Editor’s note: Ian Kerner is a marriage and family therapist, writer, and relationship contributor for CNN. His latest book is a guide for couples, “So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex”.
Many heterosexual male clients are coming into my practice because they have chosen a partner regardless of their sexual attraction.
In couples therapy sessions in the room with his partner, the man will say that he doesn’t know why he doesn’t experience desire. Maybe it’s stress, low testosterone, or anxiety.
But when I meet with him individually, he often tells a different story. He told me that he chose his partner without prioritizing sexual attraction.
Why would a person choose a potential life partner without feeling the spark of sexual attraction? And can these relationships survive and thrive? Can something like sexual attraction that wasn’t there in the first place be cultivated later?
I’ve talked to many men in their 30s who have said, “When I found the woman I wanted to marry, she ticked all the boxes. Except for one.”
Qualities on that list include: “being my best friend,” “she’s going to be an amazing mom,” “our friends and family get along great,” and “she really loves me.” The only box left unchecked? Sexual attraction — and often men didn’t list that quality to begin with.
I was amazed.
Sexuality is the only thing that separates a romantic relationship from a platonic one – I find it to be a type of “relationship glue” that helps couples stick together through tough times. That’s why I’m surprised that so many people underestimate sex when choosing a partner for a long-term relationship.
“Research shows that, while physical attractiveness is one of the most important qualities desired in a romantic partner, it’s not at the top of the list for men or women,” said Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute. Indiana University, a research center dedicated to sexuality. “Qualities like intelligence, humor, honesty, and kindness are at least as important, if not more so.”
Some men have internalized an “either/or” view of women: those who make great wives and mothers and who are sexually adventurous, according to Chicago-based sex therapist Elizabeth Perri, Ph.D.
“I’ve observed this in male patients who are out in the dating world and feel pressured to choose someone they perceive as ‘wife material’ but not sexually attracted, instead of waiting to find a partner who is a better fit emotionally and sexually,” Perri told me.
Good sex can help protect against psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, help couples achieve deeper connection, and improve relationship satisfaction.
“If a relationship is a meal, the sex part should be considered a whole part of it, like protein, instead of a frivolous part like dessert,” says Eva Dillon, a New York-based sex therapist.
“In my experience, it’s possible for women to cultivate desire for their partner with great effort, but if a man doesn’t desire his partner at the beginning of a relationship, he will never desire her,” Dillon told me. Why tell that sexual attraction will come later so that you can prioritize your partner and enjoy the benefits from the beginning?”
However, lower levels of sexual attraction aren’t always a problem for couples, said sexologist Dr. Yvonne Fulbright.
“For some, lack of sexual attraction can lead to infidelity or divorce. For others, a lack of sexual attraction only becomes a problem when it aligns with society’s expectations of sex and desire,” said Fulbright, who is an assistant professor in the sociology department at American University in Washington, DC.
“There is a lot of pressure on couples to keep their sex life active, and hot, too. People have the idea that a certain type and quality of desire must be achieved, considering the lack of interest in such things as a problem that needs to be solved.”
Some of my therapist colleagues have warned against overemphasizing the importance of immediate sexual attraction.
“We have this misconception that when we first meet, we have to be physically attracted to someone or there is no potential relationship. That’s not true,” said sex therapist Dr. Rachel Needle. “Attraction can grow as you get to know someone and experience greater closeness and connection.”
What should you do if you and your partner run out of steam? Or if you want to warm up a relationship that didn’t start?
Fulbright cautioned against giving sharp advice. “Only partners can figure out the best way to handle this challenge in their relationship,” she said.
“Non-monogamy may work for some, but not for others. “Couples have to decide how honest they should be with each other, how much of this issue is for them to be together and not, and how much weight should be given to this issue over the other good things they do for each other,” he added via email.
Don’t feel like all is lost if you’re in a long-term relationship. For some couples, sexual desire can grow over time if you focus on it. “A lot of times it’s not until our 30s that we’re comfortable enough to ask for what we want in bed,” Dillon said.
But I defy anyone who thinks that married people are going to stop having sex anyway, so why bother prioritizing sexual attraction.
“Many couples in their 50s can explore and expand their sexuality thanks to maturity and empty nests. For couples in their 60s, 70s and 70s who are able to expand the definition of sex beyond orgasm and create intimacy together, sex can remain vibrant and rich,” Dillon added via email.
And remember, your sexual health is a barometer of your overall health. So, if you’re really experiencing a decline in sexual interest, consider talking to your medical provider. Maybe your testosterone levels have actually dropped.
Whatever the source of your lack of sexual interest, be upfront with your partner. Honesty, it turns out, can be an incentive (eventually).