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What Really Goes on in Sexless Marriages

Fixing it starts by simply talking about it.

Key points

  • Sexless marriages suffer the loss of intimacy due to a loss of sharing and being known.
  • It is often the very bond between partners that make the stakes of revealing issues too high.
  • Many issues conspire to steal the sexual bond of partners: anger, distractions, fear of dysfunction, and more

Sexless marriages involve a loss that remains unspoken and, frequently, unaddressed.

When sexual connection and mutual intimacy stop between spouses, they often stay together trapped in feelings of rejection, loss, anger, and resignation. The real trap is the silence—the inability to speak about the lack of sexual connection which leaves a couple sexless by default.

Silent and Sexless

Over many years of working with couples, it is clear that it is not easy for most to speak about sex much less a lack of sex.

  • I worry something is wrong with me. What do I say?
  • I figure she is having an affair. Do I want to know?
  • Masturbating to porn has become easier. I can’t say anything.
  • Living like this is too lonely.

Stephen Mitchell, in his book, Can Love Last, maintains that it is the very bond between partners that raises the stakes and makes it risky to reveal need, desire, disinterest, or dysfunction.

Sexless by the Numbers

It is likely that the reticence about sexlessness contributes to the limited data and research on sexless marriages. What we know, however, tells us that couples who have lost their sexual connection are not alone.

In a study examining the decision to remain in an “Involuntary Celibate Relationship,” Diane Donnelly and Elizabeth Burgess (2008) found that 16 percent of married persons reported not having sex in the month prior to being studied.

A 2014 Relationships in America survey revealed that 12 percent of all married persons aged 18 to 60 reported not having had sex for at least three months prior to participating in the survey.

What the Numbers Don’t Say

Partners who are sexless may or may not fit the frequently offered definition of a “sexless” marriage as having sex less than once a month or less than 10 times a year. But the issue is not the numbers; it is the loss of intimacy, desire, and the inability to address it together to recapture it. What compounds the situation for many is that silence (often meant to protect) is often misinterpreted in a negative way:

  • He is worried about performance so he makes no overtures and starts watching porn. She feels rejected and angry but says nothing.
  • She fears that she has lost sexual desire and avoids responding to intimacy by going to bed earlier or later. He feels rejected and resentful.
  • He wants to say something about her never dressing up anymore. She wishes he would shave the way he used to. Neither says anything.
  • He knows he is depressed but hears that anti-depressive medication may impact sexual functioning.
  • She can’t get past a flirtation he had years ago. It keeps her unavailable.
  • Both are really satisfied with more affection and less actual intercourse, but neither says anything, anticipating criticism from the other. Their mutuality goes unrecognized.
A sad couple not loving each other using a smartphone in bed
Source: tampara/iStocks

Presumption, Projection, and Protection

One of the reasons that we can’t find the words to discuss sexual intimacy is that the stakes around intimacy feel too high. As therapist and author Winifred Reilly describes it, “Intimacy comes about when one person makes a move to be closer to another, with no guarantee as to whether that move will be reciprocated.”

Accordingly, regardless of the status of the relationship, it is easier for many couples to just have sex, or, in many cases, refuse sex, than to speak about it.

Partners often don’t want to embarrass, hurt, or create tension so they don’t mention that the old robe is a turn-off, the sexual routine isn’t working, groping is not an appealing invitation, the lack of compliments is deafening, or they are too depressed to be sexual.

In many cases, self-consciousness, as well as shame, make it difficult for partners to share physical sexual problems such as pain for women or erectile dysfunction for men.

Life Gets in the Way of Sex

Somewhere in the mix of jobs, kids, in-laws, pregnancy, illness, and relocations, it is easy for partners to “lose that loving feeling.” Esther Perel captured it in the title of her book, Mating in Captivity. Under these demands, a couple can give up and lose hold of their sexual bond or redefine sexual connection in terms of notes, gestures, kisses, a quick hug, eye messages that say, “I love you, I miss you,” or texts that say, “It’s a conspiracy—the world is keeping us from hooking up."

If a couple can’t see the value in adjusting their sexual connection, to make clear in some way that they still desire each other, they may assume the worst and lose what they have.

What Research Offers

In their book, Why Men Stop Having Sex, psychologist Bob Berkowitz and his wife, Susan Berkowitz, report on their survey of 4,000 respondents (33 percent males, 67 percent females), which focused on people who self-identified as men who had stopped having sex with their wives and women whose husbands had stopped having sex with them. Both male amd female respondents were given a list of 22 possible reasons for the man’s not having sex or the woman’s assumption of why her husband had stopped having sex with her.

The first reason chosen by 68 percent of the men was, “She isn’t sexually adventurous enough for me.” The first reason chosen by 66 percent of the women was, “He lost interest and I don’t know why.” Even as expressed by men and women who are not couples, the failure “to know and be known” is clear.

Another finding from the survey is that within the top five reasons given by men for not being sexual, and for women's thinking their spouses were no longer sexual, was anger. Anger is a common aspect of sexless marriages. It is often a wall that disqualifies conversation and connection. As such, it is important to underscore that anger is almost always a secondary feeling used to cover other feelings like fear, vulnerability, shame, guilt, depression, self-doubt, grief, etc., which often remain unrecognized by both partners.

There is no question that pornography has and will always be there. In the Berkowitz survey, 25 percent of the men who had stopped having sex chose as a reason "a preference for watching porn and masturbating." Of the women whose husbands had stopped having sex, 27 percent chose the same reason. Justin Lehmiller, the author of Tell Me What You Want, tells us that the problem is not porn, it is the misuse of porn as a substitute for sexual relating. He underscores the need for partners to understand their own and their partner’s desires and to learn better sexual communication skills. Turning from a partner to porn is not an answer.

If you are in a sexless marriage, you are not alone and not without options. Stephen Mitchel, in his book, Can Love Last? reminds us, “Romance in relationships is a sandcastle for two." Everyone is faced with the challenge of working together to keep romance going and to rebuild when it gets washed out, which is likely.

Start rebuilding in a way that puts you side-by-side. Invite your partner for a 10-minute walk on a regular basis; plan a regular coffee break in a quiet place, or start picking and playing music from your early days when you are doing a chore or driving together.

When your partner asks, "Why should we do this?" consider responding, "Because we are here and I love you.” Or, “Because we are together and you matter to me.” Or, “Because we deserve this.”

As you go, you will know what fits and what may be a sexual risk worth taking. If your partner asks you why you are talking about sex or old memories, acknowledge that you want to speak about the intimacy between both of you but you are not sure how. If you get little or no response or even a dismissal, and you still love this partner, take a breath, believe in yourself, and proceed with confidence.

Hang in there. Model what you want: the compliment, the note, the hug, small intimate steps. The overture may be hard to ignore. It may give you and your partner something to talk about.

“Love is a choice, not a matter of destiny. It is a choice renewed each day.” —Francis Alfar

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