Sex in a relationship - how do we get it so wrong?

Most relationships start with a physical attraction. This may have changed a bit with online dating becoming the most common way to meet. However, for most, a ‘spark’ upon meeting is still held up as the reason for a second date. This ‘spark’ translates to physical attraction, or ‘Could I have sex with this person?’. This article is focused on couples.


Given this ‘spark’ is often the dominant driver or at least high on the list of criteria for whether a relationship is possible, why is it not given as much value when the relationship is established? How often do couples complain that their sex life is a rare and unsatisfactory event, or has broken down completely?

Why, when it was such an important part of establishing a relationship is sex often given little value once that relationship is secure? As couples, we work on finding compromise about money, hobbies, and time spent together or apart, but we struggle to navigate differences in drive and needs in sex.

First and foremost, it requires communication. Still, as a therapist, I hear even young clients struggling to think how they learnt about sex. Often a sketchy, biology-focused school lesson; from friends in the playground, TV, or the internet. More likely, the answer is ‘absolutely no idea’, apparently through some sort of osmosis. So, the message can be very strong in the other direction. We don't talk about sex!

We’re often left with the belief that sex is a magical thing that works effortlessly when you love someone, and that we automatically know what we and our partner need for arousal. This belief leaves us vulnerable to sexual myths, perpetuated by TV and film, and only increasing shame when something goes wrong.

As couples, if we have different ideas on how to spend money, we discuss it and come up with a compromise, or agree to differ (hopefully!). The same applies with food – ‘I’m hungry, do you mind if we eat something different for a change?’, ‘Okay, we can eat a curry together later, does that work?’.

How do you do this negotiation non-verbally? With difficulty. ‘I am not in the mood at the moment for sex, but we could try tomorrow. Could we do more foreplay to help relax me at the moment because I am stressed, so my arousal takes longer?’. Probably not a conversation many have had. We tend to go with straightforward rejection.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. Why is sex important once the relationship is established?

Because sex is a big part of our couple communication. It says: ‘I love you’, ‘I need you’, ‘You are important’, ‘You are attractive’, and ‘You are an object of my desire’. It says that we are exclusive in the world by privilege to each other’s body. Sex is the closest a couple can be – I give you rights to my body and you to mine. This closeness is important, sacred, and maybe even magical!

Sex is a small part of a relationship when it is working. However, when it stops, it is a huge part and the repercussions are felt in every other part of the relationship. What happens if I don’t want sex and know my partner does? Do we go to bed at different times? Should I create an argument so that there is no chance of sex? Do we have a child sleep in the bed? Should I give off lots of ‘don’t come near me’ signals? The problem with non-verbal cues is that they are prone to be misread, or become a way of life. This makes the bridge between everyday life and sex even harder to cross. 

When the relationship has challenges, then often the sex goes. When the sex goes, then there is more pressure on the relationship. When we are intimate, sometimes we are more relaxed with who does/doesn’t do the washing up, for example, because we feel loved and close to our partner. Without this intimacy, these things can really matter. Then, we mistakenly believe it works the other way: that if we could agree on who does the washing up then the sex will come back!

So, what do we do?

Sex therapy is there to encourage, support and give confidence in talking about sex. It’s there to help navigate different needs, to find a sex life that works and where sex is desired once more – it can be hard to desire something that has become boring, painful, or disappointing. It enables a couple to connect with each other through intimate touch. 

The focus is on mindfulness, being in the moment, the journey and not the destination. We are all familiar with these terms, and how putting them into practice can improve our lives. That follows with sex, too.

I have worked with many couples that have gone through a psychosexual programme. It is more than going back to their sex life before. It is about finding a new way to really connect physically, learn to communicate about sex, and to explore and develop together to create something that really works for both of the couple. 

Now that is magical.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB2
Written by Nicola Buchanan, COSRT(Acc), MA, PST PgDip, PCSA, Cert in Supervision
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB2

I started my therapeutic career doing couple counselling. It was soon clear that a lot of couple issues were caused by lack of sex rather than the relationship problems causing sexual problems. I therefore trained as a psychosexual therapist, supervised and taught psychosexual therapists. I also specialise in sex addiction.

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