The U.S. National Health and Social Life Survey defined a sexless marriage as “couples who aren’t engaging in sexual activity or are having minimal sexual encounters.” There is a surprising lack of research into the subject, but according to Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, an estimated 15% of married couples have not had sex in the last six months to one year.
There are many reasons why a marriage can become sexless. Mismatched sexual libidos, lack of communication, childbirth, antidepressants, hypo-sexual desire disorder (low sex drive), a history of sexual abuse, porn addiction, grief, vaginal dryness as a result of menopause, body image, financial problems and erectile dysfunction, to name a few. Whatever the root cause, there are solutions to all of these issues if both parties are committed to tackling them.
And sexless marriages aren’t always a problem. Everyone’s definition of a “normal” sex life varies, and if a sexless marriage works for your relationship, there’s no need to change it up.
However, if this is an issue you’re struggling with, there are solutions. Considerable spoke with Sari Cooper, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Director of Center for Love and Sex, to answer the most common questions around sexless marriage.
1. How do I know if I’m in a sexless marriage? Is there a “normal” amount of sex to have?
Some researchers define a sexless relationship as one in which there has been no sexual activity for the past year. However, other studies define sexlessness as having fewer than 10 sexual encounters in the last year.
When discussing sexuality, one has to do away with the term normal as there is a lot of self-judgement and shame involved. Researchers use the scientific term average to designate statistics to the population they’re studying.
2. How do I start a dialogue about our sex life after a significant amount of time without sex?
It’s best to let your partner know you’d like to talk about your sex life, and inquire as to when a good time might be. This way you’re not springing it on them, and you each have time to think about what you’d like to say.
3. We both want to have sex, but I feel like too much time has passed and we can’t seem to make the move. How we can start to regain some intimacy?
At Center for Love and Sex, we offer warm-up exercises for couples to regain physical connection after long periods of celibacy. They may include Tantra-like exercises of eye-gazing, erotic massage or flirtation games to break the ice.
The couple does these exercises on their own at home and then returns to a couples’ session to discuss their reactions and what turned them on so as to build momentum.
4. Since menopause I haven’t wanted to have sex. Is this common, and is there a way to restore my libido?
According to studies, low desire is reported in 12% of midlife women (ages 45 to 64) and 7% among women 65 or older. About one-third of women who report low libido also express distress about this occurrence. Because your body has lower hormone levels after menopause, your mind isn’t receiving the same physical arousal sensations which in the past would “ping” your mind to think about sex. In addition, the vaginal tissue has thinned out and many women report more discomfort or outright pain when attempting penetrative vaginal sex.
Libido is a complex mixture of biological, psychological and relational variables. Thus, restoring one’s libido requires doing a thorough assessment. It may include physical treatments like hormonal creams or pelvic physical therapy to alleviate pain. Depending on how well your relationship with a partner is, one might seek out a sex therapist trained in integrating couples counseling skills with menopausal concerns.
The other critical ingredient may include creating a new tool-kit that re-ignites erotic thoughts and fantasies, so you’re actually getting your mind back into thinking about sexuality. Much like the old adage “out of sight, out of mind,” the new theme for women who have lost their mojo should be “out of mind, out of desire.”
Your mind can be put to great use to re-nourish a confidence and ability that I’ve coined as Sex Esteem®. I run Sex Esteem® groups for women and men of different ages to help them discuss some of these challenging issues, and to learn new skills in developing innovative paths to erotic desire.
5. If sex is off the table, do you recommend proposing the idea of an open marriage?
Before introducing the prospect of an open marriage, I suggest you and your significant other go to see an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist. By telling your partner you love them, but aren’t willing to give up partner sex, they may agree to do a deeper dive into what is contributing to their disinterest and whether there are any options to re-opening a sexual relationship again.
If one’s partner is very sure they are no longer interested in partner sex, you can recommend they read this article and discuss how couples establish expectations when creating an open relationship.
There are relationships in which only one partner sees other people outside the relationship. They may see this other person an agreed upon number of days or on a specific day of the week, so they can still invest time and energy into their primary partner. The couple may agree that their shared home is off limits to an outside partner, or that the outside partner shouldn’t be in their social circle.
Considerable spoke with a man in his mid 60s (who wishes to remain anonymous) about his experience in a sexless marriage that ended in divorce. He met his wife in the mid 1980s when they were working in the same field and began dating. After a fairly long engagement, they married in the early 2000s. He said their sexless marriage lasted for 12 years.
Did you discuss sex with your wife?
I did not discuss it because I couldn’t believe she was unaware of it, but also we rarely talked about how we felt. We both hated confrontation.
How did the sexless marriage end?
We became more and more distant, never doing anything together and then practically never speaking to one another. I never intended to go looking for sex outside of the marriage, but I met someone remarkable and charismatic by sheer accident and began having an affair. This led to me asking for a divorce.
When you look back now, is there anything you would have done differently?
In retrospect, I obviously should have voiced my feelings of anger and disappointment after the first 6 months of not having sex. I foolishly thought she could read my mind when it came to what I was missing and needing. All it did was let my contempt fester and grow for years and years.
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Though a sexless marriage can be a challenge, it need not mean the end. To locate a therapist who may be able to assist you, take a look at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.