Sex or sleep? The. Struggle. Is. So. Real.

By Susan Brickell
Updated May 10, 2018
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So you've finally crawled into bed at night after a full and stressful day. You're crazy exhausted, but before you can shut your eyes and drift off, you have one more decision to make: have sex, or go straight to sleep? Craving the intimacy and connection, you decide on the former—but with as little movement and action as possible.

Welcome to starfishing: when you're so tired before bedtime you flop back, unfold your limbs, and let sex just sort of happen. You're present and enjoying it, you tell yourself, and your partner seems to be into it too. But it's sex so lazy, you turn yourself into a mushy invertebrate to avoid any kind of exertion.

In a perfect world, you two would be twisting the sheets passionately for hours. But when you have zero energy yet don't want to nod off without some kind of sexual contact, is it bad to starfish—and is it a red flag to deeper issues? We talked to psychologists and sex therapists for their take. We discovered that starfishing is very controversial.

The upside of occasional starfishing

If on a particular night the choice is to starfish or not have sex at all, some experts throw their support behind starfishing. Bare skin and playful touches tend to make you feel sexy, they say, so a starfishing session could quickly morph into real bumping and grinding with oomph and excitement.

“Once you start having sex, it can get the juices and hormones flowing again, and that can lead to increased sexual desire,” Terri Orbuch, PhD, author of5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great, tells Health. By using starfishing as a launching point, your libido will wake up and rise, giving you the energy for a much more satisfying bed session.

Starfishing also signals to your partner that you know intimacy is important, and you don't want to waste the chance to acknowledge your desire for each other—even though you're not feeling it at the moment, says LA-based sex therapist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine Kimberly Resnick Anderson. Starfishing works in certain situations to “provide a healthy outlet as an alternative when energy/vitality is low,” she tells Health.

Being a starfish may mask a deeper problem

On the other hand, some experts believe starfishing is always a terrible idea. Passive sex can make your partner feel alienated, undesired, or even rejected and leave them questioning the relationship. It’s hard to enjoy sex when you’re getting a message like “hurry up and finish, so I can sleep,” Brandy Engler, PsyD, an LA-based therapist and author of The Men on my Couch, tells Health.

By starfishing, you're not doing your relationship, or your partner, any favors. “Once a woman stops bringing energy and enthusiasm to the bedroom, it can quickly become a baseline rather than a rarity,” explains Anderson. Enthusiasm is very sexy, and your partner won't get much out of sex when you're not showing any.

Dr. Engler points out that starfishing can signal that one partner has actually lost attraction for the other yet still wants to be with that person. “This sets up a dilemma—your body doesn't want him. Yes, you can make your body function—orgasm is ultimately a reflex. But you may want to take a closer look at your disappointments with him and work that out directly," she says.

When you starfish, you miss the thrill and satisfaction of arousing your partner, which is such a big part of sex, says Deborah Fox, a certified sex therapist in Washington, DC. Fox believes that starfishing is a Band-Aid for a larger problem, like a medical issue causing constant fatigue, a conflict in the relationship, or sexual rut that can be lifted by being more creative. She urges clients who starfish to find out why they're not making sex a priority.

How to get out of a starfishing rut

If you're not starfishing to deal with a larger relationship dilemma—and you're being honest with yourself about that—then follow these tips from the pros to help you escape the habit and start having the kind of sex you enjoy and will look forward to.

New York-based certified sex therapist Sari Cooper, founder and director of the Center for Love and Sex, recommends first seeing a doctor to rule out any physical reasons you're so exhausted, like thyroid dysfunction or depression. If you get the all-clear, try to score more sleep, which will restore your sex drive.

Although scheduling sex sounds, well, unsexy, Cooper gives it her stamp of approval—considering how hard it can be to carve out time for an impromptu session when work and family occupy almost every moment of your day. Agreeing on a time and place for sex will build experience anticipation. It gives you time to prepare your body and mind, which can include some sexy daydreaming as well as an energizing nap, says Cooper.

And if you're just to dragged or stressed to really participate, it's important to let your partner know. Says Engler: "If the tired partner were to communicate, 'I'm super tired but I want us to be connected, can we just lay down and make each other feel good?' then this is an agreement to have some lazy sex, and the other partner doesn't have to feel like their relationship has lost all its heat."

Finally, if you do think something else is going on with your relationship and starfishing is just a temporary way to deal, talk to your partner, and consider reaching out for help navigating the situation. "Too many people find themselves being unable to communicate in a way that they feel may end up hurting their partner, so they just stay quiet and wait for things to improve,” says Florida-based sex therapist Lawrence Siegel. He advises working with a sex therapist, which may help to resolve issues and reconnect you with your partner in a much sexier way.