Many wads of ink (pun unavoidable) have been spilled pondering the hazy stigma of masturbating whilst in a relationship. “I just want to know how many people are doing this, and is it normal?” writes one 22-year-old male redditor who’s been in a relationship for four years, and who “masturbates sometimes and then feels guilty about it.” To which another redditor responds by comparing the in-relationship masturbatory practice with having a quick snack to hold you over until dinner. “Of course, eating a three-course meal prepared for you is nice, but sometimes I want a quick bowl of cereal, know what I mean?”
In yet another thread, a female redditor inquires about whether other women approve of their “boyfriend masturbating consistently?” And in one of the most extreme examples, one man even left his wife because he walked in on her masturbating. “While obviously there were larger issues between us as a couple, that intimate moment is the one that signaled the ultimate demise of our relationship, in my opinion,” an anonymous woman told Redbook.
According to David Ley, writing in Psychology Today, romantic relationships and masturbation have always had a murky connection. “Historically, masturbation by married people was seen as taking something away from marriage (here, it’s called ‘The secret that ruins great sex’), and often was seen as an indication that something was wrong in the relationship, especially if it involves fantasy about people other than one’s partner,” writes Ley. “Either the wife was not giving her husband what he ‘needed’ or the husband’s desires were out of proportion for the marriage.”
To be clear, masturbating while in a relationship is perfectly normal and even encouraged by most experts these days — after all, sometimes the clock strikes horny for one person and not the other. “Masturbation isn’t necessarily a sign that someone is unhappy with their relationship or dissatisfied with their sex life,” confirms Justin Lehmiller, author of the blog Sex and Psychology.
The evidence, too, suggests that masturbation has little to no effect on the frequency of sex for a couple. Per one 2017 study examining data from a national survey of more than 15,000 American adults between the ages of 18 and 60, people who did masturbate had just as much sex as people who didn’t. “Among women who were content with their sex lives, frequent sex was linked to greater odds of masturbation,” reports VICE. “In other words, when women were either meeting or exceeding their desired amount of sex, masturbation took on a complementary role — the more sex these women had, the more they wanted to touch themselves.”
Additionally, the study found that frequent masturbating for men in happy relationships also had no link to how much sex they were having. However, according to Ley’s same article in Psychology Today, it can indicate a general lack of sexual satisfaction. “It’s not about the number of orgasms, but more about the mental state and qualitative factors involved,” he writes.
Which gets to the point of why masturbation can, within the context of a relationship, seem like a “betrayal,” as so many male and female redditors have proclaimed. “Masturbation is still taboo in many relationships because some people take it as a sign of disinterest or dissatisfaction when they learn their partner is doing it,” says Lehmiller. “Many people also seem to take this possessive view that if their partner is going to have an orgasm, it should be with them — they’re almost offended by the idea of their partner getting off without them.”
The same reticence toward conversations around masturbation doesn’t generally apply to same-sex couples, though, Lehmiller continues. “Masturbation is generally viewed as more acceptable in same-sex couples than it is in male-female couples,” he says. “Same-sex couples appear less likely to view masturbation as a sign of disinterest or to interpret it as a lack of love.”
Lehmiller attributes this discrepancy to gender differences in masturbation frequency and attitudes toward this activity, “with men doing it more often and having more permissible attitudes toward it than women.” “As a result, in same-sex couples, partners are more likely to be on the same page compared to mixed-sex couples,” he says. “Also, same-sex couples are less likely to subscribe to traditional beliefs about sex and masturbation, making masturbation a less taboo topic for them more generally.”
Even for the heterosexual couples I spoke to, the issue with masturbation is less a question of why their significant other is doing it than the the fact that they’re unlikely to talk about it directly — the fact, in other words, that it’s being kept a secret. “We didn’t discuss it until she went through my bank statements and saw charges for porn sites,” one twentysomething man (who, admittedly, was hooked on using cam sites) tells me. “It became a major issue because we never talked about it.”
The result of “never talking about it,” per another female redditor who didn’t think she had an issue with her husband masturbating until she’d walked in on the act multiple times, can lead to resentment. “I’d be home sleeping and wake up to go snuggle him (he always wakes up earlier than me) and walk in on him jerking off,” she writes. “I was on the phone with my dad long-distance and walked in on him masturbating. I was planning to order food delivery and went to ask him what he wanted, and walked in on him masturbating. I told him how it hurt me to continuously walk in to that situation, I almost felt betrayed.”
According to clinical sexologist Sunny Rodgers, this situation is a “very common” one. “The foremost reason for keeping masturbation a secret from your S.O. is because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. People are afraid that if they say they’re masturbating, their S.O. will feel like sex with them isn’t sufficient. Whereas, sex and masturbation are both healthy and should be enjoyed. Sometimes people just want a quickie solo-sex session and not have to spend time on conversation and foreplay. That’s understandable.”
Another reason couples don’t talk about it, according to Rodgers, is that people are afraid their significant other will reject them for masturbating. Which she says is less likely to happen, as long as you communicate to your partner that you’re masturbating “for health, stress-relief and enjoyment, and not because it’s a replacement for your sexual relationship with your partner,” she explains. For that reason, Rodgers says that just like everything else in life, moderation is the best path. “If either partner becomes more reliant on solo-sex sessions and partnered sex play decreases in frequency, this is a sign that some heartfelt intimate communication is needed,” she says.
Allen Wagner, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-author of Married Roommates: How to Go From a Relationship That Just Survives to a Marriage That Thrives, tells me that there are always going to be people with different sex drives in a relationship. “One person may feel that they need to have more sex than the other person is wanting to,” he says. “That type of masturbation is different than compulsion.” The issue, he says, is when people in a relationship feel like they have no other option but to masturbate. “That’s more unhelpful because that’s a partner who is unsatisfied and feels rejected. Then masturbation can be all-consuming.”
“Conversations around masturbation are taboo for the same reasons sex is taboo — it’s a personal act, and it can make people feel uncomfortable because of their own personal views,” says Rodgers. That’s why it’s best to discuss those views openly, she says. As Ley puts it in his article for Psychology Today, it’s the secretive nature of watching porn and masturbating that can be most taxing on the relationship, rather than the act itself. “Men who watch porn in secret often experience negative relationship outcomes,” writes Ley. “Why are these men watching porn in secret? Because they are sexually unsatisfied, can’t talk about it or negotiate it within the marriage, and are masturbating to porn to compensate.”
Another couple I spoke to confirmed this, telling me that while they’ve discussed masturbation generally, they’ve never quite talked about the specifics of their own masturbatory needs or practices. “It’s just not something I feel like I need to bring up,” says one 30-year-old guy, who also tells me he’s not sure how often his girlfriend of two years likes to masturbate. Even when a couple does elect to have conversations about their masturbation habits, it can still feel peripheral. “She asked if I watch porn and what I cum into,” says one 29-year-old. “And she said she never really masturbates [when I asked her about it]. So it’s never like, ‘Hey, do you masturbate?’ and ‘What’s that like?’”
While there’s no one right way for you and your significant other to broach the topic of masturbation, according to Rodgers, you could start by keeping the conversation light and without judgement. “Let your partner know that you trust them and know they trust you back,” she says. You could even start by alluding to the numerous health benefits. “Masturbation and regular sex can also increase a person’s life span,” she says. “Every time a person reaches orgasm, the body releases DHEA. DHEA is a hormone known to boost immune systems, improve cognition, keep skin healthy and helps people look younger, longer. Orgasms also increase estrogen, which is essential for healthy, smooth skin.”
That, of course, is fine, but unlikely to cut through the real issue, which is simply: How do I tell my partner that sometimes I want to excuse myself to the bedroom to relieve myself?
“What I’d say is that masturbation is a personal experience and you don’t need to document or explain to your partner every time you do it,” says Lehmiller. “That sounds onerous.” Instead, he says that a healthier way to approach this is to simply recognize that your partner can and will masturbate sometimes. “Understand that this is a healthy and normal behavior that doesn’t mean the relationship is in trouble or that your partner is no longer attracted to you. Think of your partner’s masturbation as a healthy form of self-care, rather than a personal threat to you.”
Wagner agrees. “You don’t need to report back, but [masturbation] should never be something they’re not allowed to do,” he says. “That their partner knows it doesn’t affect their sex life should be enough of a conversation. Then, if they walk in on it, that’s more likely to be okay with them beacause they understand that their partner has a higher sex drive.”
To that end, Wagner says that when the issue of masturbation shows up in therapy, it’s usually when it’s happening in the absence of a sex life and a person’s significant other is upset that they’re no longer initiating sex. “It becomes a replacement rather than an enhancement,” he says. “Masturbation shouldn’t come at the expensive of your partner.”
So go masturbate, and enjoy thyself. Just make sure your partner knows that you love them more than you do your own hand.