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In a Sexless Marriage, Who’s to Blame?

Engaging in sex is a choice, and it’s not biology alone that influences you.

Key points

  • Millions of people worldwide are in sexless marriages.
  • Men and women with sex problems in their relationship report similar issues, mostly related to sexual desire.
  • Sexless marriages are not a single person's fault; rather, couple dynamics are often to blame.

One of my favorite psychology concepts involves American President Calvin Coolidge. The story goes that his wife was visiting a farm one day and saw a rooster mating with vigor. She urged the farmer to tell her husband about it, to which President Coolidge is rumored to have replied, “Same hen each time?”

The term “Coolidge effect” has been used henceforth to describe renewed sexual interest in a novel partner after sex with an existing partner. This effect, studied mostly in males but also relevant to female sexuality, is attributed to the effects of novelty on the dopamine-rich mesolimbic pathway, our so-called reward pathway. When we have a pleasurable experience, dopamine travels within neurons along this pathway, triggering positive feelings. Novelty activates the pathway, but so do things like chocolate and cocaine.

And sex. That’s right: The same part of the brain that lights up when someone takes cocaine is activated after copulation. Considering this, it might be surprising that sexless marriages occur. If sex lights up so many positive parts of the brain, why do they happen in the first place?

The sexless marriage

Although it’s not a topic people tend to discuss openly, many people worldwide are in sexless or nearly sexless marriages. Research estimates that about 15 percent of men and women report no or little sex with their partner in the past month and in the past year. Digital behavior markers support this claim. A TEDx talk titled “No-Sex Marriage” has 30 million views. The phrase “sexless marriage” returns 11.6 million Google hits. And Google Trends shows that “sexless marriage” has been searched pretty consistently since 2004, with the top related query being “sexless marriage divorce.”

All of this to say, if you’re currently in a sexless marriage, you’re not alone. And if you think that’s a problem, you’re also not alone. But when sex dies down in a relationship, who’s to blame? The popular myth is that women refuse men’s sexual advances. But the answer is not so straightforward, and the explanation has roots in both biology and psychology.

The biology and psychology of sexlessness

Here, President Coolidge’s question might give some insight. Over time, as someone habituates to their sexual partner, more stimulus may be necessary to get the same reaction. The novelty of our partner subsides; in this way, familiarity may be the enemy of desire and time the culprit of sexlessness.

If we accept this as true, then sexual desire among couples should go down over time, and men and women should experience similar peaks and troughs—but the data tells a different story. The first part of this statement has some support: A study involving mostly married adults in middle and old age found that over the course of a decade, interest in and quality of sex diminished, and sexual frequency went down from 2.53 to 1.8 times every six months. But this same study showed that women’s interest in sex declined more than men’s. The same trend is found among newlyweds: In one study of mixed-sex couples, women’s sexual desire for their husband went down about 10 percent over five years, but men’s desire for their wife remained the same.

Sexual desire discrepancies

These differences between men and women in sexual desire—sexual desire discrepancy—might lead you to believe that sexless marriages have a biological basis. Attributable at least somewhat to greater levels of testosterone, men are less likely than women to report distressingly low sex drives (15 percent versus 30 percent, respectively), and a review of the literature finds that men have more intense sexual desires, want more sex, and have more sexual fantasies than women. More women than men also report sexual dysfunction (43 percent versus 31 percent, respectively). This may be one reason why women are depicted as sexual gatekeepers in heterosexual relationships.

But this gatekeeper role for women doesn’t play out in real life. Men may initiate sex more frequently, but there are actually no differences between men and women in how often they refuse sex. Moreover, when long-term couples have sexual problems, men and women are equally likely to cite the same issues, ranging from sexual initiation to amount of foreplay. In other words, a sexless marriage cannot be attributed to men’s versus women’s biology alone.

This may be why the European Society for Sexual Medicine’s 2020 position statement is unequivocal: Although sexual desire has biological underpinnings, the initiation of sex and responses to sexual overtures have little to do with individuals and have much more to do with couple dynamics. Furthermore, when we categorize one person in a couple as having a low sex drive, we are ignoring the gamut of interactions that might be affecting their interest in sex. Consider, for example, how much—or how little—you’re attracted to your partner when you’re in an argument or are focusing on work or a child-rearing issue. Psychological distractions can make us turn away from romance and toward other issues occupying our headspace.

How to tackle a sexless marriage

Getting into someone’s headspace may be the key to unlocking the solution to a sexless marriage. You don’t need to change someone’s biology or even their sexual desire. Whether you’re old or young, man or woman, engaging in sex is a choice, and it’s not biology alone that determines your decision. In this sense, couple dynamics are likely both the cause and solution to the problem.

Want more physical intimacy? Communication is key. Research tells us that people don’t like being forced to do something they don’t want to do, so undue pressure on your partner to change the frequency of sex might actually work against you.

Instead, express your desire for closeness with them, and try exploring other types of non-sexual intimacy. Foot rubs, cuddling, holding hands on the couch while watching a movie—these no-strings-attached intimate moments might help bring couples closer to sexual intimacy, or at least conversations about it. And if those non-sexual acts don’t get you where you want to be, it might be time to seek couple’s therapy.

In short, when someone isn’t choosing sex, it’s not a single person’s fault, and it’s not about male or female biology or sex drive. People in sexless relationships don’t have to just deal with it or find another sexual partner. Luckily, we have more options than your average rooster.


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