The Negative Effects Of Using Sex To Avoid Emotional Intimacy In Relationships

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated July 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Sexual intimacy can be a key aspect of healthy relationships, helping partners express themselves physically, foster closeness, and promote overall relationship satisfaction. At times, though, physical closeness may bely emotional distance. For some couples, sex can become an avoidance technique, keeping partners from connecting emotionally. And it often occurs without either partner realizing it.

This article will explore the profound impact of emotional intimacy on relationship satisfaction, examining how it can enhance the emotional bond and even the sexual connection between partners. With the help of relationship research, we'll unravel the potential negative effects of relying on sex alone to build closeness and provide tips on building emotional intimacy alongside sexual intimacy.

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Understanding emotional intimacy: The foundation of healthy relationships

Understanding emotional intimacy can help you build healthy, long-lasting relationships. But how do you achieve it? Emotional intimacy refers to vulnerability, openness, and authenticity between romantic partners. It involves deep emotional sharing, empathy, and the ability to express one's thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.

In healthy relationships, emotional intimacy acts as the glue that binds two individuals together. It fosters trust, strengthens communication, and nurtures a profound understanding between partners. Emotional intimacy allows partners to create a safe space to share their hopes, dreams, fears, and vulnerabilities.

When emotional intimacy is lacking, however, couples may struggle to connect on a meaningful level. Lack of connection may lead to feelings of loneliness, detachment, and dissatisfaction within the relationship. This can make it difficult to address conflict when it arises and may limit the flow of honest, meaningful dialogue. 

Creating a solid emotional bond takes time and effort, but the rewards are worth it for many. When two individuals can trust each other enough to share their feelings, they can create a secure bond that is often greater than one built only on a physical connection.

The role of sexual intimacy: Enhancing emotional connection

Sexual intimacy involves physical closeness and sensual pleasure between partners. It can be an expression of desire, passion, and vulnerability. While distinct from emotional intimacy in some ways, sexual intimacy can also have a strong emotional component.

In many relationships, emotional and sexual intimacy reinforce and enhance one another. When partners feel emotionally connected, it can pave the way for deeper and more fulfilling sexual experiences. Emotional intimacy fosters a sense of safety and trust, allowing individuals to be more vulnerable and open during sexual encounters. This vulnerability creates an environment where partners can explore and communicate their desires, increasing sexual satisfaction and intimacy.

On the other hand, when emotional intimacy is lacking or ignored, sexual intimacy can become a substitute or distraction from addressing the underlying emotional needs within the relationship. Using sex to avoid emotional intimacy may lead to satisfaction in some areas, but it may fail to contribute to the deeper emotional connection necessary for long-term fulfillment.

The negative effects of using sex to avoid emotional intimacy

Commitment and vulnerability can be intimidating, leading to complex feelings and pressure that might be difficult to cope with. For partners seeking to avoid potentially challenging situation, sex can provide a way to escape from the reality of the relationship. Such behavior often contributes to distance and resentment in intimate relationships. Research suggests that avoidance in relationships leads to lower relationship satisfaction.

When sex becomes a substitute for emotional closeness, cracks can appear in the foundation that holds a couple together. Below, we’re going to look at how using sex to avoid emotional intimacy can negatively affect relationships.

Emotional disconnection and relationship dissatisfaction

Using sex to avoid emotional intimacy often results in an emotional disconnect between partners. Couples may engage in physical intimacy to circumvent the emotional vulnerability that can come with meaningful conversations and emotional closeness. It can be hard for some to open up, particularly those who have been hurt in the past. To avoid this vulnerability, couples may create a superficial sense of closeness. This, however, can leave both partners feeling unsatisfied and disconnected.

Without emotional intimacy, partners may start to crave the deeper connections and emotional fulfillment that has been lacking. Over time, the absence of emotional closeness may lead to resentment, frustration, and a growing dissatisfaction within the relationship. 

Communication breakdown and lack of trust

Effective communication is a cornerstone of healthy relationships; however, it may be neglected when sex becomes a substitute for emotional intimacy. Partners may find it challenging to openly and honestly express their thoughts, feelings, and needs outside of sexual encounters. This communication breakdown can lead to misunderstandings, unresolved conflicts, and a sense of emotional distance.

Furthermore, the absence of emotional intimacy can erode trust within a relationship. Trust is often built upon a deep understanding and knowledge of one another's inner world. Without emotional intimacy, partners may struggle to know and trust each other fully, leading to doubts, insecurities, and an increased likelihood of suspicion or jealousy.

Increased risk of infidelity

Research suggests that avoiding emotional intimacy can increase the chances of infidelity occurring within a relationship. When partners feel emotionally disconnected, they may seek validation and connection elsewhere, potentially leading to physical affairs or emotional involvement with others. The lack of emotional intimacy can create an environment in which individuals seek emotional fulfillment outside the partnership.

Research indicates that 25% of married men and 20% of married women engage in extramarital sex at some point. Infidelity can further exacerbate the relationship's existing emotional disconnect and trust issues, making it even more challenging to build a strong emotional bond.

Impact on self-esteem and self-worth

Engaging in sexual acts to avoid emotional intimacy can have damaging effects on an individual's self-esteem and self-worth. When partners consistently use sex as a substitute for emotional connection, it can leave individuals feeling objectified rather than valued for their emotional contributions to the relationship. 

This reliance on physical intimacy alone can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, as individuals may question their worth beyond their physical desirability. Over time, this can lead to a distorted self-perception and a lack of confidence in one's ability to form and maintain healthy emotional connections.

Eight strategies for building emotional intimacy

The first step in breaking the cycle of using sex to avoid emotional intimacy is acknowledging the concern and understanding its potential detrimental effects on the relationship. Recognizing that emotional intimacy is a fundamental aspect of a healthy relationship can motivate partners to seek positive change. Here are some strategies for fostering emotional intimacy within a relationship:

Practice active listening

Listen closely to your partner's thoughts, feelings, and concerns without judgment. Creating a safe space where each of you feels heard and understood can help to deepen your emotional connection.

Ask meaningful questions

When you ask your partner open-ended questions, it can help to create a deeper understanding between you. 

Foster vulnerability

Encouraging vulnerability by sharing your own thoughts, fears, and emotions can build mutual trust and understanding.

Express appreciation

Emotional distance can arise when partners do not feel valued. Showing your partner how much they mean to you by expressing gratitude, admiration, and love can help to create a sense of emotional closeness.

Engage in quality time

Setting aside time for meaningful interactions beyond physical intimacy can provide you and your partner with the opportunity to strengthen your emotional bond.

Explore shared values and goals

Discovering and discussing shared values, aspirations, and dreams can create a collaborative atmosphere that deepens emotional intimacy.

Practice physical touch beyond sex

Engaging in non-sexual physical contact, such as cuddling, holding hands, or hugging, can promote closeness.

Cultivate self-awareness

Reflecting on your fears and insecurities surrounding relationships can help you navigate and overcome subconscious barriers that hinder emotional connection.

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Cultivating emotional intimacy in online therapy

In some cases, seeking the guidance of a trained professional, such as a couples therapist or relationship counselor, can provide valuable insights and tools for rebuilding emotional intimacy. A therapist can help identify underlying conflicts, facilitate communication, and guide couples toward healthier patterns of emotional connection.

A 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology indicates that online therapy may be an effective alternative to in-person couples counseling. Researchers in the study found that couples experienced increased relationship satisfaction and improved individual mental health outcomes. The study also mentions the increased ease of use provided by online therapy platforms.

Online therapy offers an additional avenue for couples to explore and strengthen their emotional bond. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy from the comfort of home, potentially providing you with more time to cultivate intimacy in your relationship. Through personalized therapeutic interventions, tailored to each individual's needs, online therapy can serve as an effective tool for building emotional intimacy within your relationship.


Using sex as a substitute for emotional intimacy can negatively impact relationship satisfaction and prevent partners from forming a solid connection. To build a stronger emotional bond, couples can focus on cultivating an environment that promotes emotional safety through meaningful interactions, open communication, and mutual respect. If you’d like to foster emotional intimacy in your relationship and learn more about your own mental health, online therapy can help. With the right support, you can nurture healthy relationships while also tending to your own emotional wellness.

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