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Is it wrong to marry someone you don't get physically turned on by?

Dear Alice,

I have been going out with my boyfriend for nearly four years and we are both approaching the engagement decision. We get along great and never lose the ability to have fun and laugh together. The only problem is that while he wants to engage in intimate activities often (we are still both virgins), I am not that interested. I love him, but I still don't get physically turned on with him as I do while fantasizing about other guys. Is it wrong to marry someone whom you don't feel a total "romance novel" passion for?

— In love, but not in lust

Dear In love, but not in lust, 

Finding that special someone can be a magical feeling, but life isn’t always a fairy tale. People tie the knot for lots of different reasons, so there’s no single “right” or “wrong” path. From what you’ve written, it seems like you and your partner have a fun and compatible relationship dynamic. You’ve been together for four years, so it’s likely that you know by now if you’re a good match for each other in terms of values, interests, lifestyles, temperaments, and personalities. Even so, it may be helpful to reflect on what you’re looking for in this relationship as you both move forward and to honestly share any expectations, desires, and concerns with your partner. 

It’s not unusual to have doubts about whether you’ve found your “soulmate”. This is a common trope in romantic novels, movies, and other entertainment media which often exaggerate a partner or romantic interest’s perfection, attractiveness, and sexual compatibility. Exposure to unrealistic ideals on the page or the big screen can influence the way viewers perceive their relationships and may affect their behavior. These effects can be both positive and negative. Idealizing a partner by focusing on their best qualities, for instance, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that increases satisfaction in a relationship. However, romantic idealization may also lead to negative relationship outcomes if it imposes pressure on a partner to meet unrealistic standards, reduces a person’s willingness to accommodate their partner’s needs, or discourages communication due to expectations of “mind-reading”. In some cases, idealization can even have harmful effects. What’s more is that studies have actually shown that individuals who view their partner as their “soulmate” may be more likely to dismiss warning signs of intimate partner violence

You mentioned that you don’t feel aroused by your partner in the same way that you do when you fantasize about other men. Sexual fantasies are common and experienced by many people. Having fantasies doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is interested in carrying them out in real life or that they will act on them. That said, fantasies are often connected to desire, and these images that set off sparks in the mind can sometimes serve as a window into physical, mental, and sexual well-being. Some of the reasons why people have sexual fantasies include reducing stress, managing boredom, and satisfying unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs. As you reflect on what you’re looking for in your relationship, it may be useful to consider the following questions: 

  • What’s the difference between your partner and the people whom you fantasize about? 
  • Were you initially physically and sexually attracted to your partner? If so, how and why do you think that attraction waned over time? 
  • Do you and your partner have different sex drives or expectations about sexual activities? 
  • What do you enjoy about the intimate activities that you engage in together? Is there anything you’d like to change? 

It takes two to tango, therefore being open and expressing your honest thoughts and feelings could help foster deeper understanding and intimacy in your relationship. Talking about sex with your partner can be a daunting and vulnerable process, but there are strategies that you can consider using when navigating these conversations. Some of these strategies include: 

  • Picking a neutral and private location 
  • Focusing on a single issue 
  • Avoiding blame and criticism 
  • Framing remarks positively 
  • Making suggestions rather than demands 
  • Talking about desires or fantasies and researching options together 
  • Expressing expectations, concerns, and desires honestly and sensitively, and encouraging your partner to reciprocate 

Having an open conversation with your partner is the first step towards building intimacy—but certainly not the last! Like people, needs and desires can change over time, so it’s recommended that you keep these lines of communication open. However, if low or mismatched sex drive is the issue and it’s recurring, it’s recommended that you involve a medical professional to rule out any underlying physical or mental health conditions

In the meantime, you could focus on other types of intimacy in your relationship. For instance, you might note things that remind you of your partner as you go about your day and share these with them later. You could try new activities together or plan a unique date—variety is the spice of life! Additionally, you and your partner could consider seeking couple's therapy. Whether you opt to do it together or individually, couples therapy can provide a safe space for you to identify, discuss, and develop skills to resolve issues in a relationship. 

A very wise person once said, “If soulmates do exist, they’re not found—they’re made.” All the best as you move on to the next chapter in your life!  

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Last updated Jan 26, 2024
Originally published Sep 20, 1996