The term “lesbian bed death” has been around since, well, for as long as there have been U-hauls. It refers to the phenomenon in long-term relationships where sex goes MIA.
Recently, from it, a new gender- and sexuality-inclusive term has emerged, nodding to the fact any couple’s sex life can take a turn toward the nonexistent.
Introducing: dead bedroom.
It can. But that’s not a given.
“Dead bedroom isn’t a clinical diagnosis,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast.
There are no official diagnostic protocols around how long you have to have been without sex or how infrequently you have to have sex to be in a dead bedroom relationship.
“Some people suggest that 6 months without sex meets that criteria for dead bedroom; others say you have to go longer without sex than that,” says Dr. O’Reilly.
“There’s really no one number you can hold up and say anything less than is dead bedroom,” says Lisa Finn, a sex educator at sex toy emporium Babeland.
Both Finn and Dr. O’Reilly say that every person and couple get to decide what counts as dead bedroom for them.
“Some couples have sex 3 or 5 times a week for the first few years of their relationship, then start having sex once a week and say they have dead bedroom,” says Finn. “Other couples have always only had sex on anniversaries and birthdays, and don’t feel like their sex lives are dead.”
Basically, dead bedroom is when you and your partner had a sexual norm and have veered away from that — either temporarily or permanently.
Finn says these things may count as dead bedroom:
- You and your partner are having less sex than your “norm.”
- You or your partner are consciously avoiding sexual or physical contact with the other.
- You or your partner would classify your sex as “less pleasurable” than usual.
- You or your partner are unsatisfied with how often you’re having sex.
Take a scroll through the subreddit page r/DeadBedrooms, which has over 200,000 members, and you’ll realize that there are tons of reasons couples’ sex lives may change.
They run the gamut from physiological and emotional to mental and physical. Here are some of the most common:
According to a BodyLogicMD survey of 1,000 folks with dead bedroom, job stress was the number one cause.
Considering the physiologic effects of stress on the body, this makes sense.
“Stress hormones can actually interfere with our arousal response and libido,” says Dr. O’Reilly.
She adds: “If you’re financially stressed, just trying to get by, or worried about your personal safety and survival, sex may be the furthest thing from your mind.”
It’s fairly common for certain bodily changes to affect your sex life.
For example, in folks with vulvas, menopause can result in decreased libido and reduced natural lubrication.
And in people with penises, there’s erectile dysfunction, which usually occurs later in life.
Hormonal imbalances, weight gain, chronic illness, and injury can also play a role in altering your sex life.
However, these things don’t directly cause a dead bedroom. They’re just the catalyst, says Dr. O’Reilly. “If you and your partner don’t talk about these changes and make adjustments that allow you to comfortably navigate sex, these problems can result in less sex.”
“The most common reason I see for dead bedroom involves having children,” says Dr. O’Reilly.
This is because the children become the focal point and the priority, and the relationship falls to the wayside.
Lack of satisfaction
“If you’re not enjoying the sex you’re having, you’re not going to want to have it,” Dr. O’Reilly says. Fair!
That depends on why you’re bringing it up.
Some questions to noodle on before talking to your partner:
- Do I want to be having more sex than I’m having?
- Do I want to be having it with my partner?
- Is there one specific moment, event, or thing that has led to this shift?
- Am I feeling any emotion (like resentment or guilt) that has disrupted my own interest in sex?
Abstaining from sex, or having “little” sex, isn’t inherently problematic.
Some people don’t want to have sex and if you’re both on the same page, you can have a perfectly fulfilling relationship, says Dr. O’Reilly.
If you’re happy with your (not super existent) sex life, you may want to do a temperature check and see if your partner is satisfied, too.
Try: “I really love the way intimacy looks in our relationship, and especially enjoy our [insert way you maintain connection aside from sex here]. I just wanted to check in and see how you’re feeling about our relationship.”
If you determine that the decreased sexy-time bothers you and you want to be having more sex than you’re having — specifically with your partner — it’s time to chat.
“You want to take a no-blame approach,” says Finn. This is important! “The objective of the conversation isn’t to talk about what’s wrong, but to discuss what you’d like to see more of.”
Feeling tongue-tied? Finn suggests the following template:
- Talk about something that’s been going well in your relationship
- Ask them how they’ve been feeling
- Share what you’d like to see more of
- Create space for them to share the same
If your first attempt doesn’t feel productive, try again.
If the second time feels the same, you might seek out a sex or couples therapist, who can facilitate the conversation and help you both feel heard.
“Issues don’t operate in a vacuum, so it’s totally possible your sex life has changed as a result of a deeper issue in the relationship,” says Dr. O’Reilly.
For instance, if one partner is doing a greater share of household upkeep, child rearing, or emotional labor, it isn’t uncommon for that person to lose interest in having sex with their partner.
The same goes if one resents the other for any other underlying factor, such as job relocation, substance misuse, or infidelity.
“Resentment is the antithesis of desires and pleasure,” says Dr. O’Reilly.
Finn says it’s common for folks to physically shut down when they’re emotionally spent. And, in some cases, “dead bedroom” is a sign that you’ve checked out of the relationship.
It depends on what you want moving forward.
If you’d like more sex but your partner doesn’t, you might try:
- watching more porn
- masturbating solo or together
- trying out new sex toys
- riding a sex machine
- attending a sex party
You might also consider non-monogamy.
If you want to be having more partnered sex than your partner does, and one or both of you doesn’t want to open the relationship, Finn says: “You may need to end it.”
Ditto if there’s an underlying issue that your partner isn’t willing to work through with you. Or that you’re not willing to work through with them.
But if you and your partner both want to breathe life back into your sex life, Dr. O’Reilly has the following tips:
Make a plan
“How often do you want to have sex? Talk about it!” says Dr. O’Reilly. Then figure out a way to make that happen.
Increase daily affection
You don’t have to force yourselves to have sex, but would you be open to snuggling on the couch while you watch Netflix? How about while you’re naked?
Give each other a massage more, if that’s a more achievable goal. Start with 10 minutes a day.
“Small steps spread out over time are more likely to yield positive results than sweeping changes that are difficult to implement and sustain,” says Dr. O’Reilly.
Explore other forms of intimacy
When you’re not in the mood, sex can feel like a far reach.
Consider watching porn with, kissing, masturbating next to, massaging, or showering with your partner, suggests Dr. O’Reilly.
If it gets you in the mood, have it! If not, no pressure.
Go prop shopping
Just like cheating, micro-cheating, sex, and kink, what counts as a “dead bedroom” varies relationship to relationship, based on your sexy-time norm.
Many things can lead to dead bedroom — some indicative of a larger issue in the relationship, others not. Regardless, if it distresses one or more partners, it’s time to talk about it.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.