“I feel like we’re flatmates”: Let’s talk about cuddling, the act killing your sex life

Article by Amy Clark /
Mamamia /
October 5, 2019 /
Click here to view original /

“I feel like we’re flatmates. We’re best friends and I can’t see myself with anyone else, but all we do these days is cuddle.”

“My husband and I never cuddle, yuck. It feels soft and mushy, I think it makes our sex hotter not to.”

“I’ve been with my partner for a decade. He’s the father of my children and we know each other intimately, but we haven’t been lovers for about a year.”

Above are just a few insights that came out of a recent office chat. What started as a funny rant about how some people hate it when their partner tries to massage them quickly turned into an impassioned debate on whether cuddling is kryptonite for a hot sex life.

Now, we’re not talking about women who do or don’t like cuddling or physically being touched, for whom getting a massage is akin to hearing nails scrape down a chalkboard. This is a conversation about women who feel like they’re cuddling more than they’re having sex. Or instead of.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find studies and opinions about the positive and negative effect cuddling can have in relationships, particularly for cohabiting couples. For some, it’s essential for building intimacy, and for others, it’s like “pouring water on the flames of passion.” Yes, one of my colleagues actually described cuddling with her partner in this way.

To find out if the physical act of cuddling is indeed killing your sex life, Mamamia spoke to two sex and relationship experts, as well as women in relationships for their perspectives.

The case against cuddling.

Arguably the most high-profile expert in the anti-cuddling corner is international relationship expert and author Esther Perel. In her best-selling book Mating In Captivity, Perel talks about love resting on two pillars: togetherness and separateness. Too much of one and the other one suffers. In this context, cuddling represents togetherness, and desire and eroticism, separateness.

“There is a complex relationship between love and desire, and it is not a cause-and-effect, linear arrangement. A couple’s emotional life together and their physical life together each have their ebbs and flows, their ups and downs, but these don’t always correspond. They intersect, they influence each other, but they’re also distinct,” she writes.

Locally, Director of the Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine, and certified psycho-sexologist, sex and relationship therapist Chantelle Ottenagrees we’re often accidentally killing our sex lives by cuddling to create intimacy.

“It’s very individual for each couple, but often in our efforts to establish intimacy, such as cuddling, being close, holding hands and getting as close as possible to the other person, we work to eliminate ‘otherness’. Otherness is that space between you needed for desire to develop and flourish,” Otten told Mamamia.

“Cuddling is really good because it does develop that sense of togetherness, which is essential in our home lives to create a sense of trust and security, but we need to also be able to tolerate our separateness and the insecurity that comes with that. It’s a precondition in maintaining interest and desire in a relationship.”

This is especially relevant for couples who live together. You use the same bathroom, sleep in the same bed and (be honest) fart in front of each other. Those things bring you closer together, but as Otten described it, “love is enjoying knowing everything about your partner, but we need mystery in order to have desire.”

“Love is where we like to shrink the distance between ‘me and you’, whereas desire is energised by that distance. If intimacy grows between repetition and familiarity, erotiscism is numbed by that, it thrives on the mystery, it drives on the plot, the novel and unexpected. Love is about having, desire is about wanting.”

“At the end of the day, it’s our mutual intimacy as a couple where we make love, have children and share our physical space and interests, but we can’t blend all the essential parts of our lives. I think it is great to have cuddling and that intimacy, but too much eliminates that private zone.”

Think of Otten’s explanation of otherness or seperatness a being Venn diagram, two circles that intersect and overlap. There’s you, your partner, the space you share together and the space you keep to yourself. Too much of either space can affect a relationship in different ways, but when we’re talking about intimacy and erotiscism, too much shared space doesn’t leave much room for the latter.

“It’s the space between us, the space that belongs just to me – the physical, the emotional and the intellectual – where not everything is revealed, where we can cultivate fantasy and separateness and desire for our partners. Learning how to build a bridge where you can go visit your partner on the other side. Respecting the fact we need to be individuals as well to be able to cross over that bridge, come together and really desire each other.”

Why some cuddling is important.

OK, so if we’re building a metaphorical relationship bridge and making regular visits across to the other side, can those visits include… cuddling?

One of the biggest arguments against cuddling is becoming too comfortable. Too cosy and too satisfied with a partner equals a loss in heat and hunger, some argue. University of Melbourne academic, author and sexuality expert Dr Lauren Rosewarne thinks the research into this, like all sex research, “might apply to some, but not others”.

“I think that for many, many people, the idea of not having non-sexual contact with your partner would seem foreign if not, I’d argue, repellant,” Dr Rosewarne told Mamamia.

“Even the hottest, steamiest couples are still only having sex for a small fraction of the time. Wanting closeness, intimacy and affection with your lover is a way to build trust and connection and – for many people – maintain desire for them sexually. Foreplay isn’t just ‘the bit before sex’, but arguably is also what’s happening in the relationship when a couple is together and outside of the bedroom.”

Speaking to women anecdotally, many find the act of cuddling far more intimate than the act of intercourse.

“Cuddling is something I would only do with someone I’m in a relationship with,” one told Mamamia.

“It’s extremely confronting and intimate – I only like cuddling if I’m into the person, like I have a real connection with them.”

Another added, “Cuddling with my partner is my favourite thing – I would miss it if we cut it out altogether.”

Another point Dr Rosewarne smade relates to how some couples use post-sex cuddling to conclude a sexual experience or further connect with their partner.

“Lots of people need cuddling – particularly after sex – as a way to end an experience of intercourse which is, for some, often something that can feel challenging, exposing and confronting (particularly with a new partner, or when doing something new).”

“Often termed ‘after care’, such post-sex tenderness – which frequently involving cuddling – is considered as a crucial component of concluding a sexual experience and maintaining positive feelings about it.”

Then, there’s the difference between sexual cuddling and non-sexual cuddling, or sexual touch and non-sexual touch.

As Dr Rosewarne said, cuddling is a great way to initiate foreplay, however it’s when the act becomes associated with sex that it can affect your sex life.

A woman in a long-term relationship told Mamamia, “Cuddling is essential I think. Establishing a non-sexual intimate interaction is as important as sex itself, but if it becomes synonymous with sex, it’s also an obstacle because then you think you can’t have a cuddle without it leading to something more.”

Is there such a thing as ‘too much cuddling’?

So, is there such a thing as ‘too much cuddling’ in a relationship? Yes, but also no.

Otten said, “There need to be lines around how much cuddling there is. It’s healthy to have cuddling and intimacy, but too much separates the distance between us. Desire requires ongoing elusiveness, in a way. It’s less concerned with where it has already been and passionate about where it can still go.”

This makes sense for women who feel like cuddling has replaced sex in their relationship, hence feeling like ‘flatmates’ or ‘platonic friends’, and could benefit from putting some physical space in their relationship.

On the flipside, if you’re a cuddler and don’t feel like it’s impacting your sexual relationship, then there’s no real problem, is there?