind of incompatibility, and there [are] so many other ways to enjoy a relationship,” Lancaster says. “If this is the final straw, then OK. But if there’s enough else in the relationship that’s beautiful and strong, this may not be as central to the relationship as you once thought.”
If the sex goes away, you may look at your relationship and not see much else worth salvaging. That’s a good sign it’s time to break things off. But if you look at your relationship and find other things worth cultivating, trust your instincts and see where they take you.
“My challenge, and this is something that I’ve really learned from educators like Aubri, is to look at the many different kinds of intimacy that are in your relationship,” Fielding says. “If your partner decides they don’t want to have as much sex, look at it as an opportunity to explore the many kinds of intimacy you do share.”
I Don’t Want To Break Up. What Should We Do?
Both Fielding and Lancaster can recite dozens of other forms of intimacy and connection that you can foster with your partner without having sex.
“We tend to assume intimacy must be found through sex, but intimacy can be a conversation, a dance, a shower together, grooming one another, [or] taking care of their body,” Lancaster says. “Emotional support and intellectual compatibility are also important. There [are] so many other ways to have beautiful, special moments in each other’s lives.”
Lancaster says when sex is removed from a relationship, it can actually be more of an opportunity than a loss. “When we step back and take a look at what we actually enjoy doing together, we can focus on what we want more of rather than what we want less of,” she says. “For some people, stopping the expectation of sex can be freeing. Instead of feeling like they have to perform every night or every week, letting them take the initiative on their own terms to spark up some sexual intimacy can be very freeing. It’s the difference between a chore and a favor.”
How Do I Introduce Sex Back Into The Relationship?
Maybe your partner still desires sexual connection, but in a different form than the two of you have previously explored together.
“Some people discover that what they want out of sex isn’t what society says it should be, like kinks, BDSM, different relationship models, etc.,” Lancaster says. “When your sexual desires fall outside those bounds, it’s good to explore with a sex therapist so you can incorporate them with consent.”
If there’s room to open your relationship up to other sexual partners who can fulfill your needs in a way that your partner no longer can — and if both you and your partner are OK with this — that may be a great thing to discuss with a sex or relationship therapist.
Slowing down your sex life or stopping the sex altogether can also be an invitation to break down what kinds of physical touch you both enjoy. “Have conversations in non-sexual settings so there’s no pressure or expectation for sex at the end,” Lancaster suggests. “Ask your partner, ‘What do you want more of? What other ways can we connect that would bring you joy?’”
“We get to a point where we assume we know all there is to know about our bodies and our partners’ bodies,” Fielding says. “But we can inject different forms of passion to create a different experience ... Slowing down your sex life is an opportunity to continually experiment and explore.”
Lancaster says in a healthy, thriving relationship, all parties have to get used to saying and hearing “no.” If your partner doesn’t want to have sex with you, it doesn’t have to be the end of your partnership. It could even be the start of a whole other kind of partnership — one in which you both get to create new boundaries and expectations together.
“There’s an assumption that sex is needed to make a relationship work,” Lancaster says. “But it’s not all about sex. Being friends with your partner is also so beautiful.”
Ultimately, your decision about whether or not to stay together should come from you and your partner, not from any societal scripts that dictate what romantic relationships should look like. There are tons of ways to maintain your closeness and connection without sex if that’s what you want — and if it’s not, then maybe it’s time to say goodbye and move on to something better suited to your needs. Either way, no one can make that call except for you and your partner.
Lucie Fielding, sex educator and author of Trans Sex: Clinical Approaches to Trans Sexualities and Erotic Embodiments
Aubri Lancaster, asexual sex educator