Masturbation in Relationships

It’s the middle of the night, and you are sound asleep. You become vaguely aware that the bed is moving, and open your eyes. Is it an earthquake? A truck rumbling by? You turn to ask your partner, only to find that the earthquake IS your partner — masturbating in bed. “What are you doing?” you ask, perhaps a bit louder than you would have liked. “Nothing,” your partner says, “Go back to sleep.”

Masturbation is among the most taboo topics relating to sexuality. This concept baffles many sexuality professionals since the vast majority of people do masturbate at some point in their lives – and many, throughout their lives. Others do not, and the conventional wisdom is that it is normal if you do, and normal if you do not. For those who do masturbate, it can be comforting to know that masturbation is a perfectly healthy, normal behavior that cannot harm a person in any way. It cannot cause a pregnancy, nor can it cause a sexually transmitted infection. It does not cause hair to grow on the palms (or anywhere else), affect a person’s eyesight, or cause any kind of psychological disorder. It can, however, release tension, and provide comfort and relaxation. Yet there is still a wide range of beliefs about masturbation. Even when a person has nothing against self-pleasuring, it may be seen as acceptable only when it is done on one’s own, in private – or only when a person is not in a sexual relationship with another person.

Many of us grew up with metaphors for sexual behaviors that were seen as sexual “bases.” Each base represents a particular behavior, from kissing (first base) to sexual intercourse (a home run). This view of sexual behaviors as a progressive ladder implies that once a person has moved up the rungs from kissing to touching to dry sex to oral, anal, or vaginal sex, there’s no going back. Further, when it comes to masturbation — a sexual behavior that is not usually a part of the “bases”– this viewpoint suggests that once a person is in a sexual relationship with another person, she or he should no longer still “need” to masturbate. This idea can serve to limit individuals’ and couples’ sexual expression – and to create problems where there may not be any.

Take the example listed above. When a person wakes to a partner masturbating, she or he may have any number of reactions:

– Shock, particularly if this person does not masturbate and did not know that her or his partner did. – Arousal, wondering whether she or he could join the masturbating partner and do something sexual together. – Disgust, if the person feels that masturbation is wrong, or that masturbating when someone else is in the room is inappropriate or strange. – Dismay, wondering whether the partner is masturbating because she or he is dissatisfied with the couple’s sex life.

Masturbation really should be treated like any other sexual issue where the partners are not necessarily on the same page. It needs to be discussed, and both people’s feelings need to be explored. On the one hand (sorry), masturbation does not necessarily involve another person – so why, the masturbating partner might ask, should she or he have to make any adjustments? Conversely, when people do something that affects their partner, they need to at least stop, reflect on their partner’s feelings, and if possible, consider making some compromises.

If, for example, Jeff is shaking the bed so much that he is waking up his partner, he is being just as inconsiderate as if he were watching a late-night sports game and yelling out loud when his team scored while his partner was trying to sleep. At the same time, however, Jeff’s partner needs to also respect his privacy. But what about the partner? Shouldn’t Jeff be able to go into another room? Perhaps there isn’t another room – or perhaps Jeff doesn’t want to risk getting semen on a piece of furniture in a common area, and so on. Clearly, this involves more than one partner saying, “I want you to do this,” or “I don’t plan to stop doing that.”

From a relationship standpoint, couples should be able to talk openly about masturbation, just as they should be able to talk openly about any other sexuality-related topic. Some concerns that may be shared might include, among others:

– Are you masturbating because you’re not happy with your sex life? – Are there some times when I can join you? – How would you feel if I chose to masturbate at the same time? Or if I chose not to? Or if I needed some private time to do this?

It is best for these discussions to take place during a neutral time, rather than in the moment of discovery or right before or after doing something sexual. Otherwise, the discussion can become too vulnerable. Discussing differences in sexual tastes, behaviors, and comfort levels can be very sensitive. A relationship in which one person cannot understand or support a partner’s masturbation would do well to take their concerns to a couple’s counselor so that the masturbating partner can do what she or he wants without feeling guilty – or making her or his partner feel inadequate, hurt or left out.