- Not everyone finds sex essential in a relationship, and experts say other factors may matter more.
- Quality time, emotional security, and other forms of intimacy can help you grow closer as partners.
- If you often feel sexually unfulfilled, a calm, open conversation can help you express your needs.
Every relationship is unique. So, while some couples may put sex at the top of their priority list, others may consider other aspects of the relationship more important.
For example, having a lower sex drive, being asexual, abstaining from sex due to religious or cultural beliefs, or living with certain medical conditions can all play a role.
“Sex is not the only aspect of the relationship that makes couples happy,” McKay says. “It isn’t always a necessary ingredient for a fulfilling relationship.”
In fact, experts say the following aspects of a relationship may have just as much importance as sex, if not more.
1. Emotional security
Emotional security is the foundation of any loving and supportive relationship, according to Jennine Estes, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Estes Therapy.
Emotional security means you feel safe enough to be open and vulnerable with your partner.
For example, if you feel neglected by your partner or something they said upsets you, you should feel free to share why you’re upset with them — without fearing their reaction.
In contrast, partners who don’t feel emotionally secure might become defensive or combative during conflicts, and withdraw, shut down, or avoid disagreements entirely.
Estes says these behaviors can hinder communication and in some cases breed hidden resentments.
To build emotional security, you might:
- Let them know when something they do upsets you — but approach them in a non-accusatory way so they know you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt
- Summarize or reflect back on what they’ve said to show you’ve listened and care about their thoughts and feelings
- Validate and show empathy for their experiences by saying things like, “It makes sense you’d feel sad in that situation” or “That must’ve been so stressful. I’d feel the same way.”
2. Quality time
A small 2021 study found that spending quality time with your partner — whether just talking or participating in an activity — could help you:
- Feel more satisfied in the relationship
- Perceive more positive qualities in your relationship
- Experience greater closeness to your partner
There’s no hard or fast rule on how much time you should spend together. Ultimately, experts say it’s about finding what works for you — which could mean reserving a stretch of bonding time on weekends, setting aside an hour each day, or doing date night once a week.
Shared experiences are powerful, McKay says, because they can uncover common ground. They can also make you feel like a team, create positive memories to look back on, and motivate you to continue building on the relationship.
“The more the couple can step away from daily stress and be present for each other, the more they will feel connected,” Estes says.
3. Positive interactions
According to extensive research by psychologist John Gottman, couples who had five or more positive interactions for each negative one were more likely to stay married than divorce. Using this magic ratio, Gottman could predict whether a couple would stay married with over 90% accuracy.
Negative interactions may include being overly critical or dismissive of your partner’s feelings, raising your voice, or giving them the silent treatment. These behaviors can take a toll on the trust, respect, and intimacy in your relationship.
Conversely, you can have more positive interactions by:
- Showing genuine interest in your partner’s words by making eye contact, asking open-ended questions, and practicing reflective listening.
- Expressing physical affection by embracing them when they come home from work, rubbing their back while you watch a movie, or holding their hand while on a neighborhood stroll.
- Complimenting them and expressing gratitude and appreciation for the things they do to make your life easier.
- Finding things to agree on during conflict rather than only focusing on your differences.
- Offering a sincere apology when you’ve done something hurtful.
- Finding ways to laugh together to ease the tension and lighten the mood during discussions and minor disagreements
Intimacy cultivates a sense of closeness. While a lot of people assume intimacy just means sex, Cook-McKay says physical intimacy is only one component.
Other equally important types of intimacy include:
- Mental or intellectual intimacy: This involves learning new things together. For instance, you might suggest signing up for a cooking class or discussing topics you both find stimulating.
- Emotional intimacy: This involves talking about your innermost thoughts, desires, and fears. You can encourage your partner to do the same by asking open-ended questions, like: “What makes you feel the most loved?” “What is something you want to try but feel too scared to do?” or “When you’re feeling stressed, what’s the best thing I can do for you?”
- Experiential intimacy: This could include any kind of teamwork. To cultivate this type of intimacy, you might find a hobby to share or tackle home improvement projects together.
Mutual respect in a relationship can contribute to feelings of trust and emotional security and promote greater honesty and vulnerability. It can even promote greater relationship satisfaction and quality.
You can show your respect in everyday interactions by:
- Honoring boundaries
- Giving each other space as needed
- Supporting each other’s goals and interests
- Acknowledging each other as individuals with unique needs and desires
Contempt, the opposite of respect, can cause your bond to deteriorate. In short, not showing your partner respect can harm their self-esteem and leave them feeling frustrated, discontent, or even apathetic.
Physical intimacy does matter, too
Experts agree sex isn’t necessarily essential for all relationships. Many people can maintain fulfilling relationships by focusing on intimacy in other areas.
In a 2013 study, participants who completed an online questionnaire linked more frequent kissing with higher relationship quality — but interestingly, they did not report the same link when it came to frequency of sex.
A 2020 study of heterosexual married couples also found that partners who had more non-sexual physical contact tended to be happier in their relationships.
Ultimately, what matters most is that you and your partner both feel fulfilled. If you have mismatched needs and desires for sex, Cook-McKay recommends starting by focusing on building intimacy in other areas.
“People mostly forget that sex is all about feeling connected,” she says. “If one of you doesn’t feel that way, that can affect your sex drive.”
What to do if you’re unhappy with sex in your relationship
Estes also recommends working with a marriage counselor or sex therapist to dig into any underlying challenges or issues compromising your sex life.
A sex therapist can also offer guidance on communicating your sexual needs to your partner.
Estes says it’s crucial to let your partner know if you feel unfulfilled in your sex life. This can be a sensitive topic, so here’s what she recommends:
- Choose a non-stressful time. In other words, bring it up on a laid-back Sunday afternoon at home, not right before they head out for an appointment or after they come home from a hectic day at work.
- Start with reassuring language. Instead of making accusations that might put them on the defensive, Estes advises opening up the conversation with something positive like, “There are lots of areas of our relationship I’m really happy with right now, like [X, Y, and Z]. But sexual intimacy is one area I’d really like to work on with you.”
- Come from a place of curiosity. Rather than making statements like, “We don’t have enough sex,” try observations and questions, like, “I’ve noticed we haven’t been having sex as much as we used to and I’m curious: Why do you think that is?”
Although sex can be a powerful way to bond and stay connected, it’s not absolutely essential for a relationship to thrive.
For one, you have many other ways to foster physical intimacy in your relationship besides sex. But you might even find that prioritizing other elements of your relationship, — like respect, emotional security, quality time, positive communication, and overall intimacy — can go a long way toward strengthening your bond.
That said, if you and your partner have very different sexual needs and you consistently feel unfulfilled, experts agree you should feel free to share that with your partner in a calm and honest, but non-judgmental, way.