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Masturbation vs. Relationship Sex, what is the difference?

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Do you really need to be concerned if your partner is masturbating?


A frequent call I get is a distraught female partner calling me to make an appointment for the couple or her spouse/boyfriend because she caught him using porn (which is code for masturbating himself to porn and not using her). The other frequent call I get is the shamed husband/boyfriend calling me with the self-diagnosis or label given to him by wife/girlfriend that is he is a porn addict or sex addict because his girlfriend/wife found out he was masturbating to porn and she's really hurt/angry.


The sad issue about both of these types of calls is that they reflect a larger issue about people's lack of valid knowledge and understand of sex, the different types of sex and what it all means. It is also reflects the intersection between political, religious and cultural views that struggle to deal with human sexuality and are often afraid of it and want to control and contain it.


Now that most people have access to powerful broadband internet and the accessibility of porn is very easy, many couples will need to examine and evaluate their beliefs about sex, love, masturbation and porn use in their relationship rather than just go along with the unchallenged beliefs they unknowingly adopted.


Very few couples are prepared to handle it effectively. One of the worst ways to deal with it is by letting fear dominate the conversation and start making absolute ultimatums and diagnosis. Instead, a healthier way is to examine unchallenged beliefs and opinions about sex, masturbation, desire, love and porn.


Masturbation vs. Relationship Sex


It is surprising how many people BELIEVE (again a belief is not fact) that masturbation and relationship sex are the same thing or interchangeable. They simply are not. The only thing that they share is that they are both types of sex.


Please note, that when discussing sex, people get confused on what is fact and what is a belief/opinion. Many people think that if they believe something or FEEL something, it is true. Then if they can back this belief or opinion up with other people's beliefs or opinions via friends or the internet that makes it more true. Strongly FELT beliefs or strongly FELT opinions do not become true even if many other feel the same way. Feelings are not fact. Feelings are real but they are not always factual.


The other caveat when discussing sex is that many people shift arguments. For example people will talk about porn that is depicting the sex more people would like, i.e.. consensual sex between two adults and then make the leap to pedophilia or rape with in the same conversation. That is shifting the conversation and making an emotional linked between two totally different and unrelated topics. So when discussing sex, porn or masturbation, people need to stick to the topic at hand.


Masturbation is the most common form of sex anyone has. It is very different from relationship sex. People choose masturbation for different reasons than they choose relationship sex. Masturbation and relationship sex are definitely not interchange able but can often compliment one another. Contrary to how many people think, masturbation doesn't take away relationship sex, in some cases it actually helps to enhance it.


Why do people masturbate? Well there is probably no 1 reason that is true for everyone every single person or every single time. Many people can understand why someone who is not in a relationship would masturbate but many people, because of inaccurate beliefs about sex and masturbation, cannot understand why someone in a relationship would choose masturbation.


Well here are some reasons people choose to masturbate while in a relationship:


  • No anxiety when one masturbates (other than the risk of getting caught if that is an issue in the relationship). Often anxiety is a big part of what comes from partner sex: anxiety about how I smell, how my body will perform, will my body perform, does my partner like me, my body, how my body reacts etc. For many people, unfortunately, relationship sex is filled with so much anxiety that it is not enjoyable

  • A person is tired and masturbation doesn't require the same level of effort, both mentally and physically to perform

  • It is not painful. For both men and women, relationship sex can be physically painful and the inability to resolve the pain or effectively discuss it with their partner leads to the desiring relationship sex less or avoiding it

  • A person is bored

  • A person is bored with their relationship and wants to play out a fantasy in their head

  • A person is stressed

  • Because they like it

  • They don't have to worry about getting rejected by their partner

  • Their partner is sick, has their period or just doesn't want it when the partner does

  • They want to do it quick or don't have the time required for relationship sex

  • Their partner is traveling or away from their partner

  • It's convenient, like in the shower in the morning or evening

  • It is their best attempt to remain faithful to the marriage because they are really unhappy and don't have anyway to resolve marital conflict outside the bedroom

  • They do not desire the kind of sex they will have with their partner

  • It's fun

  • They want to indulge in a fantasy that they are: too afraid, embarrassed or fear rejection from their partner to share with them

  • They just want an orgasm and they know how best to get there in the fastest way possible

  • To learn more about their own body and what they like and how to reach orgasm


Those are just a few reason people choose masturbation while in a relationship.


Relationship sex, as the name suggests requires the cooperation with another person. Unlike masturbation where you just need to ask yourself, relationship sex requires you to get many more things coordinated for it to work and occur. You are dealing with two people who at any given moment may be thinking, feeling or wanting very different and conflicting things. The ability to sync up and attune your desires and libidos can be a challenge. It can become even more difficult if you start throwing in demanding work schedules, parenting demands, exercise preferences, commuting issues, money worries or illness to the mix of things being to be coordinated.


One thing that is important to note is that human beings are meaning making animals. Nothing has meaning, it is neutral. Human beings give things meaning. Meaning making is shaped and influenced by religion, family, culture, government, education, gender and life experience. So sex has no single universal truth meaning. It varies highly for each person and sometimes each time a person engages in sex. It's important to be mindful of this when trying to talk about sex or masturbation with your partner.


There are many reasons people have relationship sex and the reasons are often different from masturbation. Here are some reasons and it is by no means exhaustive:


  • Because they can!

  • You are drunk or high

  • Because they desire the type of sex that they will have with their partner

  • Peer pressure

  • They want to share a part of themselves through the experience of sex

  • To explore themselves or their partner

  • Because it is fun

  • Because they are rested and full of energy (not tired)

  • They feel safe with their partner and are able to be vulnerable

  • They do not feel anxious or self-conscious about their body or their performance

  • They are feeling liked and loved by their partner

  • The individual feels good about himself/herself and his/her body

  • They are trying to make a baby

  • Some people use sex as a concrete way to get proof that their partner likes them,/loves them or finds them desirable (this is a dangerous reason FYI)

  • To avoid talking about issues

  • To make up after a fight

  • To satisfy a request from their partner

  • Because they feel it is their duty as wife/husband/partner

  • Because they feel guilty: for a variety of reasons because it has been a long time, over a fight, they did something bad, they say no a lot

  • Because they have said no the last several times and feel like they have to do it so their partner doesn't get mad

  • To avoid raising suspicion in their partner: this can result either because there partner is a very concrete thinker who believes that the more sex they have the better their relationship or because the person is having an affair and don't want their partner to think something is up

  • They learned a new move and have a partner they can explore this with

  • Because their partner guilted them into it or used some other coercive behavior

  • To relieve stress and anxiety


So again not an exhaustive list but when you start to look at the two different purposes for relationship sex and masturbation. Too many times, for unfortunately too many people, relationship sex is anything but intimate and loving. For too many people it is filled with anxiety, disappointment and physical or emotional pain. So sometimes masturbation can make sense. The saddest part is that when people do not know how to have effective conversations with their partner about sex, masturbation, desire and porn and let fear get in the way of real intimacy and knowledge.


False belief that stopping masturbation will make your partner choose sex with you


This is such a pervasive belief that many people have. When they can catch their partner masturbating to porn or otherwise, many people get scared. Inaccurate beliefs about sex, porn, desire and masturbation that haven't been evaluated overwhelm and flood people making them very scared. When people are scared, they seek to control the situation. One way people control a scary sex situation is to make unrealistic and not through ultimatums to promise to never masturbate to porn again or to never masturbate!


Many people believe that if they can have sex with a real person why is their partner choosing to masturbate (see list above). So the typical solution the betrayed person will come up with and the guilty party will collude with is that they ban porn and/or all masturbation.


However, this won't work because they are not fungible or interchangeable. It is like saying that if you want someone to each more sea urchin you will ban them from eating ice cream or anything else sweet. However, if I don't like sea urchin or just don't want it, banning me from ice cream or all sweets will not increase my desire for sea urchin. They are not interchangeable. It won't work to increase my desire for sea urchin.


This is the same logic that people use to try and get their partner to choose them over masturbation or porn/masturbation. They think if they ban porn/masturbation this will increase the desire for partner sex. However, often this is not the case. A person will may not masturbate but if there are issues directly with the sex or the relationship, the person isn't going to choose relationship sex. You need to get at the root of the problem.


If you step back and look at it, it won't work. Even if I choose to not masturbate with or without porn, that doesn't mean I will choose relationship sex with you.


Our desire as human beings to avoid conflict and anything painful drives our choice to over simplify things. When people see that their sex life isn't what they want or they discover their partner masturbates (with or without porn), instead of setting down “the law” and not examining your beliefs (because that is easier and faster) couples would benefit from pausing and self reflection. Perhaps being more curious and reflective is a better approach than fear. Questioning their own beliefs about sex, masturbation and porn and thinking about how they formed those beliefs and opinions rather than going on the attack.


Many couples do not know how to do this. This where a trained relationship and sex therapist can help a couple. A professional marriage counsellor can help give couples the tools and knowledge needed to discuss sex, intimacy and create mature and accurate view of sex. If you are struggling give us a call at 90307239 or email us.



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