We’ve come to assume that the long-term intimate relationship involves physical as well as emotional closeness. However, couples may decide for a variety of reasons that sex is not a key feature of their particular relationship. Over time, some may evolve through a set of phases from passionate to companionate marriage. For other long-term relationships, however, the ties that bind are intrinsically linked to physical expressions of affection. What determines which couples choose the sexless route and which remain sexually active well into their later years?
A recent New York Times interview with family sociologist Denise Donnelly explored the factors that contribute to sexless marriages, incorporating data from the General Social Survey to understand how these relationships come about and what keeps them going. I decided to explore the published literature on the topic and came across a 2008 paper written by Donnelly and fellow sociologist Elizabeth Burgess. This landmark paper identified the complex factors leading up to the sexless marriage and points to ways that couples in these relationships adapt and evolve over time.
The paper by Donnelly and Burgess is based on social exchange theory, a perspective that emphasizes the costs and benefits of remaining in a long-term relationship. Applying this lens to the sexless marriage, the authors looked specifically at the case of “involuntary celibacy” in which partners remain sexless for six months or more. “Sexless” in this case is defined as not having any physically pleasuring sexual activity, not because the couples choose to become celibate, but because circumstances lead to this outcome.
According to social exchange theory, women who would otherwise prefer a relationship involving sex stay in one that does not because they regard the costs of being on their own as higher than the possible rewards of being on their own and free to have sex with someone else. Traditionally, particularly as they get older, women have fewer options to have sexual partners than do men because the older woman is seen as less sexually desirable than her same-age male counterparts. Women may also, traditionally, be more dependent on their husbands for financial support (though this is changing) or at least feel that they couldn’t raise their children alone.
Adding to this basic formula are the investments that couples make in relationships in terms of the time and effort they put into their marriage. The more they invest in their marriage, the greater the likelihood they’ll stay in it. In terms of sexuality, social prescriptions also play a role. These include the social norms that committed couples remain sexually exclusive backed up by the legal norms that make it difficult for couples to end their relationship when it becomes less than satisfying.
With this backdrop, let’s examine the reasons that couples choose celibacy in their committed relationships:
- The passage of time. The longer a relationship endures, the greater the chances that the couple’s sexual fires will diminish. Even so, many older adults do remain sexually active. For aging women, the issue may be not only one of time changing the nature of the relationship but the fact that their partners are no longer alive or are in poor health.
- Stressors in the relationship. Even relatively young couples can become voluntarily celibate if they are facing enough outside pressures. Late in a woman’s pregnancy, the couple may decide to cease having sex, and even after the baby is born, she and/or her partner may simply not have the energy to engage in sexual activity. Eventually, most couples do become sexually active again after six months, but they may then run into other competing demands on their emotional energy.
- Illness in one or both partners. The development of chronic physical or mental illness isn’t necessarily the deal-killer when it comes to sex, but it may significantly interfere with one or both partner’s libido. It may be fairly obvious how physical illness can become a limiting factor, but as Donnelly and Burgess point out, people with psychological disorders may lose sexual interest as a result of medication or self-doubts associated with stigma. Declines in sexual activity can also contribute to mental health problems, particularly if one or both partners feel that they are less attractive and desirable than they once were.
- Guilt or conflict. Certainly, many people with strong religious convictions continue to enjoy a satisfying sex life, particularly if their religion places a high value on propagation. However, a lifetime of being exposed to religious teachings that place proscriptions on oral sex and masturbation may leak over and hamper the expression of sexual activity within even the marriage.
What happens when couples find themselves having slipped, for any of these reasons (or others) into celibacy? Is their relationship doomed? According to Donnelly and Burgess, the impact of involuntary sexlessness depends in part on a person’s reference group. Going back to the social exchange perspective, if they see their own celibacy as not that different from that of others in their own normative group (based on age, gender, illness status, religiosity) then entirely negative outcomes may be mitigated. In general, sexual activity is positively linked to relationship satisfaction, but there are still couples who don’t fit this pattern. They can maintain high relationship quality because their view of their relationship has shifted to define the sexless life as normative.
On the other hand, if a couple is celibate because their sexual relationship was unsatisfying or unfulfilling, then it stands to reason that they will experience high levels of sexual dissatisfaction. They may also start to stray from the marriage and seek sexual gratification in an extramarital affair, which may exact a high emotional toll both on the cheater and the cheated-upon.
Despite these potentially negative consequences, couples do decide to remain in the relationship rather than leave their partner. From the exchange theory perspective, they feel they’ve already invested so much time and energy into the relationship that it would take a great deal to tear them apart. They may also value the shared affection they experience in non-sexual ways, what Donnelly and Burgess call “we-ness.” The social supports of remaining together as a couple, if not a family, also keep the sexless couple together. Emotionally, a couple may remain together in a sexless marriage because their partner is their best friend or their “ideal” partner.
In examining the data from a sample of 77 couples, Donnelly and Burgess identified a handful of basic strategies. About one-third gave up and stopped asking their partner. Others sought sexual gratification outside the marriage. For the majority, investing their energy in other things (work, school, hobbies) provided the greatest emotional relief. Some redefined the stress of their relationship as a challenge of their coping abilities and sought spiritual or self-growth. For another third of the sample, though, marriage or sexual counseling was the preferred route—though, by definition, this intervention was ineffective for the current sample.
Sifting through the information provided by this unique study, it appears that one of the key factors is perceiving that the rewards of being together with your partner outweigh the costs of leaving. Love, shared values, mutual goals, and experiences are the glue that can keep a sexless relationship going. Coping with a sexless relationship may involve a variety of strategies, then, whether or not that relationship occurs within the context of marriage. If you’re in a relationship in which you are celibate due to circumstances outside of your control, if you’re like the majority of people in this study, you find ways to cope.
Knowing that you’re not alone may be the greatest solace in coping with a sexless relationship. Social norms may make you feel like an oddity and the distress you experience may be very real. It’s possible that, like some of the least happy in the Donnelly and Burgess study, you decide to leave the relationship. Even though it may be difficult, however, it is possible to find ways to work through its challenges.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014.
Donnelly, D. A., & Burgess, E. O. (2008). The decision to remain in an involuntarily celibate relationship. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 70(2), 519-535. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00498.