Many of us worry about sex and its importance for our romantic relationships. We often feel caught between a rock and a hard place given the way that our culture deals with sex: One stereotype tells us that sex is overrated and marrying your “best friend” is what matters, while another stereotype suggests that sex is everything, and whispers in our ear that we are not having good enough or hot enough sex with our partner.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is okay for sex to be important to you and your relationship, and it is also okay if sex feels less critical to you. Some panic when the level of attraction declines in a relationship, but it is natural and certainly doesn’t mean that sex is no longer important or that you are no longer a sexual being.
We put so much time and energy into other parts of our lives, and our sex lives should be no different. No one says you have to give up passion to have a long-lasting relationship. A great sex life and a great relationship are both possible; in fact, they often go hand in hand.
Table of Contents
How relationship quality is related to a couple’s sex life.
* Relationship conflict and sex.
* How to stay sexually connected during stressful times.
* Some common signs of an abusive relationship.
* What’s the difference: a sex therapist vs. a couples therapist.
* How to know when a lack of attraction is a slump or something more.
How relationship quality is related to a couple’s sex life
We have all heard the stories about couples who fight like cats and dogs but have great sex that keeps them coming back for more. In fact, you may have found yourself in a relationship that was wrong in most respects but sexually exciting—maybe this is even how you justified it. It begs the question: Is the quality or health of a relationship really connected to a couple’s sexual satisfaction?
The answer is resoundingly yes. Research has shown that the happiest relationships are also the most sexually satisfied relationships over the long term. You can have a bad relationship, with amazing sex, but rarely does the satisfaction last. These relationships either don’t endure long-term or become less satisfying and, eventually, the sex follows suit.
Most sex therapists agree that when a sexual complaint crops up in a relationship, there tends to be an interpersonal issue contributing to or causing it, whether it is how a couple communicates, how they make each other feel or how connected they are outside of the bedroom. In most cases, relationship quality is indeed related to what’s going on sexually and vice versa.
Relationship conflict and sex
While some like the passion of sex when they’re angry or the thrill of make-up sex, relationship conflict and good sex do not go together for the most part. Over time, the cycle of fighting takes its toll on one or both partners, and sex no longer becomes an enjoyable way to reconnect.
Both men and women may find it difficult to respond sexually to a partner when they are angry. Anger can cause low sexual desire, especially when resentment and hostility build up over time. Feeling hurt or upset also can interfere with arousal. Women may find they are not receptive to sex—with symptoms like pain or dryness—when they are feeling angry, hurt, sad or resentful as their bodies may have difficulty relaxing and responding sexually. Men may have trouble getting an erection when they are experiencing negative emotions, or they may find it more difficult to ejaculate. Ultimately, the mind plays a crucial role in sexual function, and the body might not respond when you don’t feel comfortable, connected or safe.
Tell your partner you are not in the mood if you’ve had a fight and they try to reconnect with sex. Reassure them that you love them, but you’re upset right now and need some time to yourself or to talk when the moment feels right.
How to stay sexually connected during stressful times
We all go through stressful times. Between work, keeping up with personal obligations, relationships with family and friends—especially if you’re caring for children or aging parents—stress is everywhere. Too much stress can put a damper on sexual desire and sexual function. What to do? Well, first: relax. Sex, while important, is not always critical. Sometimes our bodies and minds know what is best for us, and temporarily putting sex on the back burner can allow you and your partner to focus on what you need to get done, or on finding quiet moments to regroup.
Once you are past critical moments, make sure to give your relationship the same priority we do to those other life necessities, such as paying bills, raising kids and keeping the house clean.
A potentially familiar scenario: One partner comes home at the end of a long day apart ready to have sex, while the other feels totally disconnected and uninterested in sex. In this case, it’s important to carve out some daily time together to talk about your days or even just to lament what a stressful time it is in your lives. Sex will tend to happen more naturally once you start to reconnect.
If stress is taking a constant toll on your relationship (and your life), take a step back and evaluate: What is important to you and your partner? What can you do to simplify your life? Sex isn’t all that matters in a relationship, but unending stress can take a toll on other areas of the relationship as well. Sex does matter for many couples; consider it an important part of your life to maintain.
Some common signs of an abusive relationship
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one-quarter of women and 8 percent of men have been the victim of physical abuse at the hands of a partner. And while physical abuse isn’t always obvious, the signs of verbal and emotional abuse can be even more difficult to notice—by the victim and also by friends and family.
Signs that could indicate an abusive relationship include: any type of pushing, hitting as well as physical intimidation without touching; threats of violence or abandonment; humiliation, insults or name-calling; controlling access to family and friends, or to money; watching or participating in sexual activity against your will; or being told you’re sexually inadequate if you don’t participate in a sex act.
As a rule, victims of abuse—regardless of gender—keep secrets, blame themselves and are scared to leave their abusers. Women are far more likely to be the victim of all types of abuse, including rape. But men are victims, too, and may be less willing to confide in friends or loved ones about the abuse or to seek help, because of the even greater stigma they face—even disbelief. Tell someone if you are experiencing any type of abuse, or reach out to someone you suspect is a victim of abuse.
What’s the difference: a sex therapist vs. a couples therapist
It takes courage to reach out for help from a therapist, whether you are an individual or part of a couple. And once a person is prepared to take that big step, many feel confused about the difference between a sex therapist and a couples therapist. The truth is, there can be a lot of overlap between the two; it all depends on the licensing and background of the therapist.
In general, a sex therapist tends to get specific training about sexual issues, like problems with orgasm, premature ejaculation (PE), performance issues or other sexuality issues. People tend to visit a sex therapist when they have a specific problem related to sex. For some, the sex-based or educational information they receive from a sex therapist is enough.
Many relationship issues show up in the bedroom, however, and many sex issues are related to what’s going on in the relationship, so it can help to find a therapist who has experience in both counseling and sexuality issues. Most sex therapists who are certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) have had trainined related to both relationship issues and sexual concerns, and are equipped to assist clients with these issues.
A couples therapist will provide more guidance for interpersonal and relationship issues that aren’t necessarily all about sex. Problems with conflict, mood or anxiety problems, too much stress or other issues are best handled by someone with training in psychological counseling, usually a PhD, PsyD or MSW. Following is a quick reference guide for the various academic degrees and licenses a mental health professional might obtain:
Psychologist: Usually has a PhD, PsyD or EdD in psychology or other mental health specialty.
Social Worker: An MSW pr PhD in social work.
Counselor/Therapist: An MA or MS in clinical psychology, counseling, mental health or sexology.
Psychiatrist: An MD in psychiatry, generally licensed to prescribe medication. Some, not all, psychiatrists are trained to provide therapy, in addition to prescribing medication. Many people see a psychiatrist in conjunction with a therapist
How to know when a lack of attraction is a slump or something more
Attraction ebbs and flows in every relationship. You may find that one partner is all about the other partner for weeks or months and, suddenly, the roles reverse. It can also be the case that a relationship goes well for months, sex included, then goes into neutral or hits a rough patch.
Most couples have a sense of when their relationship is in a down cycle and sex is on the back burner, as opposed to when something is wrong. If you find yourself in a sex or relationship slump that doesn’t seem to be changing, however, it’s important to take action. One red flag: If a person has lost interest in sex with a partner, but finds themselves attracted to other people. In most cases, something is going on in the relationship that is affecting sex.
Couples should talk about their concerns sooner than later. Spend some time alone thinking about what issue(s) might be getting in the way of sex. Talk about it with each other. If boredom is the issue, try exploring some new terrain sexually—with books, videos or other activities. If deeper issues exist in the relationship, consider visiting a sex therapist or couples therapist.