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Happy Marriage, Unhappy Sex Life

How to have a conversation about consensual non-monogamy.

Key points

  • For many couples, a sexual disconnect can emerge due to changes in sex drive.
  • In consensual non-monogamy, partners consent to romantic, intimate, and sexual relationships with others.
  • Consensual non-monogamy is not for every couple, but can be healthy for some that are sexually unfulfilled.

"Forever is a long time, and our needs have changed over the years. I love her and want to stay married, but I am unfulfilled sexually–and have been for a long time,” a former client shared.

It wasn't the first time someone had reached out to me for support during a deeply personal relationship crisis. The kind of crisis that ignites a battle that is hard fought from within.

Why wouldn't it?

No one takes vows on their wedding day assuming anything other than our love and commitment will see us through. It would seem an improbable, herculean task to take all the changes we will go through, as human beings, in a year, let alone 20 years, into account on that blessed day.

My former client said,

I’m not the same person I was 22 years ago, and we have grown so far apart in what we want and need in our sex lives. She does not have a strong desire to have sex anymore and I do. I’m still very interested in sex and want to pursue alternatives.

He was not alone in his sexual dissatisfaction with his marriage. The New York Post recently reported on a survey revealing that more than a third of Americans are in sexually unsatisfying relationships. That survey of 1,000 American relationships, the Post reported, found 34 percent of people unable to rate their sex life as “satisfying” or “very satisfying: “One in six (16 percent) say their current spouse or partner rarely or never satisfies them sexually. The study revealed that not having enough orgasms, only trying one or a few sex positions, and a lack of oral play also made the top 10 most common reasons for sexual dissatisfaction. In contrast, for others, lack of cuddling was an issue."

The reasons an unsatisfying sexual connection develops in a relationship can vary from couple to couple. In my 28 years as a therapist, a primary reason I have seen a disconnect emerge in this area is changing sex drive that occurs over time or differences in sex drive that has always existed yet have become more pronounced during the relationship.

A lack of communication about the issue almost always makes matters worse. Whatever we resist is bound to persist.

My client shared that he wanted to explore a deeper conversation about the possibility of having an open marriage, also known as a consensual non-monogamy, but was afraid of his wife’s reaction. He said, “I don’t want to go behind her back and have sex with someone else, and I also can’t see myself living like this indefinitely either.”

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term for relationships in which both partners give explicit consent to engage in romantic, intimate, and/or sexual relationships with other people. These are consensual relationships, not to be confused with infidelity.

My client decided to have a deeper-level conversation with her about his frustrations and strong desire for sexual connection. I provided him with a set of questions to consider and some conversation guidelines to keep in mind before talking to her. What happened next surprised him: She was not angered by the conversation and wanted to explore the subject further. She acknowledged that her needs had changed dramatically over the years and was open to more discussions.

Although consensual non-monogamy is not for every couple, it can be a healthy option for some that are happy together yet unfulfilled sexually and unable to meet one another’s sexual needs. Following are three things to think about when considering a consensual non-monogamous relationship:

  1. Consider your relationship history. If your relationship is filled with a history of conflict, tension, and mistrust, CNM is likely not a healthy option. Opening a conversation about it will likely trigger you and your partner for various reasons.
  2. Be prepared for process work. Discussing CNM can bring up mixed emotions that will need to be processed within the safe space of your relationship. Be prepared for multiple discussions that produce a range of emotions.
  3. Don’t decline detours. Opening a conversation about CNM may take you in a completely different direction together. Don’t be afraid to explore it. One couple shared, “We initially thought it was for us, but we want to pursue some couples counseling for now.”

Having a healthy marriage means creating space to consider each other’s needs within the evolution of life and partnership.

More from Sheila Robinson-Kiss MSW, LCSW
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