| March 6, 2014

Once the thrill is gone, is it possible to stay together?

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While experts agree that sex is the an important part of the glue that holds couples together, it is possible to have a long lasting relationship without sex.

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Over time, sex tends to be overrated and overhyped as couples mature, says marriage & family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer.  "Real joy and lasting pleasure comes from a deep and authentic emotional connection with another human being."

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Laughter, trust, vulnerability and respect keep relationships healthy if they've reached a point where sex is infrequent or nonexistant.  Over time, in fact, that deep emotional connection is far more important than physical intimacy, experts say.

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Although they certainly keep things going in the beginning, sexual intensity needs to be supplemented with emotional connection over time.

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"Consider the situation in casual sex or hookups.  People may be having great sex but without emotional closeness, it will cause them to feel more empty and alone than if they are in an emotionally fulfilling relationship that doesn't include sex," says Dr. Susan Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who recently addressed the topic of sexless relationships in an article in Psychology Today.

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New relationships, however, that are lacking in sex may be in trouble, Hokemeyer says,  because sex feeds the relationship physically, emotionally and spiritually.  "If this ratio becomes skewed in the opposite direction, then destructive feelings can emerge between the partners, like resentment and anger."

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The key to making sexless relationships work is communication -- both couples must be OK with it.  If both decide their shared values and "we-ness" are more important than the physical nature of the relationship, they can transcend the lack of physical intimacy, says Whitbourne.

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If a couple can maintain a sensual connection and expand their definition of sex, including various ways of pleasuring each other, it can help them overcome physical sexual challenges and maintain the intimacy bond, even deepen it, sex therapist Ellen Eatough says.

Says Eatough: "When the trust and intimacy have been established without the sex, and one partner does not have basic sexual needs that need to be fulfilled for them to be happy and healthy, it can work."