Is Solo Sex Hurting Your Relationship?

Wives often get upset if husbands are engaging in solo sex, such as masturbation or phone sex. But who is hurting whom?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on July 14, 2004
5 min read

Women might feel neglected if their mate spends too much time watching sports on TV. But if their leisure time involves solo sex, such as masturbating, engaging in phone sex, or using the Internet to view explicit sexual images or chat with an anonymous partner, they might go through the roof. And they might post to WebMD's Sex Matters® board, where the overwhelming majority of posts concerned with a mate engaging in solo sex come from women.

Of course it's true that many women as well as men find pleasure in gratifying themselves alone. So is it cheating when the partner is left out? Psychologist Willard F. Harley of White Bear Lake, Minn., says men and women are probably hardwired to react differently. "Most women will say they want their husbands' sexual expression to be exclusively with them -- no masturbation, no pornography, no strip clubs. But men don't care if their wives look at naked men. They think it gives them license to look at naked women."

Whether solo sex is a problem for a relationship is in the eye of the beholder, says David Schnarch, PhD, director of The Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo. "For some couples, it's a breach. For others, it's not."

When the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre in Santa Clara, Calif., observed an increasing number of people in therapy dealing with online sexual behavior, its researchers surveyed visitors -- 86% male and 14% female -- to the MSNBC web site. The often-quoted survey showed that 64% of the 9,177 respondents were married or in a committed relationship, and 92% did not have problems related to online sexual activities. Perhaps surprisingly, most respondents said they got excited but not aroused by viewing and chatting.

Solo sex can involve human interaction, as with phone sex or Internet chatting, or it can be totally private, as with masturbation. "The common traits are that the partner isn't involved and nobody is touching anybody else," says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a licensed marriage and family counselor/sex therapist in Fair Oaks, Calif. "Sometimes people think when they marry that they've just gotten a license to run the life of the other person, including their sexual thoughts and feelings. That's where everybody gets up in arms about solo sex."

She says individuals are entitled to their own thoughts, even that society might deem repugnant. And to police a mate's sexual thoughts and feelings is downright unrealistic. "They're in for a shock," says Weston, who also answers questions on WebMD's Sex Matters® message board.

Harley disagrees. "My basic rule for marriages is that all your sex, including fantasies, should be with each other. First, your wife will want it that way. Second, if your wife is your exclusive sexual outlet, you'll have a much better romantic relationship."

Harley, author of His Needs, Her Needs, says psychologically there's a contrast effect involved in looking at other women and fantasizing about them. "Your wife can't measure up. Sex with her will be boring. But if you can avoid the temptation, every time you make love with her will be wonderful."

Limiting sex to one's partner may be contrary to human drives, he says, but as a sophisticated culture, we've agreed it's good for society to rein in certain drives. "We live in a monogamous society I'm not exactly sure we're wired for, but we've decided monogamy is a good idea," he says. "Pornography is really difficult to resist. It shows up in email every day. Erase it or get filters."

Noting there are now lines of erotic videos and web sites designed for women, Weston says more and more women are enjoying explicit images. "Some women think that any porn, which I call 'explicit images,' degrades the people who made them and that the actors did it under coercion," Weston says. "That's not true. Granted there are porn mills where people are taken advantage of, but plenty of people are doing it as a legitimate business."

Instead of trying to restrict a mate's online or phone sex, she suggests joining in. "A lot of couples are going online together." One couple she counseled involved a woman who was upset because her partner didn't want sex as often as he once did. In therapy, he disclosed that he was masturbating to images online, specifically to erotic images of women having their hair cut. "The woman said, 'Let's look at it together.' Once they got it out in the open and shared it, things were fine." Weston adds, "Sex is adult play. Go play."

The San Jose Centre researchers described the 8% minority for whom online sex was problematical as "compulsive" and those among them who averaged 38 hours in online sexual activities as "sex addicts." Furthermore, problems correlated positively with the amount of time spent in online sexual activities.

Not all sex therapists agree with the addiction model. "I'm not a fan of the idea that people can be addicted to sex in the same way someone can be addicted to drugs," says Weston. She does feel that solo sex can become obsessive, a line that's crossed in a relationship when explicit and tacit agreements are subordinated to the obsession.

"We don't approach solo sex as either a healthy and unhealthy form of behavior," says Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage and Resurrecting Sex. "It's a couples issue, not a medical issue. Anybody is free to decide (and usually does) what is healthy and what isn't, and usually couples are clear about it. It's relational politics: 'if I like it and it doesn't make me nervous, it's OK," or "if what you're doing makes me nervous, it's not.'"

Sometimes partners are so polarized on the issue of solo sex that counseling is needed. Resolving a couple's issues around solo sex is a process of helping them figure out what's going on in the relationship and what it means to them, says Schnarch. "Some therapists will take the attitude that erotica is wrong and will get involved in adjudicating proper sexual behavior in relationships. We don't. For some couples, the issue is growing up and realizing that when your partner masturbates the fantasies aren't about you. For other couples it's recognizing there's a war going on over sex in the relationship, and one person's use of erotica is either an attack or a way of balancing out having sex withheld. There are many reasons people look at erotica."