Sex & Sociability

Question and commentary on connections, both sexual and social

Sexless Relationships

A sexless relationship can be painful but not necessarily hopeless.

When there is no sex within a marriage or a romantic relationship the couple will sometimes consult me together, but most often it is just one of them. You might think it would always be the dissatisfied partner but it can be the one who is refusing sex too. I always ask what reasons they give themselves or their mate for their refusal. What follows are a few I have heard more than once.

1. “I’m just not interested in sex any more.” Man or woman, I ask first about hormonal issues. Menopause or childbirth can cause a woman to lose her libido, but it isn’t necessarily so. Men may have a lower than normal testosterone for a number of reasons. In any case, we look first for a physical cause which can often be improved upon. Then we look into relationship issues. Is it really a loss of interest in sex itself (does he/she masturbate or fantasize, for instance) or is it a loss of interest in the partner?

2. “My partner no longer turns me on.” This is a more difficult situation but not impossible. The complainer usually gives a “reason” such as the partner’s weight gain or unwillingness to engage in the type of sex s/he prefers. There are two opposing schools of thoughts about this situation. One is that a person can learn to love the partner again by focusing on what is loveable about him or her, what originally turned them on, or what might be changed that might reawaken love and desire. The other school of thought is that “when you’re hot you’re hot and when you’re not you’re not” and nothing can change that. As a therapist I am of the opinion that one might learn to love and desire a long term partner in some way and it’s certainly worth a try, especially when there are children in the relationship.

3. “We’re too old for sex” or “I can’t have intercourse any longer.” Mistaken beliefs such as an age cut off for sexual activity or that sex depends on erections and naturally lubricated vaginas eliminates much joy from an individual’s life. All humans are sexual creatures and sexual expression takes many forms. Hearing this from a figure of authority like a physician or a marriage counselor can often make the difference.

4. “We’ve just fallen out of the habit”. This happens more often than you might think. Some event like illness or a new baby will interrupt the couple’s normal sexual schedule, supposedly temporarily, but sexual relations just don’t resume. The one who usually initiates stops doing so maybe because of frequent rejection, and the other, who certainly could initiate when ready, doesn’t. The sexual drought continues and, quite commonly, nobody brings the topic up until it becomes critical to one or the other. This situation can last for years.

5. "I’m in love with/infatuated with someone else.” This does not necessarily preclude sex with one’s regular partner. Many people have loved more than one person simultaneously. If one person in a couple has his or her erotic affections entirely focused elsewhere then some hard decisions have to be made. Might this be a passing fancy? Is this an intolerable betrayal? What do I or my partner want to do about this?

I have counseled individuals and couples in both roles in the above situations – some with mutually acceptable outcomes, in some cases not. Every coupled relationship is different and contains individuals with varying degrees of commitment and flexibility. More couples than most people would imagine live happy lives with no sex between them or with sex outside the committed relationship. However, if one person is unhappy with the situation of “no sex between us” the other person has only the following options:

1. Urge the partner to come into counseling or go alone. There may be a possible course of action s/he did not think of.

2.She or he can accept the situation and enjoy what satisfaction the relationship does provide.

3.The unhappy one can force the issue by issuing an ultimatum. Going into couples counseling can be part of that challenge.

4. The sexually frustrated one can go outside the relationship openly or tacitly.

5. After all of the above and after weighing all options he or she can leave the relationship.

It’s sad when a once loving couple no longer express that love sexually. However, people and situations change and must be accommodated in some way. A celibate relationship can still be satisfying or it can be intolerable to one or both. There comes a time to make that decision and choose.

Isadora AlmanM.F.T., is a Board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist, lecturer, author, and syndicated advice columnist of "Ask Isadora."

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