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Pamela Madsen


Love and the Little or No Sex Marriage

"We knew exactly what was going to happen every time we had sex."

The issues of sexual desire, unmet erotic needs, mismatched libidos, and the ravages of time in a long-term relationship or marriage are among the most common rants of the sex unhappy. I have been a sex unhappy wife. I had the guts to do something about it, managed to stay married (31 years this summer), and my husband and I told the tale to Elizabeth Bernstein, a relationship reporter at The Wall Street Journal (“Questions You Are Too Shy to Ask”).

Couples can become sex unhappy for so many reasons. The most common reason? The lack of sex is number one. And there are so many causes for that. We have mismatched time clocks, work pressures, kids or our desire for kids, our sexual tastes can change over time including what turns us on, and married sex can fall into a boring routine. As my husband so clearly said in the WSJ article: "We knew exactly what was going to happen every time we had sex."

And then there is self-image; many men get concerned about their erections as they get older, and many women get sexually shut down by their relationship with their own bodies. One thing is for sure, the sex unhappy marriage is a painful place to hang out.

As a sex unhappy survivor, I think it's important to understand that it is normal for sexual desire to wane a bit in a long-term marriage. I don't think people are always honest when they participate in surveys about how often they have sex and that creates a feeling that “something must be wrong with us”. I wonder how hard the reporter at the Wall Street Journal had to look to find a couple to talk about being sex unhappy in marriage? I bet it was a short list of possible people to interview. People don't want other people to know what is going on in their bedrooms. It's scary. They worry about being judged, or that their marriage is somehow broken.

There is a lot more to marriage than sex—but that sex is still an important part of marriage. The fact is, my husband and I have a beautiful marriage. We are life partners. And we don't have sex twice a week. Sometimes a month goes by. It's true. But that doesn't mean that we are not physically affectionate with each other every single day. We hug, hold hands, kiss, cuddle, and sleep spooning around each other's bodies.

We communicate openly about our desires, even the parts of our sexual desires that simply don't match up. We have figured out a solution to make room in our marriage for all of it in a way that works for us. I am no longer a sexually unhappy wife, and I have my husband to thank for that. A part of that is not what he gives me directly—but how he allows me to be in the world.

We talk a lot about sex—but rarely to the person that we are having sex with. Having the sex talk, especially if you are unhappy, is probably the most vulnerable conversation a couple can have. Often we feel shut down around the sex conversation because we worry that our partner won't accept our true desires, or worse, that they will judge us. It requires an ability to be really vulnerable with your partner, and there is no book that can really teach you how to do that.

Sometimes you just have to lean into your fear and do it. I did it. And trust me, my little adventure into becoming sexually whole is not an ordinary one. Still, the world didn't fall apart. My husband didn't leave me. There was a little drama and a few tears, and the conversation about our sex life is ongoing. You can have a sex happy marriage even in a long term one. It takes a lot of vulnerability, many conversations, and an understanding that sex is like our economy. It has its ups and downs—but that doesn't mean you can't be in it for a very happy and fulfilling lifetime.


About the Author

Pamela Madsen is the author of Shameless and founder of The American Fertility Association.