Staying Intimate When You're Not Feeling Sexy

Staying Intimate When You're Not Feeling Sexy

Thirteen years into my marriage, five years into motherhood, my idea of a perfect evening is to pull on my wide-legged lounge pants, crawl into bed, open up a book and, well, not be touched.

After all, I spend most of my days drowning in the needs of others and, sometimes, it can feel like my body is not my own.

But, after nearly 20 years as a sex writer, I also know that intimacy tends to beget more intimacy. And now, more than ever, it’s important to keep those connections with our romantic partners strong.

Even when we have zero interest in sex.

“Because we tend to link intimacy directly to sex, when we’re not in the mood to be physically intimate, it can feel like we have to forgo any and all forms of connection,” says JoEllen Notte, author of The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression, and the Conversations We Aren’t Having. “Interactions can feel loaded because, if we aren’t into sex at the moment, we may feel like any kind of intimacy will lead to sexual pressure. And if we’re someone whose partner isn’t into sex at the moment, there may be a feeling that we shouldn’t be intimate at all if it’s not going to ‘go anywhere.’ All of this serves to make intimacy a hot-button issue that breeds resentment, and resentment is relationship cancer.”

It’s a cycle I know well, and it’s one that breeds not only resentment, but also guilt. “Folks who, for whatever reason, aren’t into sex right now, may feel like they are bad partners, burdens to their partners, or that their partner will lose interest in them if the sex piece isn’t happening,” says Notte. “And for folks who have partners who don’t want to engage sexually, it can feel like a rejection or like their partner’s disinterest is about them.”

Luckily, sexual intimacy isn’t the only way to maintain a strong connection with your partner. Notte explains that in addition to maintaining feelings of connection, nonsexual intimacy can give partners assurance that their relationship isn’t going off the rails just because sex isn’t happening.

Cultivate Nonsexual Intimacy

In a world in which we tend to equate intimacy with sex, what does nonsexual intimacy even look like? Diane Gleim, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified sex therapist, has more than a few suggestions, all of which revolve around making yourself available to your partner and—by extension—creating the opportunity for true connection.

First, she recommends that partners make plans with each other, even if they’re small ones. “Look for those pockets of time when you’re both available,” says Gleim. If you can find them, she says, you should ask your partner if they want to do something together at that time. Merely looking forward to that time you plan to spend together can help to build positive anticipation into your day.

She stresses, however, that during that time, you need to show your partner that you’re fully available to them. “If there’s a to-do list in your mind, show up with that to-do list done,” says Gleim. “Because, frankly, that’s how you showed up for each other when you first started dating.”

Speaking of mental distractions, Gleim also insists that all the devices need to go. “I’m a big believer in turning off the TV,” she says. “Turning off devices. Setting them aside. Turning off the alert sounds. Putting them on silent. Turning the phones upside down so you don’t even have that visual cue of a text coming in or a news or social media alert. Putting it in another room.”

Gleim explains that getting rid of these distractions signals to our partner that we’re truly available. “Both people need to make a commitment to showing up in a moment and being available,” she says. “So that we’re not closed off to each other. We’re not preoccupied.”

And then? Gleim says that putting on music you both enjoy can change the whole vibe in the house, helping to facilitate an openness between spouses. Though she cautions against falling into that trap of trying to create an overtly romantic setting with candles and flowers and love ballads. “You don’t want to fall into the trap of forcing performance expectations,” she says, explaining that this can actually create more anxiety.

Notte, meanwhile, stresses the importance of physical intimacy, even if it’s nonsexual. She mentions small gestures like holding hands, cuddling, massage, “or really any kind of touch that conveys love, gives comfort, and comes with no sexual expectations.”

“The big benefit of this kind of engagement is that it keeps you in the habit of physically connecting with your partner,” says Notte. “A big trap that can come with being part of a couple where someone isn’t interested in sex is that you might stop touching much at all and then, later, when you want to engage sexually, you may find it’s now awkward.” She explains that it’s vital to stay in the habit of touching.

In all of this, we’re being forced to change our expectations of what intimacy means. When we start dating, intimacy may mean lying in bed all day, watching B-horror movies, and taking breaks for a bit of canoodling. But when we’ve been with someone for a while, our life together starts to look different.

But though the ways in which we pursue intimacy change over the course of a relationship, Gleim insists that the end goal is the same: connection.

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