Why The Costs Of 'Sympathy Sex' Far Outweigh The Benefits

Sex can be a great way to brighten up a bad day. However, research shows that using it as a pacifier can have some nasty effects.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 12, 2024

Sympathy sex refers to sexual activity that occurs as a result of one partner feeling sorry for the other. It often arises in the context of a relationship, where one partner may be experiencing emotional distress or hardship and the other partner offers sexual intimacy as a form of comfort or support.

In the context of a relationship, sympathy sex can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can serve as a way for partners to express their love and support for each other and can help to strengthen the emotional bond between them. On the other hand, it can also be a sign of emergent unhealthy coping mechanisms and can lead to dependency on sex for emotional relief. It is important for individuals to develop healthy coping strategies that do not rely solely on sexual activity and to communicate openly and honestly with their partners about their emotional needs and boundaries.

Here are the three truths about sympathy sex that you need to know before you engage in it.

1. The Good Truth

While sympathy sex can have negative consequences if not approached with care and consideration, it can also have positive implications for partners who are able to communicate openly and honestly with each other.

The "good truth" highlights the potential for sympathy sex to foster the following:

  1. Emotional connection. Sympathy sex can serve as a means for partners to emotionally connect and offer comfort to each other during difficult times. It can act as a form of emotional support, enabling partners to feel heard and nurtured. Additionally, studies indicate that when partners exhibit heightened emotional responsiveness, it can lead to an increase in sexual desire, which is a vital aspect of couple intimacy.
  2. Stress relief. Studies conducted during the Covid-19 lockdown showed that anxiety and depression scores were significantly lower in sexually active individuals during lockdown, suggesting that sexual activity may have played a protective role in mitigating the negative psychological effects of the lockdown. Engaging in sexual activity can release endorphins and reduce stress, providing temporary relief from emotional distress. Therefore, it can be a healthy way to manage stress and promote relaxation.

2. The Bad Truth

When sympathy sex is not approached with care and consideration, potential pitfalls and challenges can arise. These can take the form of:

  1. Unhealthy coping mechanisms. Using sex as a way to cope with negative emotions may lead to dependency on sex for emotional relief. Using sex as a coping mechanism has also linked younger women and risky sexual behavior like unprotected sex. Therefore, it is crucial for individuals to cultivate healthy coping strategies. These may include practicing mindfulness, engaging in creative pursuits or participating in physical workouts, which can be done together with a partner and do not solely rely on sexual activity.
  2. Lack of communication. Engaging in sympathy sex without open communication about feelings and desires can lead to misunderstandings and unmet needs. Instead of assuming your partner should know your emotional needs, communicate openly and honestly about what you want to avoid future conflicts.
  3. Emotional disconnection. Emotional disconnection refers to a situation where partners feel emotionally distant from each other, despite engaging in sexual activity. This can happen when sympathy sex becomes a habitual response to emotional distress, leading to a lack of genuine emotional connection between partners. To avoid this, prioritize both emotional and physical intimacy. This can be achieved by engaging in open communication, expressing emotions and actively working to maintain a deep emotional bond.

3. The Ugly Truth

Sympathy sex can also veil deeper, more problematic issues in a relationship. At its ugliest, sympathy sex is often as a tool or weapon, leaching physical intimacy of its exploratory, playful and affectionate properties. Here's what sympathy sex can look like when it is used nefariously:

  1. Imbalanced power dynamics. Research indicates that power dynamics can influence how individuals experience pleasure, intimacy and satisfaction in sexual relationships. Understanding power dynamics is crucial for comprehending sexual expressions and relationships. In the context of sympathy sex, power dynamics may manifest as one partner feeling obligated to engage in sexual activity to please the other, which can eventually lead to feelings of resentment.
  2. Consent issues. In cases where one partner feels pressured or coerced into sympathy sex, it can raise concerns about consent and boundaries. A 2022 study critically demonstrates that "consent" is sometimes used to justify sexual violence, as it is often achieved through coercion and a mere "yes" is seen as unfettered consent. This throws light on how sympathy sex cannot be taken lightly.
  3. Emotional manipulation. Emotional manipulation in this context refers to using emotions, such as guilt or pity, to influence the other partner's behavior. Specifically, in the context of sympathy sex, one partner may use sex to control or manipulate the other. This can have long-term negative effects on the emotional well-being of both partners and can lead to resentment and dissatisfaction in the relationship. The power imbalance in the relationship can also damage trust between partners.

Do you often find yourself resorting to sympathy sex? Take this test to know if you need to be upfront about your sexual desires in your relationship: Authenticity In Relationship Scale

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