“We broke up because of sexual incompatibility.”

"Vivace" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Sexual attraction is one of the key reasons people start dating. As individuals get to know each other, character flaws or incompatibility may start to get in the way of a harmonious relationship. Such conflict often carries itself into the bedroom, but it usually doesn’t start there.

The loss of sexual attraction may be one of the ultimate reasons for breakups. But most of the time both breakups and the the loss of sexual attraction result from underlying relationship dynamics, which have caused a sense of distance, monotony, or contempt in the relationship.

1. Distance: When couples walk on eggshells, spend no time with each other, or stop taking care of themselves either physically or emotionally, intimacy vanishes.

2. Monotony: When partners stop treating each other as attractive and special they often end up feeling like brother and sister—without desire for one another. When a couple stops making the effort to create a romantic atmosphere, the relationship becomes pedestrian.

3. Contempt: When partners criticize each other or one acts superior, the toxicity of contempt destroys love and passion. How can you feel open and confident with someone who treats you with contempt?

Sex as a window into the relationship

A couple’s sexual relationship is a window into their general relationship. Generally, one partner’s sexual disinterest or dysfunction is a symptom of the entire relationship not just the individual. Note that even in a marriage where sex has stopped, the way in which celibacy develops reveals the emotional dynamics occurring within the relationship. For example, one partner may be needy emotionally, while the other has become sexually distant, or one has become so critical or irritable that the other withdraws physically.

How does a couple rekindle desire and passion in a marriage that has grown cold?

Igniting passion is the inverse of extinguishing it. Couples need to

1. Spend some enjoyable time with each other, which means they must take care of themselves to enhance the vitality they bring to the relationship,

2. Treat each other as desirable and special, and

3. Be accepting of one another, avoiding criticism and contempt without having to hide their true thoughts and feelings.


“Differentiation” enables a person to break the negative patterns, which destroy passion and intimacy over the long-term. The more differentiated partners are, the more potential they have for sustaining long-term passion and intimacy.

Differentiation means having the ability to calmly withstand the tension of anxiety—anxiety caused by disagreement, vulnerability, or embarrassment. Handling anxiety without being reactive—withdrawing suddenly, lashing out angrily, or falling apart—is crucial in developing and sustaining emotional and sexual intimacy.

To sustain passion, then, couples need to move from gridlock to compassionate dialogue when issues are worth discussing. They need to actively have the intention to see the best in the other person, and to bring the best of themselves forward, particularly when the going gets rough.

Differentiation permits people to maintain their own course when lovers, friends, and family pressure them to agree and conform. Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves,” and can disagree without feeling alienated and embittered.

When partners can develop differentiation, then sexuality holds the potential for expressing profound intimacy and love.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “You never kiss me anymore.”

Read “Intimacy: ‘I want more intimacy and to feel closer to you.’”

Read “Positive Bonding Patterns: ‘We never fight, but we don’t talk anymore and there’s no more passion.’”

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