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What to Do if Your Relationship Lacks Physical Intimacy

How to bridge the gap and cultivate the intimacy you crave.

Key points

  • Life stressors, such as family crisis, responsibilities, and changing hormones, can affect sex drive. If a partner is struggling, be an ally.
  • Instead of focusing on disconnect, take the lead and focus on reconnecting.
  • Attend to what your partner wants, and give it, all in a spirit of goodwill.

After reading previous posts on feeling annoyed with a partner's deteriorating physical attractiveness or unappealing appearance, a dear reader inquired:

Where does lack of intimacy with your partner fit it? Mine is constantly rejecting me and has no interest in physical intimacy, making me feel distant and grumpy. Can you discuss this? I would put that as a number one issue.

Indeed, for many couples, this is a troublesome development. When one partner initiates and the other partner repeatedly declines, each can become entrenched in their positions – “I want more; you’re so rejecting” versus “I want less; you’re so demanding.” The gap can widen quickly. Soon, both partners are unable to see any way to build a bridge. Are they doomed?

If you and your partner have created a canyon between the two of you, here are some ideas to help you bridge the gap.

Recognize What Affects Sex Drive

Any family crisis, health crisis, financial crisis, or world crisis can throw a relationship off balance. Life stressors, such as demanding work or household responsibilities, can drain energy reserves. Even exciting changes, such as a new job, a new town, a new baby, or a new teenager, can require a ton of time and energy. Hormonal changes during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and midlife can also affect men and women alike.

Or perhaps one or both partners have entered into a cycle of mismatched expectations, disappointments, or resentments in the relationship. Probably for one partner, physical intimacy brings solace or relieves stress, while for the other, it may feel like another responsibility or intrusion. Understanding these dynamics can help you not take rejection personally.

Consider Both Sides

You can already see the situation from your point of view. Now try to look at the problem from your partner’s point of view. Listen for what’s going on; what is your partner dealing with? See the big picture–that both of you are struggling with a disconnect in your ways. This can nudge you into compassion instead of resentment, which plants seeds for reconnection.

Focus on Goals, Not the Problem

When you focus on the problem–what’s wrong, how terrible it is, why it’s happening, who’s to blame–the situation grows ever more significant in your mind and drains more time and energy. So instead of focusing on what you don’t want, focus on what you want. Concentrate on reconnecting with your partner, so you can make that happen.

Take the Lead

Yes, you, because you are in charge of your experiences, even in this relationship. Waiting for your partner to take the lead merely puts you in the position of “helpless victim” and widens the chasm. And if you want something different, make changes in your attitudes and behavior. Waiting for your partner to see it your way, cooperate, and change course does not honor your partner’s position, struggles, or journey. Instead, take charge of trying different strategies and discovering which ones work best for reconnecting you.

Bridge the Gap by Acting “As If”

For many people, emotional connection in a relationship inspires physical intimacy. If they don’t feel emotionally connected, they may feel uninterested or uninspired to reach physical intimacy. For other people, it’s the opposite. Physical intimacy is how they emotionally connect, and if they can’t be physically intimate, they feel emotionally disconnected.

If you and your partner are at opposite ends of the spectrum and an impasse, it’s like the chicken and the egg. You have neither. Which one needs to happen first? What if you want the chicken, but your partner first wants the egg?

When you’re ready to take the lead, you can be the one to bridge the gap by acting “as if” you want what your partner wants.

Say your partner wants an egg. Act as if you want an egg too. Get an egg; keep it warm. Tend it with great care. And before long, you will have grown a chicken–just what you wished for! Or say your partner wants a chicken. Act as if you want a chicken too. Get a chicken; keep it safe, give it space to roam, and feed it well. And before long, it will lay the egg you wished for.

The payoff? Whichever one you start with, once you get your chicken/egg cycle back up and running, you’ll have plenty of chickens and eggs to work with.

In short, to reconnect, match your partner’s level of sexual desire, attend to what your partner wants, and give it, all in a spirit of goodwill. Your show of affection and caring will cultivate a warm, loving relationship where you can both thrive and stay connected in mutually satisfying ways.

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