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Sexless marriage: How to cope with a lack of intimacy in your relationship

A relationship without sex is more common than you might think, and it certainly doesn’t mean your marriage is over. Here’s a sex therapist’s advice on what to do if you’re not feeling fulfilled.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of “the honeymoon phase” of a relationship. It’s the almost-magnetizing attraction some people experience in those early, heady days, where the sex is frequent and the physical touch seems endless. It’s often romanticized in novels and movies, and it’s a narrative that’s perpetuated by the hyper-sexualized world we live in, where headlines about “having better sex” and “improving your orgasms” are a dime a dozen. But it’s called a “phase” for a reason: It’s pretty hard to sustain. So why don’t we talk more about what can happen later down the road — a sexless marriage.

Human beings are, by nature, tactile and sexual. Intimacy helps us feel close to our partners, so finding yourself in a sexless marriage or relationship can be a lonely and isolating experience. Frequency of sex can change at any point in a relationship, and it can be an especially worrying and frustrating shift for both parties if the honeymoon phase was real for you previously.

But here’s the thing: The only people who get to decide how much sex is acceptable in your relationship are you and your partner. If you’re happy in a marriage without sex, it doesn’t mean you’re not sharing intimacy in other ways. On the other hand, if one or both of you wants to increase the amount of sex you’re having in your relationship, there are ways you can get there. 

Here’s everything you need to know, from the effects a sexless marriage can have to how to start talking about it …

How much sex is normal in a marriage?

Let’s get one thing straight: If you’re in a sexless marriage, you are most definitely not alone. A large study based on the US General Social Survey 2008 dataset showed that 16% of married couples hadn’t had engaged in sexual activity  (a wide-ranging term that did not only include penis-vagina intercourse) in the past year.

“Sexless marriage” has a very broad definition. Research carried out by the University of Chicago Sociologist Edward O. Laumann in the 1990s characterized it as having sex (whatever that means to you) less than once a month, and he found that up to 20% of couples were in a so-called “sexless relationship” at the time. 

More modern surveys, such as a 2019 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study, confirm that people may still be having less sex than you think — and it’s a global trend. But, before you assume this means there’s an army of miserable, sexually frustrated people out there, sex therapist Jordan Rullo, PhD, reminds us that “You absolutely can have a healthy marriage without sex. Why would all these couples stay together if they aren’t having sex?”

The truth is, there is no “right” amount of sex for all couples. In fact, as the researchers looking into the 2008 US General Social Survey dataset found, increased frequency of sexual intercourse does not make people any happier. Their analysis showed that people ages 18 to 89 years old who weren’t having sex actually had very similar levels of life satisfaction compared to their sexually active counterparts. So instead of focusing on a target number, instead think about connection, intimacy, communication, and bonding. These things may, in turn, lead to sex, but they are much more important to your marriage than the number of times you have sex each month.

What effects can a sexless marriage have?

Sex is certainly one way to establish intimacy between two people: One Florida State University study from 2017 suggests it can bond couples together with a sexual “afterglow” that remains for up to two days afterward, and it can have long-lasting positive effects beyond that. And of course, frequent sex (which Jordan defines as at least once a week) has been found to make couples happier, improve relationship satisfaction, and increase the feeling of security in a relationship. Plus, we know that sexual activity can lead to orgasm. “Research has shown that experiencing orgasm can improve mood due to the release of dopamine, reduce stress due to the release of oxytocin, and reduce pain with the release of endorphins,” Jordan says.

Going without sex might mean foregoing some of those benefits, but it doesn’t mean partners can’t maintain their close connection at all. Solo play, such as masturbation, is one way that couples in sexless marriages may still seek pleasure. And there are plenty of other forms of intimacy in a relationship that don’t involve sex at all, explains Jordan. These include: 

  • Recreational intimacy — having fun together, sports, hobbies
  • Intellectual intimacy — reading together, discussing intellectual topics
  • Work intimacy — sharing household responsibilities
  • Commitment intimacy — working together for a common goal
  • Aesthetic intimacy — appreciating beauty together, like the arts and theater
  • Communication intimacy — honest communication, truthful feedback
  • Emotional intimacy — being vulnerable together
  • Creative intimacy — creating together
  • Crisis intimacy — standing together in a crisis
  • Spiritual intimacy — sharing religion or spirituality
  • Conflict intimacy — arguing and working through differences

Why do couples stop having sex?

If there’s one thing that’s predictable in marriage, it’s that the frequency of sex will evolve (and typically decline) over the years. This is a pattern that’s totally normal, Jordan says. 

“The early period of time in a sexual relationship is called the ‘honeymoon phase’ or the ‘limerence phase.’ This is the phase when there’s a lot more sex and when you’re seeing your partner with rose-colored glasses,” she explains. But according to research carried out by psychologist Dorothy Tennov, this period doesn’t last any longer than 12 to 36 months. 

“After 12 to 36 months, the novelty has declined. You’re much more comfortable around your partner, perhaps spending less time trying to impress them, and starting to recognize some aspects of them that may bother you,” Jordan explains. “It’s when you enter this second stage of the relationship that sex typically declines. This does not mean that you like your partner any less or find them any less attractive. It is simply that you cannot biologically sustain that novelty.”

Reasons for a sexless relationship: Low libido

Low libido is often the primary cause of a sexless marriage: If one or both of you have a low sex drive, you might find yourselves waiting a long time until you’re both in the mood for sex. Jordan Rullo explains that the causes of low desire can be divided into four categories:

  • Biological — side effects of certain medications (antidepressants, e.g. Citalopram, Sertraline), illness, injury, hormonal changes (entering menopause, pregnancy), fatigue, poor body image
  • Psychological — stress, anxiety, depression, a history of sexual trauma, difficulty being present
  • Relational — being unhappy in the marriage, not liking your partner, not feeling emotionally connected to your partner
  • Sociocultural — negative societal messages about sex, conflict with religious beliefs

It’s common for married couples to have a mismatch in libidos, known as “a desire discrepancy” to the experts, when one person tends to be up for sex while the other isn’t. This can be problematic; generally, it either leads to hostility from the person with the higher libido or avoidance, where the usual “initiator” backs off due to fear of rejection.

It’s not just low sex drive that could be at the root of a sexless marriage, however. Asexuality is a sexual identity that may be discovered in later life, meaning an individual does not desire sex at all.  If this occurs, the couple may decide to pursue intimacy in other ways.

In order for a positive relationship dynamic to thrive, what’s most important is to open up lines of communication so any issues like these can be worked through together. Bringing us to the most important part …

How to deal with a sexless marriage

If you’re worried about being in a sexless marriage, first try to work out whether the problem is that you or your partner feel sexually dissatisfied or if it stems from comparing yourself to other couples. 

“Often people ask, ‘How much sex should we be having,’ and there is no should,” Jordan explains. “In therapy, we have a saying, ‘Don’t should on yourself.’ Have as much sex as what works for both of you. It’s not about comparing yourself to others because others are different. Comparing yourself to others isn’t going to make you happier in your marriage.” 

But if one or both people in a couple become bothered by the infrequency or loss of sexual connection, it needs to be resolved. Here are some of the things you can do to try and improve the situation:

  • Communicate

Communication is key for any relationship to work: Neither you nor your partner is a mind reader. But make sure you choose your timing wisely. 

“Have the conversation not during sex or while you or your partner are initiating sex. Pick a neutral, non-sexual time when there is privacy and no time pressure,” suggests Jordan. “Enter the conversation with the goal of wanting to understand and be better understood, not the goal of being right or proving a point.” Another tip? “When you start the conversation, speak for yourself. Use ‘I statements’ (for example, ‘I feel sad when we don’t have sex’) instead of ‘you statements’ (such as ‘you never initiate anymore, do you not find me attractive?’).”

  • Compromise — and that means both of you

If the issue is a “desire discrepancy” (a difference in libido), Jordan says that “the key to navigating this is communication and compromise.” 

“Talk with your partner about the importance of sex to you and what ingredients you need to feel receptive to being sexual. Then problem solve with your partner on ways your needs can get met and their needs can get met.” Remember that both of your needs and desires are important, and it’s vital to establish how you plan to meet both individuals’ levels of sexual satisfaction — whether that’s within the marriage, or outside it through the exploration of non-monogamy. “If you simply submit to your partner’s wants and desires, this will eventually lead to resentment and sexual avoidance,” warns Jordan.

  • Build intimacy

Marriage and relationships take work and need to be nurtured to thrive. A nice way to improve and build your intimacy is to come up with something together that you can share regularly. These things don’t necessarily have to be sexual — it’s just as important to connect intellectually and emotionally to build a strong relationship.

“Talk with your partner about the type of intimacy you’d like to explore and then create an action plan,” Jordan says. “Perhaps you and your partner each initiate a different type of intimacy each week. For example, one week, you plan a recreational intimacy activity (e.g., a hike) to explore with your partner, and the next week, your partner plans a creative intimacy activity (e.g., a pottery class).” 

Jordan encourages you to enter the experience “with a mindset of no pressure or expectation. This is just exploration, and the goal is simply connection, not to make the best pottery or reach the end of the hike.”

  • Talk to a therapist

In some instances, honesty and clear communication might be all you need to help rebuild your sexual intimacy. But if not, that’s okay too — there are people who can help. Sex therapy and couples counseling help couples communicate their sexual wants, desires, and needs in a healthy and productive way.

 “After the couple understands each other, then a therapist can help them develop a compromise that takes into account both partner’s needs and doesn’t lead to resentment,” says Jordan, adding that a therapist may also be able to teach couples some “sensate focus exercises” — a series of acts exploring sensual, not necessarily sexual, touch — to help them increase desire and tap into their sexuality again. 

Sexless relationships: The takeaway

Remember that a sexless relationship is only a problem if one or both people in the relationship are unhappy about it. It doesn’t matter what other couples are doing — it’s what you both want and need that’s important.

If you’re currently living in a sexless marriage that’s leaving you dissatisfied, it doesn’t mean that it’s doomed. Like all things, your sex life has ups and downs, and if you’re both ready and willing to put in some effort, you can work together to get to a place that makes you both happy.

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