Sex in long term relationships

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one that I did on sex in long term relationships. This topic is covered in more detail in my book and website with Justin Hancock, and in my book The Secrets of Enduring Love.

What are the signs that lust is dead?

I’d prefer not to use the word ‘dead’! Evidence suggests that our sexualities are much more fluid and flexible than many people think, so it is completely normal to go through periods of not feeling sexual. These might last or they might be temporary. Sexuality might bubble up again or take new forms.

What are the usual causes?

It can just be completely normal fluctuation with no specific cause. However it is also quite common to feel less sexual when we are tired or stressed (although some people respond in the opposite way and feel more sexual at such times). For many people relationships become less sexual over time and this can be absolutely fine. However if one person then has higher desires than the other it can be difficult for both if they don’t have other ways of meeting those desires.

What is the emotional fallout for individuals and couples of the death of lust?

The only times it is a negative thing is (a) if the people involved feel that there is something wrong with them or under pressure to stay sexual and (b) if one person wants to be more sexual than the other one. Otherwise it can be fine if we challenge the messages we get from society that it is so vital to be sexual. There is so much more to relationships than that.

A really important thing is not to make either or both people feel that they should have sex that they don’t really want. The more you do have unwanted sex, the harder it becomes to tune into your sexual desires and the more sex becomes something that you want to avoid.

Some partners decide to get some of their sexual needs met in other relationships of various kinds (open non-monogamy). Even in a monogamous relationship it is important that both people are able to engage in solo sex without guilt – so partners are not the only place they can get sexual desires met.

What can be done to prevent it?

If it is important to you that sex remains part of the relationship then you can do several things. Remaining tuned into your own changing desires is important. Give yourself time to fantasise or look at images or stories. Be open with yourself about what turns you on. And keep communicating with your partner about what those things are, finding any common ground (and accepting there’ll be differences too). Remember that it is fine to change and to enjoy different things. Take the pressure off sex being a certain thing (eg penetration or orgasm) and play with exploring each other’s bodies and fantasies. Finally a baseline of kindness in the relationship is important. Being open about sex can feel vulnerable so it is hard to do if you don’t trust each other. Relationship therapy can help if you’ve got into a bad place.

Crucially, if you fail to prevent it, can you really revive it?

If you both want to then certainly it is possible, but do make sure that you really do want to, rather than just feeling under pressure to do so.

Can you make yourself fancy someone you have never really lusted after?

Sexual desire works in all kinds of ways. Certainly we know that love and desire can grow over time in some relationships as well as diminishing. Try not to be so fixed on an equation that sex = good and no sex = bad. That pressure tends to make us even less likely to feel sexual. Instead open up time to be emotionally and physically close with no pressure, and try to be present to that with no expectations.

Are there any cases beyond saving and how can you know?

If you’ve got to a very conflictual or unhappy place in the relationship I would suggest addressing that before worrying about sex.

What are the 7 highly effective habits of couples with successful sex lives?

Successful sex means that both people are able to tune in to any sexual desires they have, communicate about them, and enjoy the sex they want in a guilt free way. This might involve the couple having lots of sex, occasional sex or no sex!

7 habits that spring to mind are:

1. Cultivating the ability to tune into your own sexual desires
2. Accepting when you or your partner doesn’t feel sexual
3. Not putting pressure on sex, or assuming that sex has to involve certain things
4. Open communication
5. Prioritising each other’s wellbeing over any ideas about what you ‘should’ be doing
6. Being open to each other having some sexual desires met separately (e.g. solo sex)
7. Recognising that the amount and type of desires that we have change over time


Is there such a thing as too much pressure?

Definitely! That is the biggest problem that we have at the moment – all the cultural pressure that relationships have to be sexual and that sex only means certain things.

Should you ever ‘just do it’?

Often one person will feel more sexual than the other and that is fine, but I do think it can be very damaging to have sex when you really don’t feel like it, or to feel pressured into it. It is disrespectful to our partner if they are assuming that we do want sex when we don’t , and it is an unkind way of treating ourselves.

Should you work at it?

I don’t really like the ‘work at it’ idea because making it into work suggests that it isn’t ok not to be sexual. Also it will likely mean we never want to do it! Instead maybe it is about valuing each other enough to protect time for play, and not worrying about what form that takes (whether it is sexual or not).

This topic is covered in more detail in my book and website with Justin Hancock, and in my book The Secrets of Enduring Love.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. Pink Therapy

    2 December

    Reblogged this on Pink Therapy Blog and commented:
    Really helpful

  2. hdtrom

    30 January

    must see