Is sex without intimacy possible?
Relationships

Is sex without intimacy possible?

Published
Oct 21, 2020
Author
Rebecca Deczynski

Lust without love in long-term relationships. 

A healthy, active sex life is an important factor in keeping your long-term relationship strong. You can think of it as getting your oil changed, checking the air pressure on your tires, and all the other things you need to do often enough to keep your car working smoothly and without any unexpected problems—only, heading to the bedroom is undoubtedly more fun than taking a trip to the mechanic. And, you know, cars don’t have feelings. 

How emotional intimacy affects sex 
Sex with a long-time partner can admittedly be more complicated than it seems upfront. Along with stability and consistency comes the possibility for the passion to dwindle and for the stresses of everyday life—your work, your kids, your finances—to take sex off the table, if only temporarily. A 2016 study found notable increases in intimacy were most likely to lead to an increase in sex—say, a date night or a romantic gesture. And when these intimate moments led to the bedroom, they also resulted in better-than-average sex. But newer research clarifies more precisely how emotions and sex intertwine in long-term relationships.

The research, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, asked that male and female participants who were in a heterosexual relationship lasting a minimum of six months take a questionnaire 10 times a day over the course of a week, documenting their sexual desire, activity, and emotional intimacy with their partner. To emphasize: people had to think (and write) about how into their partners they were 70 times in one week. Given that men think about sex on average 19 times a day, this shouldn’t have been too challenging for half of the participants. 

The results were consistent: Intimacy was at its highest from the late afternoon to early morning, and so too was sexual activity. Researchers concluded that, for both men and women, an increased emotional connection highly increased the odds of having sex—and sex, in turn, increases intimacy. It’s a cyclical connection with built-in rewards. Ultimately, the study shows that the activities that connect you with your partner on an emotional level—catching up after work, meeting up for dinner, or having pillow talk—are the things that actually put you in the mood to have sex. These findings build a case for evenings being the optimal hour to get it on—night time is the right time, as the saying goes. 

The impact of sex without emotions
But is lust without love—or at least, a lack of affection—even sustainable in a long term relationship to begin with? Maybe not: One 2018 study looking into reasons behind breakups in heterosexual couples showed that participants of all genders reported that emotional inaccessibility was a likely cause. As the New York Times reported, this, along with more recent research (including sexual desire researcher Sarah Hunter Murray’s 2019 book, Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships) points to a somewhat surprising learning: In spite of all the stereotypes about men being emotionally unavailable, they crave intimacy just as much as women. In fact, in her research, Murray even observed that when men register emotional unavailability in their female partners, their sexual desire decreases—even if desire from the female partner stays the same. 

Of course, not every long-term relationship looks the same, and plenty might realistically be more long term friends-with-benefits partnerships rather than romantic ones. But intimacy doesn’t just have to be romantic: Vulnerability and acceptance go a long way. 

Whether you’re in love or feeling more of a crush, feelings are what leads to desire—thus proving that while your significant other wearing an intoxicating cologne or a particularly attractive outfit might make your face flush, it’s their gestures and words that are more likely to lead you to the sheets. It really is the thought that counts.

Is sex without intimacy possible?

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