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Why Couples Avoid Sex

It's not always just about the sex.

Key points

  • Couples who avoid sex are common clients in sex therapy.
  • Avoiding sex may or may not be about the sex itself.
  • Avoiding sex can frequently be about deeper emotional issues.

One of the more common problems a couple has who seek out a sex therapist like myself is what is clinically referred to as a "low-sex" or "no-sex" marriage. My colleague Barry McCarthy defines a low sex marriage as having sex less than 10 times a year.

What I see commonly happen in sessions is that many partners take this situation personally. They also tend to assume a lot.

“My partner doesn’t find me attractive anymore,” they'll say. Or, “My partner doesn’t love me anymore,” or even, “My partner is having an affair.”

Believing these assumptions and projections only brings up feelings of insecurity and inadequacy and puts both partners on the defensive. This is not helpful and, more importantly, not sexy. Let me tell you how us sex therapists understand what may be going on.

First, it almost goes without saying that a thorough assessment needs to take place. How is each partner’s physical and emotional health? What stressors are the individuals and relationship dealing with? How is the relationship’s health and stability? Tell me about dynamics related to power and control and decision-making. Are there resentments or unhealed hurts? What’s unspoken?

It is pretty common for sex to be more frequent, varied, and exciting in the early stages of a relationship. As I have written about before, at that age and stage of life the relationship lends itself to more passion. And when you are under the influence of said passion, you make life-altering decisions, like to marry. All of this feels and seems so exciting…and, well, it is. What you need to know is that it is impossible for that feeling to last forever.

So then the happy couple gets started in life together. Maybe one or both pursue career ambitions. Maybe they buy a home and now have the financial responsibility of a mortgage for the first time. Maybe they decide to have a child or children. Maybe they are also taking care of ailing parents. Maybe sex drops down a few notches on the list of priorities for one or both partners. All of this sets the stage for that sexual passion you felt at the beginning to run for the hills and for opportunities of miscommunication, hurt feelings, and projections to creep in. With all of this happening, often concurrently, no doubt feelings of anger, resentment, and disappointment build up.

So, when a couple comes to see me at this point in their relationship, I low-key smile on the inside. Why? Because it was inevitable that you would be here. In fact, Ellyn Bader, one of the founders of couples therapy, has created a whole type of treatment that expressly addresses the stages of a long-term relationship. So, welcome. You are right where you should be.

Now, let’s get to work and help you grow through this pain.

One way to conceptualize the low-sex/no-sex marriage is that one or both partners are in a pattern of avoidance. “Well of course, Diane, they’re avoiding sex: duh!” Well yes, that's the external observation. But I would argue they are avoiding something internally. And once you understand this, you can generally—and quickly—recognize that the avoidance is legitimate and makes sense.

For example, one or both partners may be avoiding sex as a round-about way of avoiding feeling sexually inadequate, especially if they lost their erection and/or felt their partner criticized some aspect of their sexuality in the past. Or, they may be avoiding sexual pain—it’s estimated that as many as 75 percent of women will experience pain during sex at some point, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

So she may be avoiding sex in order to avoid unwanted physical pain, and together the couple may be colluding to avoid sex because he tells himself “I don’t want to hurt her” (once again, taking it personally) and they don’t know how to navigate through that issue. Or maybe by avoiding sex, one partner is avoiding feeling emotional discomfort about their body and how it looks or moves during sex, and so are avoiding feelings of body shame.

These are just a few examples of how avoiding sex can really be about avoiding some deeper emotional discomfort. When I put this idea out there to my low-sex/no-sex couples clients, they quickly pick up what I am putting down and generally one or both partners say, “Oh yeah I get it. I’m avoiding feeling bad about X.” This, my friends, is shame. Specifically, sexual shame.

Instead of going down the dangerous rabbit hole of making your request for more sex to be about “meeting my needs" (which I have written about before), perhaps you can find some compassion for your partner and get curious about why they are avoiding sex. Because, who knows? That might actually go far in helping to resolve the issue.

More from Diane Gleim LMFT, CST, CST-S
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