A lack of intimacy can damage a relationship, but it doesn’t always have to lead to divorce.
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Couples in sexless marriages often avoid talking about the issue out of fear and shame. But you can’t improve the situation without honest communication and vulnerability.
In fact, Google searches for “sexless marriage” are three and a half times more common than “unhappy marriage” and eight times more common than “loveless marriage,” making it the most-searched marriage complaint, data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reported in 2015.
So what exactly constitutes a sexless marriage? There’s no precise definition, though some experts say it’s when a couple has sex fewer than 10 times in one year. For San Francisco-based sex therapist and relationship coach Danielle Harel, it’s any marriage in which the sex is “mostly non-existent between the couple.”
“It could be that they haven’t had sex in five years, or only have it every couple of months,” she told HuffPost.
While a lack of sex may put a strain on many relationships, is it possible for some marriages to stay intact with little to no physical intimacy? We turned to sex experts to find out.
It’s possible for a sexless marriage to survive — but only under certain circumstances
According to a 2015 Pew survey, 61% of U.S. married adults say a satisfying sexual relationship is “very important” to a successful marriage.
“Most people do attribute significant meaning to sex and derive relational value from it: feelings of love, attractiveness, eroticism, desire and an expression of passion that you do not get to access with others,” said Irene Fehr, a sex and intimacy coach outside of Denver. “People enter romantic relationships because they want to be able to share sexual desire, attraction, passion and connection together — this is what differentiates a romantic relationship from a friendship.”
But not everyone in a sexless marriage is miserable and doomed for divorce.
“A marriage can last long term without sex if both people are not bothered by the lack of sex in their lives,” said sex therapist Celeste Hirschman, co-author of “Making Love Real: The Intelligent Couple’s Guide to Lasting Intimacy and Passion.” “For some people, sex is not a particularly high priority. For others, it is quite high, just like any other activity.”
Under certain circumstances, a sexless or low-sex relationship may be tenable or even fulfilling, including when …
Both partners have low libidos
A lack of sex may not be problematic for the marriage when both partners share similarly low levels of sexual desire.
“Assuming a couple has a similar desire level and they feel emotionally and sexually fulfilled with having sex less than 10 times, their relationship may be as successful as a couple who engages in daily sexual encounters,” said Nazanin Moali, a Los Angeles-based sex therapist and host of the podcast “Sexology.”
The same goes for couples who identify as asexual — in other words, people who do not experience sexual attraction and may or may not be interested in having sex.
“In this situation, not having sexual activity might, in fact, be healthy, as it removes the distress of engaging in a behavior that they have minimal interest in,” Moali added.
One partner has a health issue that affects their sex drive or performance
Physical health conditions (such as certain cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and bodily changes related to childbirth) and mental health conditions (like depression, anxiety and PTSD) may affect a person’s desire or ability to have sex. Sometimes, these changes are temporary; others may be lasting. It’s up to each couple to decide whether they’re willing to stick it out (some are), and for how long, when regular sex is no longer part of the equation.
“In these scenarios, if the partner perceives the issues to be ones that may be resolved with time or treatment, they will be more open to tolerating a sexless marriage,” Moali said. “However, if this is a long-lasting situation, in which the recovery might be unknown, the partner might feel more distressed around changes in sexual activity.”
The couple values other aspects of their life together more than they value their sex life
Maybe the couple runs a business together. Maybe they’re focused on raising their kids together. Maybe they want to stay married for the companionship or for financial security. Whatever the reason, “a couple may cohabitate happily if they feel they are working towards shared goals and values,” Moali said.
For some couples, sex may be a fun activity to dabble in now and then but it’s not a top priority for them, nor is it integral to keeping their bond strong.
“A couple can last long term without sex if they both attribute little meaning to sex and do not tie it to their love for each other,” Fehr said. “For example, if sex is just a way to have fun, and they enjoy many other fun things, sex can be a low priority and may not influence their relationship.”
But for many couples, a lack of sex can make it difficult to sustain the marriage
A sexless marriage only works if both partners are on the same page in terms of their levels of desire and the role sex plays in their lives and in the relationship, Fehr said. Otherwise, a dead bedroom can lead to hurt feelings and mounting resentment.
“If one or both partners feel like they’re missing out on something important — especially when it’s tied to love, validation and attractiveness — the sexlessness will seep into other areas of their relationship through ongoing frustration and sadness, emotional walls and ultimately an erosion of connection,” she said.
A sexless marriage is not as likely to survive long term when …
The couple has mismatched libidos
“In these cases, the partner with higher desire might constantly feel rejected,” Moali said. “Meanwhile, the partner with low desire will turn hypervigilant so they do not act in a way that might translate to him or her being perceived as interested in sexual activity when they do not feel ready.”
The lower-libido partner may also feel overwhelmed or inadequate because they can’t meet their partner’s sexual needs. They may even inadvertently shame the higher-libido partner for caring so much about sex.
“A lack of empathy and understanding or a belittling of the importance of sex can have a very negative impact,” Harel said.
The sexlessness is a symptom of a deeper relationship issue
It’s often a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Did the sexlessness cause problems in the marriage or did the problems in the marriage cause the sexlessness?
If the sexual dry spell began in response to some other unresolved marital issue — like the discovery of an affair, repeated criticism or frequent arguing — it may make it more difficult for the marriage to survive.
“Oftentimes, couples refrain from sex with their spouse as they’ve grown apart, such that they may not even like one another, which naturally leads to less desire,” Moali said.
Fehr was stuck in a sexless marriage in her mid to late 20s that ultimately ended in divorce. In retrospect, she realized the split had more to do with the lack of communication and vulnerability around sex than it did with the lack of sex itself.
“It was the inability to address the challenges around sex — to look deeply at each other, name our fears, needs and desires and stick around in the messiness of it all — that ultimately killed the marriage,” she said. “We could not truly listen and be there with each other during the most vulnerable and uncomfortable times.”
The sexlessness leads to infidelity
In some marriages, the lower-libido partner may consent to the higher-libido partner seeking sexual gratification outside the relationship.
“If one person is unhappy with the sexless marriage and the other person does not want to work on it, some couples negotiate an open relationship so that the unhappy partner can still get their needs met,” Hirschman said.
“It was the inability to address the challenges around sex — to look deeply at each other, name our fears, needs and desires and stick around in the messiness of it all — that ultimately killed the marriage.”
– Irene Fehr, sex and intimacy coach
But if the affair happens behind the other partner’s back, it can lead to more disconnection and mistrust, which may be difficult to recover from.
“Though this appears as a temporary solution in dealing with one’s sexual frustration, long term, it frequently leads to irreparable rupture of the marriage,” Moali said. “Especially if it happens without the other partner’s consent, which is most often the case.”
Here’s what you can do if you want to rekindle your sex life
If you and your partner are unhappy with the state of your sex life, don’t lose hope. Experts say there are some ways to turn things around as long as both parties are willing to put in some work.
First, reflect on when the drop-off in your sex life began
“Were there any behaviors, events or conversation that triggered this change?” Moali said. “What are some of the actions that are contributing to the situation? It is also helpful to review the ways you’ve tried to resolve the issues.”
Address the elephant in the room
All too often, couples avoid conversations about the sexless state of their marriages. They sweep their concerns under the rug because it seems easier and less vulnerable than confronting difficult emotions.
“Have an honest talk about why you think sex is not happening in the relationship, preferably without blaming and shaming your partner,” Harel said.
Know that it will probably be uncomfortable at first, and that’s OK.
“Let go of the fairy tale that it is just supposed to work without having to communicate and deal with the awkwardness that comes from trying to reconnect after being disconnected in this way,” Hirschman added.
Make time for a date night
Plan a fun or romantic activity for just the two of you (no kids allowed!). Share a bottle of wine at a cozy restaurant, lie in bed and listen to music, exchange massages, make out or cuddle while watching a movie. Remove the pressure to have sex but be open to the possibility of letting it happen. If nothing else, you’ll walk away feeling more emotionally connected to each other.
Try scheduling sex
Right now, you may not be able to count on the mood striking spontaneously and organically. So pick a day and a time to get busy and try to stick to it. You can even take turns setting the date so it’s not always the same partner initiating.
And just because you’re putting sex on the calendar, doesn’t mean it has to be bland or predictable.
“I recommend completing a ‘yes, no, maybe’ list of various sexual activities separately then comparing them with your partner’s,” Moali said. “Also, a stroll in a sex toy shop might give you ideas on how to incorporate new toys or props into your bedroom.”
Talk to a sex therapist
If your attempts to address the lack of sex have been unsuccessful, consider making an appointment with a sex therapist or other mental health professional who can help you get back on track.
“One mistake that couples frequently make is waiting a long time before addressing their sexual challenges with a therapist,” Moali said. “If you have been working on your sex life for six months with no or limited results, I recommend seeking professional help.”