People have varied opinions about how important physical attraction and an active sex life is to an intimate relationship. I agree that many couples have been able to maintain relationships with little to no physical attraction and sex—some even thrive. These individuals may place the emphasis on other relational qualities such as affection, intellect, and shared interests and values. One man told me that he “could not bear to be alone.” He perceived an intact relationship as a vehicle for survival. Others stay together under the duress of a hidden affair, sexual orientation conflict, or to defend against a prior trauma.
Although physical attraction and an active sex life are correlated, attraction does not guarantee sex, and vice versa. I have treated several partners that have claimed to be physically attracted to their mates despite not being interested in having sex with them. Sometimes this is a response to perceived poor treatment. Asexuals may experience emotional and physical attraction towards their partners void of sex. And, there are also individuals who have regular sex with their mates purely to preserve the relationship—conflict avoiders come to mind. The orgasm—if one occurs—is driven primarily by a physical reaction. Little attraction is involved, and some fantasize about people they are physically attracted to during the sexual act.
Most of you who follow my column know that I tend to be concerned when at least “one” partner lacks physical or sexual attraction towards the other. When partners agree on a lifestyle, they usually do not seek my services for such matters. But when they disagree, I consider this an imbalance in the couple that needs to be addressed before it deteriorates the relationship. The following 5 consequences are meant as a warning to couples who are struggling because of a dearth of physical attraction and sex in their relationships:
1. Affairs: When a couple are passionless and sexless, and there is little to no physical attraction between them, a gap may develop that others can take advantage of. Some clients have sworn to me that although they have little attraction they would never cheat on their partners—and many mean it. But if these people happen to bump into someone who really turns them on, the pull might be so overwhelming that an affair may ensue. And once intercourse occurs, the odds on salvaging the primary relationship drop significantly.
2. Aversion: In the absence of physical attraction there is less room for error in a relationship. If anything goes wrong, the entire relationship could dissipate rather quickly. It is not unusual for a lack of attraction to turn into an aversion. For example, a woman who claimed to have never had any physical attraction for her husband became disgusted at the sight of him once his income declined. At this point she could not even kiss him; the thought of being near him made her nauseous.
3. Distance: One tactic people employ to avoid intimacy is to distance. It is common for partners to find things to do and places to go when they are not attracted to their mates. For example, a husband consistently volunteered for overtime at his job to avoid sex with his wife. A woman claimed to only want sex in the morning, but her husband barely had time to shower and make work on time. Emotional distancing is another tactic often used by those who are not very interested in being close to their partners. For example, one woman reported that even though her boyfriend was in the same room, she felt alone and lonely. Distance can be a form of neglect.
4. Abuse: When some people feel stuck in a relationship that does not meet their needs they may demonstrate abusive tendencies. It as if they are holding their partner responsible for their misery. This abuse may range from “picking” on or verbally abusing the partner, to physical abuse.
5. Divorce: Sooner or later, if one partner is dissatisfied with the relationship, the union will be in jeopardy. While this may be the case in general, it is particularly germane to a couple who lack physical and sexual attraction.
Times have changed and with them the days of women tolerating relationships with people they are not attracted to and those they do not feel loved and desired by. Men too, are better able to gauge their need for true intimacy. Physical attraction and the intimacy and closeness that mutual attractiveness and sexual desire bring may be more important than ever in helping to maintain healthy, long-term relationships. The consequences of ignoring these factors are too steep to chance.