As a writer of relationship and sex advice, I get asked a lot of questions. This one in particular I hear all the time: Can or should a relationship continue if one partner isn't sexually attracted to the other?
The most recent person to ask me this is a woman I'll call Amanda, who said she is drawn to her boyfriend Charlie’s “magnetizing personality.” The couple instantly hit it off after meeting through friends, quickly discovered similar interests and goals, and always has “a ton of fun” together. The one issue? She doesn’t, and never has, felt sexually attracted to him.
“I didn’t intend on ending up in a relationship with him, but he had other very different and strong feelings,” the 28-year-old told me. “So I sort of got whipped up in the whirlwind of it all, and a month later we were overseas together.” Together, together.
Overall, the relationship is good. But Amanda is just not sure if she should feel more. “I was very hesitant to start the relationship; I guess I thought it would grow over time,” she explained. Since it hasn’t, she’s struggling with whether she should give up a compatible future. “With sex, I try to have as little as possible and get it over with quickly,” she said.
So what do you do if, like Amanda, you have zero sexual attraction to your partner? Whether the sparks never developed or died over time, relationship experts told me that the solution depends on a number of factors, outlined below.
Ask yourself if you usually feel sexual attraction
If you’re not feeling it with your current partner, ask yourself, “Am I sexually attracted to others?” advises Chicago-based Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health. If the answer is no, and you’ve lost your sexual desire entirely, you might be looking at a potential medical issue that has nothing to do with your significant other.
Certain medications, such as hormonal birth control and antidepressants, are known to put the brakes on sex drive and desire, as are conditions such as depression, stress, and anxiety. Talk to your physician to rule out an underlying condition.
Own up to any resentment toward your partner
A lack of sexual attraction might be more psychological or physical. “If a relationship was hot in the beginning and the attraction has waned over time, another source is often repressed anger,” says Isadora Alman, a California-based marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist. “You might not even know why you’re angry at first, but until you get the anger out, you won’t feel [attraction].”
Identifying your resentment might require time with a counselor or an activity such as meditation or journaling. As you consider the possibility, really think about any potential changes that occurred around the time you lost your attraction—maybe a bruising fight or emotional betrayal shifted the way you see the other person.
Consider that you're still attracted to an ex
When she met Charlie, Amanda told me that she was still dealing with the fallout of the highly passionate relationship she was in with someone who eventually cheated on her. Though they had split after the infidelity was revealed, Amanda was still in contact with her ex, and her attraction to him never ended. No wonder she had trouble feeling that kind of attraction to her new partner—her desire was still focused on her previous one.
“If you are still vested in the prior relationship, it’s virtually impossible to move forward,” Ivankovich says. It’s important to entirely cut off contact with the person you're attracted to; block phone numbers, emails, and social media posts. By doing so, you may gradually feel sparks ignite with someone else.
If chemistry doesn't happen, then ask yourself why you’ve chosen the partner you’re with. “If you were cheated on, you may choose someone who’s very different from your former partner in a new relationship because it feels safer,” Ivankovich says. In Amanda's case, “it explains why she chose stability over sexual passion; you can hope to ignite passion from stability, but stability is difficult to achieve if there is not a strong foundation in addition to passion,” she adds.
Tell your partner how to turn you on
Maybe you don’t feel sexual attraction because your significant other is just missing the mark in the bedroom. “Talk to yourself before you talk to your partner,” advises Alman. “What do you want that you’re not getting? Is your partner doing something that’s a turnoff?” Be bold in your suggestions about what will create more pleasure for you. Don't expect the other person to be a mind reader or pick up on signals.
Be honest about your struggle
If you’ve given sexual attraction the space and time to blossom yet you’re still not into your partner, you need to have a conversation, says Alman. After all, there's a good chance your partner is wondering if something is off—and though the news is upsetting, they might also be relieved to have it out in the open. “You should both be in a relaxed mood and setting, outside the bedroom, with plenty of time to discuss it," suggests Alman.
Ultimately, staying in a relationship is a “very individual" decision based on the couple, says Alman. “Some people have very happy relationships with no sex at all, while others will say, ‘I couldn’t take a week of that.’ It’s very difficult to find hot sex and companionship; sometimes, two people make a conscious choice to form a relationship without the hot sex.” And that’s fine—as long as both parties are fully clued in to the other’s feelings.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love (Grand Central Life & Style)