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How Couples Deal With the Loss of Physical Attraction

Living in a house of cards.

Key points

  • Ignoring physical attraction when choosing a partner makes a relationship more likely to be temporary.
  • A person who isn’t attracted to their partner will find a way to stay away, both physically and emotionally.
  • Many couples stuck in sexless partnerships often demonstrate little affection for each other that's non-sexual, such as hand-holding.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

There are many reasons why people enter into committed, long-term relationships or marriages that have little to do with physical attraction. Some people marry to please others, such as their parents. One client became engaged to a man she had little attraction for primarily because of enormous pressure from her mother to settle down. Other people marry for reasons of age and reproduction—they are fighting their biological clocks. And others do so to escape loneliness or to create an instant family. People who are lonely or come from broken homes might be unwittingly compelled to commit under these circumstances. Others strive to make up for a loss, as in the case of a partner who recently lost a spouse. And finally, some people attempt to escape societal pressure or to fit in. As one client remarked, “It’s a couple’s-oriented society and I hate feeling like a third wheel.”

Many people believe that the importance of physical attraction is overrated. These individuals contend that other factors, such as an emotional connection, friendship, the ability to communicate, the willingness to start a family, and safety and security are just as vital, if not more, to sustaining a healthy, long-term relationship. But I beg to differ. While these factors are important to a viable relationship, so is a passionate, physical attraction. I’ll even submit that if physical attraction “never” existed between partners then they are living in a veritable “house of cards.” When choosing a lifemate, many of these individuals came packing with a “checklist” comprised of tangibles but lacking in physical attraction. “I was never raised to consider such a thing,” said a female client. “I was taught that looks and sex weren’t that important. Honesty, productivity, and loyalty were important, and above all else, religion and family. Now I don’t even want to kiss my husband. When I see a man that I find attractive, I get excited. It’s as if I’m finally freed up to feel my desires.”

It is true that many people manage to stay together with little to no physical attraction. Severe health issues notwithstanding, some of these people are engaged in child-centered marriages or they’ve found a way to sublimate their sexual desire via work, sports, or even substance dependence. Others consciously submit to living with a big hole in their lives. But for many, sooner or later the void craves filling and trouble ensues. It’s only human.

In marital therapy, I always request that each partner attends at least one individual session. During this time, I inquire about their state of attraction and its history. I ask if there is current physical attraction—and if it ever existed. I also ask detailed questions about each partner’s sexual activity, both past and present. Fantasies are also explored, as these can reveal what partners are “really” attracted to. In some cases, a couple may be having regular sex, albeit obligatory and relatively unsatisfactory. Most often, however, the less-interested person has lost the need to even try to stir up a little passion. To put it bluntly, if you ignore physical attraction when choosing a partner, your relationship may be temporary.

Here are some of the consequences you may eventually face:

1. Poor Sex Life. People stuck in a relationship lacking physical attraction will most likely have little to no sex. I’ve treated couples that haven’t been sexually intimate in 10-15 years. Some of these marriages were never consummated. Many such partners sleep in separate beds, even relatively young couples. Often the couple has never experienced a good sex life: You can discover this by asking about early dating or honeymoon activity.

The less-interested partner is often accused of never “initiating” sex, or doing so at the most inopportune times making it less likely to happen. But don’t be fooled by the mate who claims to want more sexual intimacy. They too, often enable the sabotaging of their sex lives. Some do so by turning it down when it is initiated, or complaining that it is never good enough. This, in turn, can cause the partner who finally initiated to retreat or completely shut down.

2. Affairs. The lack of attraction in a primary relationship often leaves an opening for a third party to enter. The initiator of an affair might be the mate who claims to have an attraction but feels deprived by the other. In my experience, though, it’s usually the partner with little attraction that seems to find a lover. Work or the gym seem to be the most common places for affairs to develop. Running into someone that finally electrifies you is hard to resist. And once an affair becomes physical, it becomes that much harder to stop. This is one reason I liken an affair to a zombie: As in any respectable zombie movie, just when you think a zombie is destroyed, it surprises you and comes back again.

3. Nitpicking. When a partner feels trapped in an unhappy relationship, they tend to consistently find things wrong with their partner: The way they smell, the way they eat, the words they use. Things they may have once found endearing are now annoying. Some of these critics hope that the partner will get the message and end the relationship—something the nitpicker may be scared to do. Others are simply projecting their own frustration onto a partner. Nitpicking in this context may be considered sadistic, but because it is usually unconscious it is difficult to stop. In my clinical experience, once the underlying reason for the nitpicking surfaces, a couple may find themselves forced to deal with their attraction issue—a more authentic, yet dangerous place to be.

4. Distance. The partner who isn’t attracted will find a way to stay away. This could manifest in both physical and emotional distance. To quote Roseanne Roseannadanna, “There’s always something…if it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

5. Lack of Respect. An individual who isn’t attracted might show a lack of respect for their partner. While the nitpicker is always on the watch, demonstrating a lack of respect might be less consistent but more stinging. Insulting a partner in public is a common occurrence, or unfavorably comparing a partner to a neighbor, family member, or co-worker—or someone they despise. Humiliating a partner on the grandest stage is often a sign of unhappiness with a relationship.

6. Lack of Affection. A lack of attraction with little to no sex may be bad enough, but many couples stuck in sexless partnerships often demonstrate little affection toward one another either. There is usually little hand-holding. Rarely do they put their arms around one another or sit in close proximity. One female client made a deal with her distancing husband: “At least sit next to me on the couch while we watch television. I promise I won’t touch you.”

I realize that Victorian roots are still at play for many. But the media routinely uses attraction and sex to sell. Divorce is still stigmatized—less so now than in previous decades—but it is certainly not celebrated. And yet we still don’t pay homage to all that can make a relationship work. The next time you’re looking for a life partner, remember to put physical attraction and sexual compatibility on your checklist if you truly want a strong foundation.

More from Stephen J. Betchen D.S.W.
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