“Brady. Something that’s been on my mind that I have a hard time thinking about and understanding: can a relationship based mostly on sex survive? Can’t wait to hear back!”
I really like this question and the psychological layers of it, so thank you for asking me this question. To me, yes, there is a sustaining quality to sex in a relationship and sex has a remarkably unique role in maintaining closeness between people. However, my, “yes,” is an incomplete, “yes.” Another layer to the question of the sustaining aspect of sex in a relationship, and when a relationship is mostly sexual, is a therapeutic exploration of the kind of sex that is mostly happening and whether or not it can sustain a relationship.
For me, sex is an expression of how persons fit together. That fit can be exhilarating, tedious, playful, procreative, adventurous, with abandon or abandoning, and countless other shapes and forms. The ability for human beings to connect to others, and the kinds of connections that can be made, sustained, or broken, is a remarkable quality of our complex humanity. The complexity of sex is easily, if conveniently, overlooked when we talk about sex in terms of positions, techniques, number of partners, or measurements.
It is also easy to take the stance that in a sexual relationship, the sex is the important part, rather than looking at the importance of the kind of sex that is occurring.
To go further into the interplay between the kind of sex occurring and the relational dynamics at play, whenever I think about a relationship becoming mostly sexual, I also am mindful that the collapsing in of a relationship into a mostly sexual one is mirrored in the sexual acts themselves: the sex in a mostly sexual relationship is mostly the same kind of sex.
When sex is restricted to a particular kind of sex, the relationship is also restricted, and quite possibly, strangled. A no-strings-attached arrangement between two people, wherein sex is performed without regard to emotions, has a hard time surviving when feelings do surface in sex, even if strings do not. A married heterosexual dyad can have sex simply to procreate, wherein sex is based out of a sense of duty or obligation, and the intimacy, and the relationship, has a hard time surviving after the children have left the house. A convenient sexual relationship, wherein sex mostly occurs after midnight and is arranged over vague text messages, rarely survives when sex becomes a priority for any party. Most relationships, wherein sex is based out of a sense of power and control, rarely survive when faced with the reality that another person cannot be controlled. Uncertain relationships, where sex happens to soothe anxious thoughts about the status of the relationship, largely remain uncertain because the sex itself is an expression of those insecurities rather than a solution to the uncertainty. In these altogether brief relational examples, sex may have its own valid reason for happening, but the sex that is happening is more of a mirror of an unsustained relationship than it is the unsustaining aspect of the relationship.
If you do want a relationship based on sex to survive, then the sex itself needs to sustain both you and your partner. Lots of sex is unsustaining, because lots of sex isn’t about being together, in any sense of the word; that is okay. Sex doesn’t need to be a sustaining aspect of a relationship, for it might simply happen because it can happen. There can be no purpose, no reason, or no agenda for sex other than it being an act reaching out to another, with no thought or desire for sustainment. With the preface made that sex can be the basis of a relationship, and there can be many kinds of sexual relationships, the question I would toss back to you, then, is: what relationship do you want to survive?
As a parting counsel to flirt with, relationships survive when all parties willingly see and accept the new, unexpected, and unknown aspects of each other as they are growing over time. Choosing to continuously gaze at each other, with gentle and new eyes each day, while continuously reaching out to support, to hold, to comfort, and to care for another, doesn’t simply sustain a relationship; it deepens and renews a relationship. Sex can be that. Sex can be an ongoing renewal of that choice to be together and another wonderfully surprising moment to explore being together.
(originally written January 9, 2013)