You Need Help: My Partner and I Aren’t Having Sex — How Can I Still Foster Intimacy?

feature image photo by MoMo Productions via Getty Images

Q:

Hello! My partner and I have been together for 6 years. We started dating in uni and they’re my favorite person. About a year or two ago they started having some pretty serious mental health issues, and it heavily affected their libido, to the extent that we went from having sex quite regularly (a few times a week) to maybe once every four months or so. I’ve talked with them about their change in libido and they confirmed that it wasn’t unique to me — they went from having a healthy number of crushes on others to feeling very little at all beyond affection for anyone.

For the first year and change, I was totally fine — I’m busy enough and have enough in the way of toys and the like to take care of myself, but recently I’ve noticed myself becoming quite sad? Recently, they kissed me like they used to and I nearly started crying in our kitchen. I think I might miss the intimacy that comes with sex even if I’m ok without the act itself. I don’t want to ask them to do anything they don’t want to do, and I know it’s something they’re sensitive about so my question is: how do I talk about this with them? Do I talk about this with them? How does one foster the intimacy that comes with sex without having sex? We still cuddle a lot, and they give me plenty of chaste kisses and go on dates and all that jam — they really are my favorite person and I don’t want to impose myself or hurt them but I really do seem to be quite sad and I’d like to not be. Sorry if this is all a jumble, I’m not the greatest at articulating feelings or even questions.

A:

Don’t apologize! I think it’s hard for everyone to articulate feelings like this and to formulate questions about really big life things. Writing into advice columns is a really vulnerable process, and I think it’s hard to ask the “right” questions, because these things aren’t easy to package or explain to someone outside of yourself, outside of your relationship. This issue is complex; you love your partner. You’re also sad about something that has shifted. Both things are true.

Both of these things are true, too: Your partner is not a bad person for having a lower libido (something that’s obvious and I know you already know). But you are also not a bad person for feeling sad about this change. Both of these feelings and experiences are valid, but that’s what makes it all so hard.

Sometimes in long-term relationships, our needs shift and/or our capacity to fulfill someone’s needs shift. In this instance, your needs for sex remained the same, but your partner’s capacity to fulfill those needs shifted (and it sounds like some of their own needs shifted as well, if they used to desire more sex). I think it’s completely fair and reasonable to have this conversation, to acknowledge your sadness without making it be about failure or incompatibility. Your partner has done nothing wrong, and I think if you approach them with that acknowledgement upfront, you should be able to have an honest and meaningful conversation about your own sadness and how your needs are important.

Then, together, maybe you can figure out ways to address the shifts. I’m going to assume you’re not really interested in polyamory or some renegotiated relationship structure here as you didn’t really ask about it. It sounds instead like you’d like to get to a place of experiencing intimacy in your relationship with this person without sex. Is your partner open at all to sexting or sharing sexy photos with each other or does that also feel like something they’re not interested in right now? (Which is okay! I ask these questions just as jumping off points for you to discuss with each other about what does and does not feel comfortable or desirable right now.)

As a side note, if you ARE interested in reading more about polyamory, we have a ton of resources on the site. It can feel intimidating and scary to renegotiate the structure of your relationship, but it can sometimes be really great for couples who are experiencing mismatched sex drives — a problem I also want to assure you is quite common. I’ve even written about it before. If you were to decide on a nonmonogamy path or at least discussing it with your partner, it in no way would diminish what you have with your partner. Also, it’s possible that experiencing intimacy with someone else could actually help unlock new intimacy with your partner.

When they recently kissed you “like they used to,” did you have a conversation about what the kiss felt like for you? I don’t think it’s a bad thing to point out the moments when you do feel intimacy in a meaningful way. You can frame it as something that’s purely rooted in affirmation and appreciation and not pressure for more. Instead of saying something like “I wish you kissed me like that more often,” try “I really love how you just kissed me.” I do think it’s important to advocate for your wants and needs in a relationship; I also think it’s important to be kind and empathetic toward your partner’s capacity to fulfill those needs. I don’t think you’re imposing yourself by saying when you enjoy something, and I don’t think it would be imposing to ask your partner if they’re willing to try some things like sexting, talking about sex rather than having it, and maybe other things that constitute physical intimacy like taking showers or baths together, holding hands, and more cuddling.

You should not feel bad for feeling sad (and I fear that guilt over feeling sad could be deepening the sadness!). Even if you decide you can’t be in a relationship that doesn’t involve regular sex, that would not make you a bad person. But I really do sense you want to make things work with your partner, and I value that. Couples therapy, regular communication about the things you’d like to try out, and letting yourself feel your feelings authentically could all do a lot of work here. I think if you approach conversations with your partner less from a place of “this is what I miss” and more from a place of “this is what I would like to try in order to cultivate intimacy,” then it could be really productive and fruitful for your relationship. Because then it’s not about a lack but rather about possibility.

Good luck; I’m rooting for you. I think sometimes people jump to the conclusion that a relationship has to end when these things crop up, but I don’t always believe that, especially when folks really do want to make it work. Incompatibilities happen in relationships all the time and are navigable with work, communication, and a willingness to try or do new things. I hope your partner is open to at least talking about things.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 843 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. what a lovely, compassionate answer.

    Based on my experience in 20+ marriage with a lot of fluctuations, I have a few thoughts.

    One thing that’s worked for us is to ask each other for really specific things to help increase physical intimacy during less sexual periods. Like “I’d like to be able to put my head in your lap while we watch tv” or “I’d like to set aside some time for naked cuddle time on Sunday morning” or “I’d like it if sometimes I could sit on your lap and kiss and make out lightly.”

    Also, doing things to cultivate other types of intimacy can help – date nights, foot rubs, wine or tea tastings, etc.

    Good luck! <3

  2. I also have a disconnect between how much sex & intimacy I crave and my partner’s ability to provide it
    We’re still working on it, but here are some realizations I’ve had:
    -One reason cuddling isn’t enough for me is that I love being the only thing they’re thinking about, that I have their absolute full attention. And when we’re re cuddling we’re always doing our own thing. So we’ve been meaning to schedule in a time for intimacy, whether my partner feels like sex right then or not, but it’s a time for us to touch each other and not have divided attention
    – There are options for intimacy beyond sex. Emotional intimacy can be done through talking, or being vulnerable with each other in a different way, physical intimacy can happen in lots of ways of viewing or touching each other. Some possible alternatives: scantily clad photo session / just portraiture (a good portrait communicates a lot about a person, there’s a lot of trust between the model and the camera person, there is a lot of opportunity to talk and bond while setting up the perfect shot, and opportunity to touch each other some to put the model in the right position or try to get the look on her face when she’s just been kissed)
    Massage, kink play (often involves bodies and touching heavily, is usually quite emotionally vulnerable, doesn’t have to be sexy at all), just any sensation play, erotic dance / giving a lap dance, doing a makeover (lots of time to chat about things, lots of time looking at each other and admiring beauty, touching their face), they could read an erotic story aloud to you (plenty are just good stories that they might enjoy, and you can find a way to connect at that intersection of what turns you on and what they find enjoyable to read, and that way you get to share a sexual experience without them having to get you off or do sex themself)

      • Stop shaming people (especially queer people), for having sexual desires and wanting to honor that part of their identity. Cuddles may be enough for you but different people have different needs.

    • We also schedule time for physical intimacy and it works pretty well. We call it naked cuddle time but it’s not like cuddling on the couch watching tv, it’s time to be naked together in bed and touch and talk and be present to each other.

      We don’t like have it in the calendar as a repeating event, but when we want it, one will ask the other if we can make time for naked cuddling in the next few days and we usually do.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful and compassionate response. Been married for many years now and can agree that needs/wants/desires shift, and that doesn’t have to mean an end to a relationship. Communication is great, trying to find common ground around things to do together to create intimacy is also, of course, a great idea. I will say also, to borrow from Dan Savage, there is a “price of admission“ type thinking that also needs to be considered: these are the realities of this relationship and can I live with/be happy with these for all the other reasons you choose to stay and be with your partner? What are the adjustments and things I can do to best fill in those gaps, that still abide by confines of your relationship (eg if polyamory is not of interest or not an option etc)? I found it takes some self reflection to get there, but there are many ways to be fulfilled in relationships. Good luck to them!

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