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How Long Is Too Long *Without* Sex In A Relationship?

How Long Is Too Long Without Sex In A Relationship?
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In the hit series The White Lotus season 2, one of the huge aspects of the plot was the dwindling sexual chemistry between married couple Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe), prompting the question; "How long is too long without sex in a relationship?"

As a quick refresher of the plot, as the show progresses it becomes clear that Ethan has lost much of his attraction to long-term partner Harper and prefers to watch pornography and masturbate in secret rather than be intimate with her, causing Harper to feel insecure and betrayed. And while we can all see this issue in the fictional The White Lotus world, it's also one that many face in real life, whether it's just a case of a long-term relationship snuffing out desire, everyday stresses hurting a partner's libido, or even a sign that a wider issue is at play.

In order to find out more about what having sex less often might mean for you and your partner, and what to do about it, we reached out to Marianne Johnson, a UKCP-accredited relationship therapist and founder of group practice The Thought House Partnership.

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How long is too long without sex in a relationship?

It's important to keep in mind that different couples (or polycules!) have different sex lives and won't naturally have sex with the same frequency. That said, it can help to have a handle on what an "average", coupled-up sex life might look like. If you're looking for answers on that front, you might want to consult research published in The Archives of Sexual Behaviour which has suggested that American couples, on average, have sex around once a week.

But, that said, the key to navigating sexual dry spells in a relationship is not to consider your sex life in comparison to others but to look at whether your sex life seems out of the ordinary compared to the rhythm you and your partner have previously established. And, even then, it doesn't necessarily mean something is "wrong" with the relationship- it's just about being honest with yourself and your partner about how that makes you feel.

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"There is no rule for how long is too long without sex in a relationship. There are plenty of different ways people can be happily attached to one another, in a way that works for them. Some couples don’t have sex at all and will report being perfectly happy with that," explains relationship therapist Marianne Johnson.

However, if it does bother you that the sex is becoming less frequent, you might want to broach the issue sooner rather than later. "If you are in a partnership where sex has dwindled and there’s been little or no conversation about it, it can feel really awkward bringing the topic up and the longer you leave it, the more difficult it can be," adds Johnson.

How to talk to your partner about your sex life

Talking about sex (or the lack of it) with a partner can feel just a little embarrassing, even for the most sex-positive among usbut it really doesn't have to be. As you get yourself ready to bring up the subject, it can help to reframe the conversation as an opportunity to listen and be heard and to give your partner that space, too.

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The most important thing is not to pretend like the situation doesn't exist - if you've noticed it, your partner might have as well. "It might take a bit of courage to bring it up, but if you’re worrying about it, there is a good chance your partner is thinking about it too, particularly if it used to be a source of pleasure between you both," Johnson explains.

When it comes to the talk itself, don't build it up in your head. Keep it simple. "How to broach the conversation will depend on a couple and their circumstances, but it can be helpful to calmly and non-defensively state what you see as having changed between you, whether that is having little or no sex, and then asking how your partner feels about it," she says. "We generally want to feel understood and accepted by our partners, so having the opportunity to just talk and listen is really valuable."

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If conversations about the lack of sex in the relationship are proving uncomfortable, painful, or unproductive, it might help to call in an expert and unpack the situation with a couple's therapist.

The reasons why you and your partner might be having less sex

It can be easy to internalize feelings of insecurity if our partner seems less attracted to us than before or, on the other hand, feel guilty if we just aren't in the mood to be intimate much in our relationship. But while these emotions are understandable, it may be helpful to take a more neutral stance. After all, our sex drives do change with time and circumstance.

"While some people will describe themselves as being much more sexually charged than others, our libido isn't a fixed thing," says Johnson. "For most, it will shift and change according to a vast array of different influences across a lifetime."

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Rather than feel helpless in the face of a vacillating sex drive, you might want to think practically about anything in your lives that might have contributed to these changes. "If you’ve noticed a change in your sex life, think about whether any recent events have occurred which might be affecting your, or your partner’s, libido," Johnson explains. "This could either be something external, like work stress, a loss, a birth or other big change, or something more internal, like hormonal changes, medication or mental health issues."

It's also worth pointing out that gender inequality can actually be a factor here. A recent study published in The Archives of Sexual Behaviour in 2022 has argued that the unequal division of labor in heterosexual relationships, which often sees women shoulder disproportionate child-caring, planning, cooking, and cleaning tasks, may contribute to feelings of stress and unfairness which may lower the female partner's libido.

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How to have more sex in your relationship

So, you've acknowledged the problem, talked it out, and now want to get your sex life back to a place where everyone's needs are being met. Sadly, you can't just click your fingers and expect everything to change for the betterit's doable, but work and deeper thought may be required.

As a first measure, ditch the idea that sex needs to be a totally spontaneous whirlwind. It's time to get practical. "When it comes to sex, there can be an unhelpful idea that it needs to be spontaneous or it’s somehow less exciting," says Johnson.

You and your partner can decide on an ideal time to be intimate and plan towards that date. Rather than think of it as unnecessary scheduling, try and frame it as a way of bringing more anticipation into your sex life. "If you want something good to happen, make it a priority and enjoy the wait, as you would when you plan to cook a delicious meal or book a massage."

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If erectile issues, vaginal pain, or other concerns play a part, heterosexual couples might want to broaden their definition of what sex means and instead prioritize things like foreplay, oral sex, or passionate kissing. "It can be helpful to think about sex in a less heteronormative 'sex equals penetration' way. There might be other ways to have sexual intimacy which work better for you both."

If a lack of sexual intimacy is a longer-term issue that is proving difficult to resolve, or if it's due to a more permanent sexual incompatibility, it might be worth exploring options such as opening the relationship so that each partner is able to pursue separate sexual connections. However, redefining the partnership in this way is a major step and will require serious thought, research, communication, and effort.

"Some couples might discuss opening up their relationship if their libidos are very mismatchedthough couples in consensually nonmonogamous relationships are often choosing that model for very different reasons," says Johnson. "If that feels like it might be an option for you it’s useful to do plenty of research into non-monogamy so you feel confident that it's the right decision for you both."

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Is it worth breaking up over?

If you've got this far into the article, you may be looking for the answer to one very specific question: Should my partner and I break up if we're not having sex anymore?

The answer to that question is not an easy one and it depends on what your own wants and needs areand on how willing your partner is to communicate and meet you halfway.

As Johnson puts it; "There is no hard and fast rule about when a lack of sexual intimacy might lead to a breakup but if things have changed, and your partner is denying there is an issue or is unwilling to talk about it, then you might feel you have little choice if it’s something that feels crucial in your relationship."

Ultimately, the decision is yoursand no one else's—to make.

***

This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.

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