At any time, I know of several people who have a spouse or partner who says that sex and desire isn’t important to them. They don’t want it, they don’t need it, and it’s not a problem for them that needs to be fixed.
But where does that leave the other partner who is craving sex and intimacy in any way, shape or form? I asked Dr. Holly Parker, who teaches The Psychology of Close Relationships at Harvard University and is a clinical psychologist at Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass., for her advice. This is what she said:
“I wouldn’t say that someone has an ethical requirement to be physically intimate with their partner. However, physical intimacy is an important part of what separates ‘a couple’ from ‘a couple of friends.’ For the vast majority of the population, it is generally understood, especially in a marriage, and now typically in long-term exclusive relationships as well, that physical intimacy is an inherent part of the relationship. A lack of physical intimacy in a romantic, long-term, committed relationship is like being friends with someone but refusing to do any shared activities together; that’s part of what friends just do. It’s an investment in the well-being of a relationship, as research shows that a couple’s sex life predicts their marital happiness and not the other way around.
“But, forget the relationship issue for a second. As individuals, as humans, we are sexual beings, and physical intimacy is an important part of life. It’s not a luxury or a want — that kind of connection is arguably a need for most people for a healthy and happy life.
“So, if a member of a couple expressed no desire for physical intimacy on an ongoing basis, it is important to understand why. Rather than try to convince the person to be intimate, a focus on asking questions, listening, and understanding is almost always a wonderful place to start. How long has there been no desire? What does your partner make of this? Is it an issue in the relationship, such as anger and resentment toward you, or dissatisfaction with some aspect of physical intimacy? Or, is the issue about something else, like body image issues, depression, stress, or fatigue? The answers to these questions can provide guidance for meaningful next steps in solving the problem.
“If your partner refuses to talk about it, you might want to re-evaluate how you’re approaching the situation. Try to make the conversation as accepting and non-threatening as possible by using I-statements, expressing care, and a desire to address the issue by actively listening and validating your partner’s feelings. When in doubt, if your partner seems to be shutting down, a request for feedback on whether there is anything you can do to make this a little easier to talk about is an option that might help.
“If your partner refuses to go to therapy for help, this does not mean that you can’t go and receive guidance on how to handle this situation and receive support, You and your new therapist may even be able to convince your partner to come in for a one-time session with no expectation to return. This can sometimes make therapy more approachable.”