Whether you’ve been with your partner forever or it just became official, intimacy is an important aspect of the relationship. Intimacy, at its most basic, is closeness. Within a relationship, intimacy usually refers to a couple’s sex life. Sex is a significant component to healthy romantic relationships—it’s what separates lovers from friends. So, what do you do when your partner doesn’t want to be intimate? First, take a deep breath. This doesn’t mean your relationship is over. Second, read on for our step-by-step guide to navigating this totally normal situation.
What to do when your partner doesn’t want to be intimate
Our guide is based on the advice and insight from licensed clinical social workers, sex and intimacy experts, relationship coaches and more. We encourage you to read their tips with compassion for your partner and yourself. Approach this topic with a mindset of mutual respect, rather than wanting to “fix” your partner or convince them to be more sexually open. This stuff isn’t easy! But healthy relationships are so worth the effort.
1. Define what intimacy means to you
Before you even approach your partner about why they may be uninterested sexually, it’s imperative to define intimacy for yourself. Relationship coach Marie Murphy, Ph.D, urges all her clients to be specific about their personal definitions of intimacy.
“Some couples never have a shared definition of what it means to be intimate with each other, or what kind of intimacies they want to experience together,” Murphy says. “So when one partner starts to feel unsatisfied with a lack of intimacy in a relationship, the first thing to do is figure out exactly what intimacy means to them… and what they want more of from their partner.”
If it’s difficult to pinpoint your version of intimacy, it may be helpful to journal about how you feel when your partner doesn’t want to be intimate. Gigi Engle, a certified sex coach, sexologist and SKYN Sex & Intimacy Expert, also encourages individuals to ask themselves why they have sex. Does it meet your physical needs? Your emotional needs? Identifying your personal reasons for engaging in sex will help you better articulate what you feel is missing.
Intimacy looks different to everyone. For one person, it could mean frequently experimenting with new sexual positions. For another, it could mean lounging on each other without needing to speak. Both partners’ needs are valid and essential to a healthy relationship.
2. Communicate honestly and openly
Every single expert we spoke to said the key to dealing with a lack of intimacy in a relationship is honest, judgment-free communication. There’s no way around this one. Diving in headfirst can be daunting. Instead, start small with a little self-disclosure.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and the resident sex researcher at Astroglide, says mutual self-disclosure is essential to building trust and closeness. With trust, comes vulnerability (and vice versa!). “[Self-disclosure] also establishes a norm of communication, thereby facilitating more difficult conversations down the road, which can make it easier to navigate conflict situations and also to tell your partner how you really feel,” says Dr. Lehmiller.
He suggests starting with The 36 Questions that Lead to Love, a list developed by a group of psychologists as part of a study on interpersonal closeness. The questions are separated into several sets. After taking your time covering topics in sets one and two (familiarity doesn’t occur overnight), Dr. Lehmiller recommends giving some of the inquiries an erotic twist as a way to safely introduce the topic of sexual intimacy.
“For instance, in addition to asking about the general activities on your partner’s ‘bucket list,’ you might also ask if there are any sexual experiences they want to be sure to have in their lifetime,” says Dr. Lehmiller.
Now is also an opportunity to ask your partner how satisfied they are with the relationship. This is scary! But, it’s the only way to really understand what’s going on with them. Are there issues you’ve both been avoiding? Does the air need to be cleared on a particular topic?
Above all else, the communication process must be reciprocal and free of judgment. Try listening more than you speak. Now isn’t the time to demand more intimacy, it’s time to understand where your partner is coming from.
3. Don’t play the blame game
Often, when one partner doesn’t feel like being intimate, we either blame ourselves (I’m not attractive enough) or accuse our partner of something nefarious (they’re cheating on me). However, outside factors can play a huge role in romance. Things like stress, diet, poor sleep, alcohol use, and kids can impact a person’s libido. For example, surveys by The Kinsey Institute reveal 75 percent of couples who live together have had less sex during the COVID-19 pandemic than they did pre-quarantine. Most of us have never considered how our sex life would be impacted by a global pandemic, but here we are.
Dr. Rhonda Mattox, M.D., a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, also notes many antidepressants and prescription medications can decrease sex drive and even cause erectile dysfunction. This can lead to immense shame in the person experiencing these side effects, which may make it difficult for them to open up.
That’s why it’s super important to put your partner’s needs first during these conversations. Dr. Janet Brito, LCSW, Ph.D, suggests simply asking about what’s going on in your partner’s life. What projects are taking up their time at work? What are their anxiety levels like these days? Did they recently start taking a medication that may be causing a lack of interest in sex? Then, put yourself in their shoes. Have you ever experienced a similar period in your life? What would you want to hear from your partner if you were going through the same thing?
Whatever you do, don’t play the blame game. Blaming others not only puts the spotlight on your partner to fix everything, it excuses you from any responsibility. If you play that game, no one wins.
4. Listen with genuine curiosity
Along the same line, avoid jumping to conclusions. You may think you know what’s going on with your partner, but it’s always best to ask and listen. Murphy is adamant that partners don’t make assumptions about each other’s thoughts and feelings. Again, if we assume we know what our partner defines as “intimacy” and never ask, we’ll likely miss out on important information. You’ve got to have a genuine curiosity about what your partner wants. Making assumptions is like having a conversation with yourself about a topic you know nothing about.
Dr. Mattox adds, “I encourage [clients] to create an environment so that their partner can talk openly about new stressors, medications, or even over the counter products.” She also says that using vulnerability against our partner later is a big no-no. “It is important that when your partner feels safe enough to be vulnerable with you, that you don't ‘weaponize’ that information during your next fight.”
5. Invest in non-sexual touch
Think about how often you touch your partner. Consider the meaning behind gestures like holding hands or hugging. If you only touch or get physically close right before or right after sex, it might be time to invest in non-sexual touch.
Engle acknowledges the important role touch plays in relationships. “Studies have shown that when we receive touch, our brains release oxytocin and other positive neurochemicals, making us feel calm, happy, and at peace,” she says. So, if we only associate touch with sex, we may not reach out to them if we’re not in the mood. This creates distance.
“Take the sex off the table and invest in non-sexual touch,” says Engle. “Sexual currency (the erotic charge you build together through touch) is a bedrock of relationships because it allows us to meet these needs without the pressure of having full on sex.”
Then, think about ways in which certain needs can be met without sex. Take note of new forms of intimacy that may emerge from non-sexual touch.
6. Consent is non-negotiable
Navigating a situation in which your partner doesn’t want to be intimate is not about convincing them to have more sex. Nance Schick, an attorney, mediator and conflict resolution coach, reminds her clients that consent is non-negotiable. Building intimacy is about mutual respect and pleasure; rushing the process or forcing someone to change their mind before they’re ready is absolutely not an option.
“You can ask more questions—with the intent to understand—but not simply to find a way around the no. That is not listening. That is manipulation,” says Schick.
Discussions with your partner about intimacy definitions, meeting needs and relationship issues isn’t debate team practice. There is no right answer, no correct level of intimacy every couple must have to be happy and healthy. There’s only the two of you and your unique connection.