Masturbation in Marriage: An Exploration

masturbation in marriage

“We have reason to believe that man first walked upright to free his hands for masturbation.” ~Lily Tomlin

Do you know if your husband masturbates? How about your wife? Your partner?

If you answered yes to the above questions, do you have any sense of the frequency with which s/he masturbates? Or what s/he thinks/fantasizes about while masturbating?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, you’re not alone. Masturbation is a topic that isn’t frequently talked about. Despite our increased comfort and increasingly positive attitudes about sex, masturbation remains a topic that can still make us blush. We know it’s normal, we know most of us are doing it, yet despite this widespread knowledge, we prefer to keep quiet about our own masturbatory habits, even with the person we share our life with (and perhaps hide nothing else from).

Even when the conversation is about sex, masturbation is a topic that we prefer to keep private. It’s no wonder—it is an intensely personal facet of life.

Masturbation in marriage: If so many of us are doing it, why aren’t we talking about it?

Some of us quickly assume that our partner isn’t masturbating. After all, we’re in an intimate relationship with them, so why wouldn’t they just approach us for sex rather than take matters into their own hands?

The we’re-married-so-you-shouldn’t-have-to-masturbate assumption can be so strong that it can feel like a betrayal to discover your partner is (at times) choosing masturbation over sex with you. And for those of us who want sex and readily make ourselves available to our partner, it can feel like our partner just isn’t into us if s/he is regularly masturbating.

And, of course, there are couples where it is common knowledge that each partner is masturbating (even if their individual masturbatory habits aren’t openly discussed). For these couples, there are several assumptions at work that might go something like: “I know you’re masturbating, and I’m fine with that as long as it doesn’t interfere with our sex life.”

But whether you think it’s happening or not, many couples do masturbate. Sometimes with each other (mutual masturbation), but usually not in the presence of each other (at least for the couples I work with in couples counseling). And not all couples necessarily think it is happening. For some, it remains their little secret, something so personal that it would feel like a significant loss to give it up or talk about.

“I’ve been masturbating since I was fourteen. Sometimes I don’t want sex but I just want to have an orgasm so I just wait for my husband to fall asleep or leave for work and within a few minutes I’m done. It’s convenient, easy, and I don’t have to worry about anyone except me.” ~ Cecile, married fifteen years

So why would anyone in a committed, intimate relationship continue to masturbate?

Here are a few of the reasons clients have shared about why they continue to masturbate despite being in an intimate relationship.

Masturbation in marriage: It’s about sex, ease and a whole lot more

1) Masturbation can be used as a way of dealing with disparate sexual drives (the partner with the higher sex drive masturbates in order to release built-up sexual energy/tension while also avoiding the possibility of being rejected by the partner who wants sex less frequently);

2) You may want “a quickie” that doesn’t involve intimacy or having to negotiate your partner’s sexual needs (this is Cecile’s primary motive for masturbating mentioned in the quote above). This is the “it’s quick and easy” reason for masturbating;

3) You may have learned to rely on masturbation as a way of dealing with difficult emotions (it’s used as a form of self-soothing or to help you fall asleep). Here masturbation has little to do with sex and instead is a method to self-regulating our emotional life;

4) Escapism (taking a momentary break from reality) is a common mental activity that is familiar to most of us. Every time you daydream you are leaving the present moment and mentally traveling someplace else. Masturbation can be used as a form of escapism where fantasy and reverie transports you somewhere that your current reality cannot;

5) Masturbation can be a self-affirming experience, a way to connect more deeply with your longings and erotic-self. These self-connecting masturbatory experiences are heightened when we do not feel secure enough to bring our deepest erotic yearnings to our partner;

6) Masturbation is a very private (and for some, secretive) experience. When we first discovered masturbation, it probably became apparent that it needed to occur in private, hidden from others. As adults we can feel very protective of early experiences that were internalized in a context of hiddenness/secrecy. Masturbation can be something you hold onto and don’t want to give up or discuss, a highly personal way of accessing your innermost spaces;

7) To be intimate is to be vulnerable. Sexual intimacy can stir our deepest insecurities and inner conflicts. When there are barriers to sexual intimacy (barriers arising from your relationship dynamics or due to insecurities you brought with you to the relationship), masturbation can become a way to avoid the complexities of intimacy.

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As you can see, there are numerous reasons why someone who is in an intimate relationship might continue to masturbate. And, of course, there are reasons not covered in the above list.

Masturbation, like sex, is more than a physical act. It’s imbued with layers of meaning (both unconscious and conscious) for the individual who is masturbating as well as the partner who may have strong feelings about why his/her spouse/partner is continuing to masturbate.

Couples who masturbate together as a couple or separately with each other’s knowledge/blessing see masturbation as a healthy part of their lives. It isn’t necessary for these couples to integrate masturbation into their sex lives, though some do, exploring mutual masturbation as a form of foreplay or a complete sexual activity. This undoes the shame that can be associated with masturbation. As a husband once shared,

“It was so healing emotionally when my wife and I first talked about masturbation and she encouraged me to integrate it into our sex lives as much as I wanted to. I kept the fact that I masturbated hidden for so many years after my older brother caught me and humiliated me. He told everyone, including his friends and mine. I still cringe thinking about it. But my wife’s acceptance and sex-positive attitude have allowed me to feel whole again…” ~Bryan, married almost thirty years

Some couples aren’t so lucky. You might object to your partner masturbating for a variety of reasons. One concern I’ve witnessed in couples is that masturbation is robbing the relationship of the sexual intimacy desired. In these instances, masturbation becomes a threat to the relationship, a mistress or lover that is taking your spouse/partner from you (in the sense that it’s stealing from the store of your partner’s finite sexual energy). These are complex dynamics that may require professional help if efforts to deal with these issues have not led to meaningful change.

But despite the fact that at times masturbation can throw a wrench into intimate relationships, or can be a symptom of problems that have nothing to do with masturbation (and of course, either way, these issues can often be worked through, in some instances, with the help of a professional), much of the time masturbation does not pose a problem for couples.

The important take-away from this article is that self-pleasuring is every individual’s right, and therefore it is normal and natural. Because of society’s prevailing view about masturbation, it’s also normal and natural to feel shy or reluctant about discussing it with others, even very close others. (So don’t beat yourself up for that.) However, as illustrated in Bryan’s example, there can be great freedom and great relief in opening up to your partner about masturbation. Just because you may have kept it hidden—and have had understandable reasons for doing so—doesn’t mean you need to continue to keep it hidden if you feel moved to share.

May is National Masturbation Month, a designation that in and of itself is certainly an encouraging sign in terms of normalizing and validating the act of self-pleasuring. It’s also important to remember that masturbation does not need to interfere with the sex life you and your partner share. When you change your mindset and see it as mutual exploration instead of solitary retreat, the normal, natural aspect of masturbation can come shining through.

All best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro