Why Maintenance Sex Belongs in Every Relationship

The positive effects of going after it, even if you don’t feel like it

April 10, 2023 6:45 am
Couple holding hands in bed
Desire doesn't always happen spontaneously, and that's okay.
Getty Images

Have sex when you don’t necessarily have a big, ol’ swell of desire. This doesn’t usually sound super appealing when I bring it up in my clinic room. 

But we should only have sex when we’re hot for each other. 

Why would I have sex when I’m not in the mood?

Having sex because we should probably have sex? UGH.

These are just some common responses to the idea of “maintenance sex.” The whole prospect of having sex when we don’t necessarily have the horn tends to give people the “ick.” If we’re not 100%, foaming-at-the-mouth randy, then sex isn’t worth having, so we should just sit around and wait for desire to magically appear. 

This simply isn’t how it works. As a person with nearly a decade of experience in the sexuality space, I can tell you that if you sit around and wait for desire to appear to have sex, you’re not going to have a lot of sex. Much of this gross-out factor around maintenance sex comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of human desire. 

There are two kinds of desire: spontaneous (horniness) and responsive (desire that arises in response to sexual stimuli or sensation). Horniness is legit the only kind of desire we ever hear about, but it’s responsive desire that is the foundation of long-term relational health. “We have a lot of narratives that sex has to be spontaneous, otherwise it’s not good,” says Pam Shaffer, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

We think if horniness for our partner diminishes over time, we’re broken. This is not the case. Having maintenance sex is  “actually super important because trying to aim for sex that is out of this world every single time, all the time, is not only completely unrealistic but sets you up for feeling frustrated and disappointed,” says Lucy Rowett, a certified sex coach and clinical sexologist.

We need to build and foster our sexual connection if we want it to survive. This is the reality. Maintenance sex may not sound like the sexiest thing in the world, but it is deeply important to the health of your relationship. And what’s more, I promise you can make it sexy. 

Let’s break it down.

What Is Maintenance Sex, Exactly?

Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and author of Becoming Cliterate puts this very plainly. “Maintenance sex is having sex with your partner, on a regular basis, even if you aren’t in the mood,” she says. It’s sex that you have in order to keep your sexual relationship alive and healthy. Everything in relationships takes work and care. Why would sex be any different?

For maintenance sex to work, we need “a broadened definition of what sex is and can be,” says Kristine D’Angelo, a certified sex coach and clinical sexologist. This means sex is not just PIV sex. It’s intimate touch, more broadly. This can include hand sex, oral sex, mutual masturbation, watching porn/listening to erotica together, cuddling naked, giving each other massages, etc. Maintenance sex is not about popping a penis in and calling it a day — it’s about experiencing intimate touch and connection with your partner as a means to foster and nurture your sexual chemistry.

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How Maintenance Sex Benefits Relationships

People in couples often have different libidos. Having the exact same interest level in sex is rare. When we have maintenance sex, we’re “committing to sharing an understanding of how important physical and emotional intimacy is in a relationship, especially a long term relationship,” D’Angelo says. “If [there is] an imbalance of initiation or feeling of emotional intimacy or needs aren’t being met, then committing to maintenance sex can be really beneficial and conflict resolution can be reached.” 

When we’re open to sexual touch when desire hasn’t sparked yet, we can allow ourselves an opportunity for our responsive desire to kick in. We may not be super down to bang right away, but once we get going, we might find we’re actually into it. “Reverse the equation and have sex to get horny rather than waiting to be horny to have sex,” Mintz says. 

Crucially, the sex needs to be pleasurable sex that you actually enjoy. The sexual acts you’re engaging in shouldn’t be acts that you don’t like doing or don’t give you orgasms. Why? Because we do not go after sex we do not want. When we have sex that isn’t fun, we become resentful. Desire is built out of a reward system. The more good sex we have, the more we want it. So, if you’re having regular, enjoyable maintenance sex, you actually increase spontaneous desire and are more likely to experience horniness. Wild, right?

6 Tips for Making Sex a Priority

Start by exploring your OWN sexuality first.

Your sexuality is your own first, so take some time to nurture it before bringing a partner in. Seduce yourself — it’s liberating. “Buy new lingerie, try new sex toys, go to workshops, read books, read erotica or take courses,” Rowett says. When we prioritize our own sexuality and take time to celebrate ourselves and explore, it inevitably affects your sex life within a relationship, too. Sexuality becomes something we can enjoy, not avoid. 

Of course, you can always explore with your partner. It’s really dealer’s choice.

Figure out what kinds of sex you actually like. 

“Communicate what feels good so you have sex that is pleasurable,” Mintz says. Is it oral sex, hand sex, penetration, anal or sex with a toy? Think it through. This piece of the puzzle is often overlooked, but it is an essential component for maintenance sex to work.

Scheduling sex

Yes, like legit putting it on the Google calendar. We are busy people, doing things, going places and no one has any time. We schedule doctor’s appointments, gym time, playdates for our kids and lunch with friends. So why not sex as well? It deserves to be something that we pop on the calendar and see as an important event of the day/week. We even wrote a whole guide to scheduling sex. Seriously, it’s the best.

Focus on intimacy over actual sex.

“First, reframe maintenance sex not as needing to have PIV or penetration, but as a time for you to be physically close and intimate,” Rowett says. Sex being some big, intense event can cause pressure. Think of this time as a space to be close, talk, touch each other, make out and whatever else you want to do. Take the pressure off and see where it goes. It’s about connection.

Make a sex menu.

Create a list of sexual acts you like. Your partner should do the same. You can then come together and discuss what would work for you. Cluster these menu items into “low / medium / high energy sexual activities you like to share together so you can pick activities based on your energy levels at the moment,” Shaffer says. 

Plus, it builds the fire. “Playing around with this idea is great foreplay,” D’Angelo says. “The whole point of sexual experiences with our partners is to have fun and feel connected.” 

Get creative. 

Maintenance sex stops feeling like a chore when we actually invest in it and explore with our partners. “Spice it up,” Mintz says. “There are many ways to do this, including but not limited to reading/watching erotica together, trying different sex toys and lubes, and experimenting with kink.” When we try new things in sex, we recreate that erotic spark that came naturally at the beginning of our relationship. Novelty is the stuff humans crave.

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