Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Your libidos don’t match. Your sex life is non-existent. Your spouse is preoccupied with porn, or with someone other than you. There’s an affair. Whatever the specifics, when you and your partner need different things in the intimacy department, one of the most pleasurable aspects of a relationship—sex—can become one of the most painful.

I’m not a researcher. But based on responses to posts my The New I Do co-author, Vicki Larson, and I have gotten, it seems that the subject of sexlessness in marriage strikes a painful chord for many. (See "Why is Sex in Marriage Such a Big Deal?" and “Sexless Marriage or Cheating Spouse—What’s Worse?”)

Responses from men have included:

  • “[Anyone] who knows both of us thinks we’re a normal married couple because this is something that you hide from people like you are living a lie. Basically my life for the last 20 years is a lie. I might be married on paper but not in reality.”
  • “[The] baby was born healthy beautiful and all was well…she was 41 and I was 37... That was the end of our regular sex life.”
  • “When I try [to initiate sex], she pushes me away, making that go-to excuse ‘I have a headache’ or ‘I’m tired.' So I’m lucky if I get it once a month.”

And then there’s this, from “Sad in PA":

  • “Well, I ended up in an affair and caught, too. Unfortunately it seems this is headed to divorce. Even though I want to fix the mess. All I wanted was to give my [loving] to MY WIFE.”

There is no shortage of men feeling rejection from their wives, but at least as many women feel spurned by their husbands. In fact, most of the responses to Vicki’s article were from wives who wanted more sex:

  • “I’d like sex 3 times a week, but I’d kill for twice a month.”
  • “It is awful. You go through a daily barrage of emotions that you feel are strangling the life out of you. You feel neglected, ignored, dismissed, alone, frustrated, tempted, beaten down emotionally, you feel like roommates instead of spouses. Then you see their wandering eye. Another slap in the face.”
  • “I’m 33 and my husband is 32. We haven’t had sex in over a year. I’m desperate for human contact. I initiate it all the time and am turned down. Otherwise we have a great relationship. Kiss, hug, laugh. I’ve told him many times I want sex he says, ‘[yeah], we need to work in that,’ but it never goes anywhere. Now I’m fantasizing about our male friends. So horrible.”

Recently, a man named "Ben" responded to my post with:

  • “Withholding sex seems to be incredibly common, according to my research from both men and women. I’m more and more convinced that a long-term monogamous relationship just isn’t possible. I mean, how can it be really? Just because society somehow wants it to be like that, it clearly doesn’t work for most couples."

Can the Past Predict Our Future?

Marriage in the Western world has only been based on love for about the past couple of hundred years. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the primary purpose of marriage was to procreate (legitimately) and to fulfill financial, political, or social expectations. Monogamy probably wasn’t as important to these married couples because they joined families based on a purpose, rather than an emotion.

While social scientists continue to search for answers to what’s “natural” for us, and how we operate best in relationships, marriage and relationships continue to change, and rapidly.

Because of technological advances, we no longer need marriage—or even coupling—to survive. We base the impetus for so many of our actions today much more on what will bring us happiness and fulfillment. (This relates not only to if and how we partner, but also where we live and work.) If marriage doesn’t fulfill us, why marry? This is the question many Millennials are asking—and likely a big factor in our declining marriage rates.) Is it time to revisit purpose-driven marriage, such as a "parenting marriage," in order to raise kids together, or even a "safety marriage" to build financial resources together?

What’s the Real Issue?

What seems obvious to me is that, while we say affairs are not supposed to happen, they do—a lot. With so many unfulfilled sex lives out there, and so much cheating going on, it begs the questions: Is monogamy outdated? Could marriages that are otherwise good and healthy actually find hope in becoming open? Could those with a higher sex drive have permission to have sex outside the marriage from the less-sexual spouse?

Esther Perel, noted therapist and author of Mating in Captivityoffers an important observation that monogamy and love don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other—and that it’s not always unhappily married people who cheat. Happy people cheat, too, she finds. Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Today, we define monogamy as one person at a time. We used to have to seek love in adultery but now, because we have love in marriage, adultery can destroy the marriage.

Infidelity has probably always been painful, but today, Perel says, it’s traumatic because it threatens our sense of self:

“Romantic ideal makes us rely on our partner’s fidelity with unique fervor but we are never more inclined to stray because we are more entitled than ever to be happy.”

Perhaps the real problem is that we keep trying to make blanket rules for every couple but, because each couple has its own unique needs, any rules of social order are set up to fail.

What would happen if we left it up to each individual couple to have open, honest conversations about whether they want to open their marriage, and if so, just how open they’d like it to be? Would all Hell break lose?

There’s no question that sex and monogamy are tough subjects to bring up, that there are taboos against non-monogamy, and that some spouses just don’t want to go there. But if couples don’t have important conversations about exclusivity and expectations about fidelity, the door to greater fallout remains open.

Like most challenges we face in life, avoiding the topic or wishing things could be different doesn’t make problems go away.

What are your thoughts? Should we have more options than simply staying in an unhappy marriage or divorcing? 

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