Contemplating Divorce

Whether you should stay or go

Can Couples Be Sexless and Happy?

An exploration of none-ogamy in America.

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Being held hostage in a sexless marriage is, to some, nothing short of torture. Sex is not only physically pleasurable; it is also an avenue for intimacy and emotional—and sometimes, mental and spiritual—connection. It is a stress reliever when a relationships is strong, but it can be the cause of tremendous stress when a relationship is not.

In some places around the world, a wife doesn't have the legal right to refuse sex to her husband. For married couples in the United States, failure to have sex with a spouse who wants affection is considered desertion and can still be valid grounds for divorce in states where fault is assigned to one party or the other. (All states have no-fault status, but some continue to include fault status as well. While "fault" doesn't impact financial or child custody agreements, it can be used to expedite divorce proceedings. Learn more here.)

In a 2009 New York Times piece, "When Sex Leaves the Marriage," Tara Parker Pope interviewed Denise Donnelly, a sociology researcher who has devoted much of her career to studying these oxymoronic unions. Donnelly identified childbirth and affairs as the two leading causes of the cessation of sex between a husband and wife:

  • Stopping sex for a time after giving birth is not only common, it is understandable. Along with taking its toll on a woman's body, bringing a new, highly dependent person into a family can cause everyone to redefine their priorities, given the limits on resources like time, energy, and money. Most primary caretakers would agree that giving to a newborn all day long without much of a break pushes sex to bottom of the "to do" list. 
  • As for affairs, those that occur in response to a sexless marriage seem more understandable than those that occur in marriages where there is still passion and romance. Nonetheless, affairs can occur regardless of whether there is loving happening at home or not. Having reservations about jumping back into sex with a partner who has strayed is common—certainly there are cases in which a betrayed spouse simply cannot overcome the hurt feelings, fear of inadequacy, and lack of trust.

There are other causes that lead one or both spouses to lose the desire to be physically intimate with their mate. Hurt feelings that never healed may turn into resentment, and not having sex may be a way to "get back at" or feel a sense of power over the other. Working too hard at a new job may drain a person of his or her energy to the point where there is no interest in sexual connection.

Whatever the reason, the end result is the same—zero sex.

When couples find themselves in this spot, the choices are limited—couples therapy; suffering in silence; an extramarital affair; or divorce. More couples may be choosing open marriages, in which the spouses agree that being sexual with someone outside the marriage is okay. In her book, Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, Pamela Haag reports that "ethical non-monogamy" is practiced in as many as 21 percent of marriages, and postulates that the numbers of couples choosing this option would be even higher if it were as socially acceptable as divorce.

Today, divorce is a far more accepted option than having multiple sex partners. But for those who get along reasonably well, or are co-parenting young children, or who want to stay together for financial reasons, an open marriage may be a compromise.

As New York University professor Judith Stacey, the author of Unhitched, sees it, fidelity is more a function of honesty rather than strictly of sexual exclusivity. She believes that authenticity and respect are much more important qualities in a healthy marriage than sex.

What do you think?

Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W., is the author of Contemplating Divorce and Stronger Day by Day.

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