How Excessive Intimacy Can Kill Your Sex Life
In the conventional model of love, sexual desire and nonsexual intimacy go hand in hand. Gentle, automatic touches, the secret shared language of baby talk and pet names, unwavering emotional support—-all of these are signs of a loving closeness that we feel should fuel desire. And for many couples, it does.
But some long-term couples report stagnation in their sex lives, even as their sense of nonsexual intimacy grows stronger. They're having less sex—or no sex at all—though they cuddle often, spend every free moment together and love each other more than ever.
So what is to blame when couples say they feel more like best friends or roommates than lovers? Are they simply getting bored of sex with the same person, or could the closeness they've cultivated over the years itself be the culprit?
Cultivating loving separateness
In her international bestseller "Mating in Captivity," psychotherapist Esther Perel examines why sexual desire diminishes in certain long-term domestic relationships, even as nonsexual intimacy flourishes. She describes encountering a "puzzling inverse correlation" between closeness and sexual desire in certain couples.
The couples Perel describes in her book have cultivated intense emotional and physical bonds over the course of their relationship. They communicate openly, and cuddle and kiss each other constantly—but they've stopped having sex.
For these lovers, the cooling-off doesn't just happen in spite of their developing intimacy, Perel writes, but because of it. They've nurtured each other's need for connection but neglected a critical part of their sexuality: the need for separateness and autonomy.
When two become one, the novelty and intrigue of the other is replaced by the familiarity of the self.
The erotic thrill of a new sexual relationship comes from connecting with an entity distinct from ourselves—an "other," as Perel puts it. But when two become one—when that alluring stranger becomes close enough to feel a part of yourself—the novelty and intrigue of the other is replaced by the familiarity of the self.
"Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter," Perel writes.
Of course, for most couples, closeness is the exact point of starting a romantic relationship in the first place. For many, intimacy only deepens their sexual connection with their partner, and they may feel no need to carve out more space between each other.
But if you and your partner, like the couples Perel describes in her book, have found that your erotic life is wilting as every other aspect of your love blooms, cultivating separateness might be key to getting your sex life back on track.
When TLC becomes a problem
Anya Laeta encounters many long-term couples struggling to rekindle sparks in her work as a San Francisco somatic sex therapist—a school of therapy that addresses the embodied experience of sexuality.
When we connect with someone as a long-term or life partner, Laeta said, we often take on a more nurturing role in their lives. A disconnect begins to emerge between the more primal elements of sexuality and the tenderness we feel toward them.
"If there is a dynamic where you see your partner more as a nurturing caretaker role, it's very hard to then get into the bedroom and see them as a sexual object," Laeta said.
Nurturing behaviors, like excessive cuddling or sharing every problem with your partner, can feel more like the role of a parent than a lover, Laeta said. It can be comforting to find an emotional caretaker in our partner, but that role can diminish their sexual appeal.
Though secure in their relationship, long-term couple members may begin to feel more aroused away from their partner. Porn—where eroticism roams free of emotional investment—is a common outlet, Laeta said.
That's not to say you shouldn't share your problems with your partner, of course. But Laeta cautions couples against assuming the role of their partner's primary source of emotional comfort.
"Try to not unload on your partner and treat them as your parent," Laeta said. "See if you can outsource that emotional support to your therapist, to your friends."
Touch too much
The act of touching is another key element of this equation, Laeta said. For cohabiting couples, frequent casual physical contact—a passing touch on the arm, snuggling up on the couch, a playful squeeze from behind—is one of the hallmarks of a comfortable, intimate relationship.
But this habitual touching may start to replace the "anticipation and intentionality" of erotic touch, Laeta said. Excessive physical contact outside the bedroom exchanges our cravings for sexual contact with something more platonic.
Physical contact that cultivates desire must be intentional, Laeta argued. Erotic touch is not like unconscious, habitual touch (think, petting a cat), but instead is a mindful exploration of sensations and pleasure associated with this connection.
"Real connection and chemistry is only possible if I'm touching you and I mean it. I'm actually connected to my body, my arousal, my desire," Laeta said.
To address this problem, Laeta often recommends couples who excessively touch take a several-day break from all physical contact with each other. It can be surprisingly challenging for touch-oriented couples, she said, but it's best to think of it as a brief experiment.
"Notice what happens after this break, and you actually reconnect," Laeta said. "Is there a different energy?"
Finding your risk/comfort sweet spot
Nonsexual intimacy is a good thing, Jessica O'Reilly, Ph.D., a sexologist and host of the podcast Sex with Dr. Jess, wrote in an email. Affection and emotional support build trust and connection between two people, allowing them to derive immense comfort from the relationship.
But long-term couples often develop this comfort at the expense of risk, she wrote. Comfort and risk act as counterweights—the more secure we feel, the less we experience the thrill of the unpredictable and the unknown. A fulfilling relationship must find its own risk/comfort balance.
"If you eliminate all risk, it can get boring, and attraction and desire for sex can wane," Dr. Jess wrote.
While too much intimacy can diminish sexual chemistry, it nonetheless provides a solid bedrock for exploration and experimentation. Confident in the safety of their love, couples can investigate together what degree of risk allows their romance and sex life to flourish side by side.
"I always say that the key to passionate, lasting, happy relationships is to cultivate a solid foundation of love, understanding and trust, so that you can do things that either are risky or feel risky," Dr. Jess said.