Can A Romantic Relationship Survive Without Sex?

A sex deathbed. A dry spell. A sexless marriage. A dating drought. Whatever you want to call a dip in sexual frequency, most of us have had the anxiety-inducing thought that perhaps we're not having enough sex, and that's a very bad thing.
Divulge this information to some well-meaning, honest friends and they might warn you that a dry spell is a sign that there's something wrong with your relationship, and you better figure it out before it's too late! But does this extremely common relationship phase really mean that you're doomed? In other words, can a relationship survive without sex?
The answer depends on a few factors, namely: how long you've been in this relationship and whether or not you're both cool with the lack of sex, says Lisa Brateman, LCSW, a relationship therapist in New York City. It's completely normal for couples to have less sex once the "honeymoon stage" passes, simply because you get comfortable. "They're committed to each other and they fall into that pattern," she says. There are certainly ways that couples can be physically and emotionally intimate without having sex, and it's important to keep that up, she says. "You have to have some sort of intimacy, otherwise it's just a friendship," she says.
And, this really only becomes an issue if one person in the partnership actually wants to have more sex, but is conceding to their less-inclined partner, Brateman says. "Sometimes people want to be with somebody so badly that they’ll accept whatever terms," she says. "But then they come into their own, and [think], This is important to me. I do have those feelings and urges." Of course, this can cause a lot of stress and emotional turmoil for the person wondering why their partner doesn't want to have sex. Over time, resentment can build, and the hornier partner might feel like they're being rejected, she says. The only way to be at ease is to actually communicate about the situation.
"It's a hard thing to talk about honestly, but it’s harder not to talk about it," Brateman says. When you notice a difference in your sex life, she suggests saying, I get the sense that you're not as interested in having sex as you were when I approached you initially. Is there something going on? But be kind, and remember that "you're opening up a conversation; it doesn't have to be a confrontation," she says.
There are tons of reasons why a person's sex drive changes, so don't jump to worst-case scenarios, either. For example, they might be experiencing health issues that change the sensations of sex, or they could be dealing with stress and anxiety completely unrelated to you. Or they could be mad about something that could be easily resolved. "You're not going to know about it unless you ask," she says.
So, once you determine what's causing the rut, you have to decide whether or not you can survive in your relationship sans sex (or less sex than you'd like) — and really, only you can answer that.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series