How Important is Sex in Relationships?

The rich diversity of sexual practices, sexual identities and relationship constructs in human experience makes writing on the subject of sex and relationships inherently fraught with difficulty. Are we talking here about the importance of sex in heterosexual, bi or same sex relationships, in couples or multiples, and, if we had the relationship model clear, what exactly do we mean by sex?

When I think about my work as a sex and relationship therapist I can say that, yes, sex appears to be important in relationships. From couples who are reeling with the impact of an affair, to those who have not had sex in years, to those who argue constantly about the frequency and quality of sex, the presence or absence of sex within a relationship seems to be a significant issue. But what is it about sex that makes it so important?

There is the ‘biological imperative’ argument that sexual energy is fuelled by a fundamental drive to reproduce. For those clients I work with who are struggling with infertility, the raw anguish of not achieving this biological necessity is all too painfully evident … but it’s the children they are desperate for, not the sex. In fact the sex inevitably becomes a bland, means to an end rather than being a goal in and of itself. And we all know people who are staunchly opposed to having children, for whom the importance of sex seems to be unaffected by the absence of a reproductive objective.

Is it the physical pleasure of sex that makes it important then, the transporting power and tension relief of an orgasm? Sex is undeniably physically gratifying for many, though not universally, and if it was just about pleasure or release wouldn’t masturbation be enough?

My observation is that the perceived importance of sex in relationships is as much about human relational needs as it is about biology and pleasure… and like everything human, it’s all in the meaning making.

For some people physical touch is their love language. Being touched intimately by their partner means that they are loved and lovable. For these people, no amount of words or gestures in other love languages can compensate for an absence of sex. For others, the reflected sense of themselves that they get from being desired sexually can affect their sexual behaviour. Having affairs or pursuing sex from reluctant partners can be an effort to confirm an idea of themselves as attractive and desirable. Sex plays a part in the proximity dilemma that people in intimate relationships face – how close they become to one another without losing their individual sense of self. Choosing whether or not to have sex with our partners regulates the space between us. Similarly, the quality of a couple’s sex life can be the barometer for the quality of their relationship and vice versa.

I’ve seen couples repair their sex lives by reconstructing their relationship, resolving past resentments, improving communication, developing an understanding of their partner’s world, overcoming the anxiety of their childhood attachment patterns … all quite typical therapy material. Perhaps less predictably, I’ve seen couples repair their relationship problems by re-writing their sexual codes, acknowledging asexuality, embracing polyamory, exploring less main stream sexual practices, to name but a few solutions that I have witnessed.

So, back to our question of how important is sex in relationships. Although this is a deceptively simple question, the essential complexity of human experience means that each individual person will have a different answer within the unique dynamic of their specific relationship. All roads, it seems, bring us back to the glory and agony of human diversity, in which, as a therapist, I delight.

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