Relationships aren’t all about sex. But you probably know that. Still, if you’re feeling a sexual lull with your partner, you may worry that it says something about your relationship—or even who you are as a person.
While these feelings are completely normal and valid, sometimes they can be indicative of something more beneath the surface. In this article, we’ll explore the many reasons why you may not be turned on by your partner, if it means you should break up—and, on the other hand, if your worries about it could be a sign of a mental health condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
Why am I not turned on by my partner?
There are so many reasons why sexual desire can wane in a relationship. In fact, lagging or a mismatch in libido is one of the top reasons why couples or other partnerships enter into therapy in the first place, 2018 research in The Journal of Sex Research points out. And the sexual side of a relationship can be a key part of relationship satisfaction for people whose relationships involve sex. Keep in mind that it’s not about how sexually active you are—despite what the media may tell you, there is no “right” amount of intimacy or sexual attraction—but that you’re both satisfied with what your intimacy looks like, whatever that may be. And since every relationship is unique, there are so many forms “good intimacy” might take.
Factors that affect one’s sex drive include attraction, self-esteem, stress, sexual compatibility, communication, emotional intimacy, as well as societal expectations of sexual desire in relationships, and more, the above study points out. Plus, how long you’ve been together—you may find that you just aren’t as hot for each other in your fifth year as you were when you first met. So, as you can see, there are many reasons why your desire may be on the downturn. But that research also came to an interesting conclusion: Having realistic expectations that sexual desire will fluctuate throughout a relationship can actually help you get through dry spells—without obsessing about what they may mean.
What’s more, a change in sex drive can also be caused by poor mental health. In one study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2022, on female university students, both anxiety and depression were linked to lower and higher levels of sexual desire. In that, some responded with a boost in libido, while others experienced a downturn. That speaks to the variability of how people respond and act during mental health challenges, and there is no “right” or “wrong” response. Physical reasons, such as pain during sex, can also affect your desire.
However, it’s also important to consider OCD as the cause of this distress, especially if it feels as if these questions and anxieties take up a substantial amount of your time. There are three subtypes of OCD, called Relationship OCD, Sexual Orientation OCD, and Perfectionism OCD that might play into this question of why you’re not turned on by your partner. Below, we’ll dive more into each:
If you have relationship themed OCD, your OCD may come in and demand that you have absolute certainty about your relationship, says April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, licensed therapist and Clinical Trainer at NOCD. Your OCD will step in, pestering you to ask Do you love them enough? Are they the one? Are you turned on enough by your partner? Are you as attracted to them as you think? What if your attraction never comes back? What if they cheat? What if you fall out of love?
The problem is, it’s difficult to answer those questions, and you may not always feel confident in your sexual attraction or desire toward your partner. “We know in reality that in relationships, sexual desire ebbs and flows. Naturally, sometimes you may not be that turned on,” says Kilduff.
However, even if you are in a “dry spell” or you two haven’t been as intimate as normal lately, one approach is to say to yourself, this is normal. You may sometimes do something with your worry, and attempt to communicate about it. However, OCD would never let that serve as a permanent solution. “OCD comes in and says, this means something. Something is wrong and maybe I’m not with the right person,” says Kilduff. You then get hooked on a loop of similar obsessions.
“The challenge with Relationship OCD is that these are legitimate relationship questions outside of the context of OCD,” says Kilduff. What distinguishes regular relationship issues from OCD is the presence of intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, sensations or urges, as well as compulsions, which are behaviors done to neutralize the anxiety of an obsession (like an intrusive thought).
One common compulsion in Relationship OCD may include checking mid-sex if you’re enjoying yourself and turned on. Doing this can actually decrease arousal since it’s important to be present and in-the-moment during sex, Kilduff points out. Other common compulsions may include checking your physical sensations (such as groinal responses) when you’re with your partner, constantly reviewing photographs to make sure you’re still attracted to them, or even watching porn to compare how you feel with the way your partner makes you feel.
Sexual Orientation OCD
If you’re no longer as sexually interested in your partner as before, OCD can also latch onto another type of doubt: Your sexual orientation itself. “Instead of asking yourself, Am I in the right relationship? You ask, Am I with the right type of person or in the right type of relationship?” Kilduff explains. Maybe, you imagine, you’re not turned on by your boyfriend because you’re actually a lesbian, or because only polyamorous relationships can ever satisfy you. Then, your thoughts might spiral to worry that you’ve actually suppressed your true identity for your entire life.
A compulsion in Sexual Orientation OCD may include compulsively checking to see if you’re turned on by other people. For example, if you are a woman in a heterosexual partnership, are you attracted to other women? Or if you’re a woman in a relationship with another woman, are you turned on by men? Unfortunately, any confirmation you feel never lasts, and your doubts and worries find a way to creep back in, becoming stronger over time.
This is another subtype of OCD that Kilduff sees could be connected to this question about if you’re turned on by your partner. It’s the idea that within a relationship, all types of perfectionism, including sexual perfection, should be expected. Along with the fear that you’re not turned on by your partner, you may also believe that you have to have amazing, great sex every single time. If you don’t? That means that there is something wrong with the relationship.
One common compulsion in Perfectionism OCD is seeking reassurance. You might go on the internet and spend a lot of time taking relationship quizzes or posting on Reddit asking if strangers on the internet are always turned on by their partner. You’re seeking a perfect, 100% assurance that is impossible to achieve, so your fears feel more and more real as you continue to search.
Does this mean I need to break up with my partner?
No—that’s still a decision that’s entirely up to you and your partner. Not all romantic relationships are sexual whatsoever, and not all people experience sexual attraction the same way, or at all. Once you explore and name the reasons behind these feelings, then it might mean a breakup is the best option. Indeed, Kilduff has seen clients end relationships over these questions. But this question—why am I not turned on by my partner?—isn’t enough on its own to suggest you break up. We (you) still need more information.
If you have OCD and have these intrusive thoughts, know that these are just thoughts and they do not have to lead to any action. Your relationship is yours and your partner’s, and no one else’s expectations around sex have any bearing on what relationship is best for you.
Also realize that OCD clouds your interpretation of your reality. “We know that OCD is always trying to take what someone is afraid of and get them to find certainty—and there’s just no certainty about relationships,” says Kilduff. And yet, OCD will continue to cling to an issue, waiting for that certainty, she says. This is why your doubts will never be perfectly satisfied.
Once you get help—if needed—you can look at your relationship through a more clear lens that focuses on your true feelings, rather than your fears.
How can I get help?
To be clear, sometimes you don’t need help at all, since this is a normal question to ask yourself. However, there may be underlying reasons why you may not feel good or safe with your partner, which has impacted your sexual attraction towards them, and in which case it may be wise to seek out help from trusted loved ones or a therapist who can support you if you choose to end your relationship.
Other times, it may be helpful to go to relationship therapy or sex therapy together to identify problems and improve communication in and outside of the bedroom.
If your fears and worries about not being turned on by your partner are stemming from Relationship OCD, Sexual Orientation OCD, or Perfectionism OCD, seek out help from a therapist who specializes in OCD. Why? Because they will be able to provide the appropriate treatment for any subtype of OCD.
That gold-standard treatment is called exposure and response prevention, or ERP. During this personalized, behavioral form of treatment, your therapist will trigger your worry and doubt. You’ll then need to face the fears and anxieties that arise, then purposefully resist the urge to engage in a compulsion, like going to Reddit to compare your experience with others’. Not only is ERP effective for OCD, but it can work quickly, and research shows that it works extremely well in a virtual setting.
Here are some examples of a few different therapy exercises that your therapist may try with you, says Kilduff:
- Imagine the worst-case scenario. If you’re not turned on by your partner, what’s the worst that can happen? Yes, you may break up. You may discover that your orientation is different that you thought, as in you’re gay or heterosexual. Sitting with this uncertainty takes the power away from it, and it becomes less scary.
- Go out and identify five attractive people while out running errands today. “This is something we’re allegedly not supposed to feel when we’re in a relationship. But just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you won’t ever be attracted to another person,” she says.
- Watching erotic material and coming to terms with the fact that you find that content arousing—and it’s not your partner.
- Skipping taking relationship quizzes online or making posts on Reddit (or other forums).
It’s also important to normalize the ebb and flow of desire. “You’re not supposed to be turned on by your partner 100% of the time. That is not realistic,” says Kilduff. “Experiencing this doesn’t mean anything about your relationship—just that you’re both human,” they add.
You and your partner deserve effective care
Seeking out the right help for you—whether you need a relationship therapist, talk therapy for anxiety or depression, or ERP for OCD—will help you better process your emotions and understand where these fears about your sexual desire for your partner are coming from.
If you pursue ERP, it’s important to find a therapist who is specially trained in the treatment, as many are not. The clinicians here at NOCD have this expertise, and they’re here to help you unravel why you’re having these questions and fears about why you’re not turned on by your partner. I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s specialized, accessible approach to treating OCD and anxiety disorders.