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

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

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


A sexless relationship is more common than you might think, and it doesn't necessarily mean your marriage is over. Here's some advice from a sex therapist on what to do if you're not feeling fulfilled.


You've probably heard of the phrase "the honeymoon phase" of a relationship. It's the almost-magnetizing attraction that some people feel in those early, heady days when the sex is plentiful and the physical touch seems limitless. It's a narrative that's often romanticised in novels and films, and it's one that's perpetuated by our hyper-sexualized world, 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 difficult to maintain. So why don't we talk about what could happen later on — a sexless marriage?


Humans are tactile and sexual beings by nature. Because intimacy allows us to feel close to our partners, being in a sexless marriage or relationship can be a lonely and isolating experience. The frequency of sex can change at any point in a relationship, and it can be a particularly worrying and frustrating shift for both parties if the honeymoon phase was previously real for you.


But here's the thing: You and your partner are the only ones who can decide how much sex is acceptable in your relationship. If you're happy in a non-sex marriage, that doesn't mean you're not sharing intimacy in other ways. If, on the other hand, one or both of you want to increase the amount of sex in your relationship, there are ways to do so.


From the effects of a sexless marriage to how to start talking about it, here's everything you need to know...


How much sex is normal in a marriage?

Let's get one thing straight: You are not alone if you are in a sexless marriage. A large study based on the US General Social Survey 2008 dataset found that 16% of married couples had not engaged in sexual activity (a broad term that included penis-vagina intercourse) in the previous year.


The term "sexless marriage" has a very broad meaning. In the 1990s, University of Chicago Sociologist Edward O. Laumann defined it as having sex (whatever that means to you) less than once a month, and he discovered that up to 20% of couples were in a so-called "sexless relationship" at the time.


More recent surveys, such as one conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2019, confirm that people may still be having less sex than you think — and this is a global trend. But, before you think there's a horde of unhappy, sexually frustrated people out there, sex therapist Jordan Rullo, PhD, reminds us that "you absolutely can have a healthy marriage without sex." "Why do all these couples stay together if they're not having sex?"


The truth is that no amount of sex is "appropriate" for all couples. In fact, as researchers studying the 2008 US General Social Survey dataset discovered, increased sexual intercourse does not make people happier. Their findings revealed that people between the ages of 18 and 89 who were not having sex had very similar levels of life satisfaction as their sexually active counterparts. Instead of focusing on a specific number, consider connection, intimacy, communication, and bonding. These things may lead to sex, but they are far more important to your marriage than how many times you have sex each month.


What effects can a sexless marriage have?

Sex is unquestionably one method of establishing intimacy between two people: According to a 2017 Florida State University study, it can bond couples together by leaving a sexual "afterglow" that lasts for up to two days afterward, and it can have long-term positive effects. And, of course, frequent sex (defined by Jordan as at least once a week) has been shown to make couples happier, improve relationship satisfaction, and increase a couple's sense of security. Furthermore, we know that sexual activity can result in orgasm. "Research has shown that orgasm can improve mood by releasing dopamine, reduce stress by releasing oxytocin, and reduce pain by releasing endorphins," Jordan says.


Going without sex may mean foregoing some of those benefits, but it does not rule out the possibility of partners maintaining a close relationship at all. Masturbation is one way that couples in sexless marriages can still find pleasure. And, as Jordan explains, there are many other forms of intimacy in a relationship that do not involve sex at all. These are some examples:

  • Recreational intimacy entails having fun together through sports and hobbies.

  • Intellectual intimacy entails reading and discussing intellectual topics together.
  • Intimacy at work — sharing household responsibilities
  • Working together for a common goal is an example of commitment intimacy.
  • Aesthetic intimacy entails appreciating beauty together, such as in the arts and theatre. Communication intimacy entails open communication and honest feedback.
  • Emotional intimacy entails being vulnerable with one another. Creative intimacy entails working together to create something.
  • Crisis intimacy entails standing together in the face of adversity.
  • Spiritual intimacy is defined as the sharing of religion or spirituality.
  • Conflict intimacy entails arguing and resolving disagreements.


Why do couples stop having sex?

If there's one thing you can count on in a marriage, it's that the frequency of sex will change (and usually decline) over time. Jordan describes this as a completely normal pattern.


"The 'honeymoon phase' or 'limerence phase' refers to the early stages of a sexual relationship." "This is the stage where there is a lot more sex and you see your partner through rose-coloured glasses," she explains. However, according to research conducted by psychologist Dorothy Tennov, this period lasts no more than 12 to 36 months.


"The novelty has worn off after 12 to 36 months." "You're much more at ease around your partner, possibly spending less time trying to impress them and beginning to recognise some aspects of them that may irritate you," Jordan explains. "Sex typically declines when you enter this second stage of the relationship." This does not imply that you dislike or find your partner less attractive. It's just that you can't sustain that novelty biologically."

Reasons for a sexless relationship: Low libido

Low libido is frequently the root cause of a sexless marriage: If either of you has a low sex drive, you may find yourself waiting a long time before you're both in the mood for sex. According to Jordan Rullo, the causes of low desire can be divided into four categories:

  • Biological — adverse effects of certain medications (antidepressants such as Citalopram and Sertraline), illness, injury, hormonal changes (menopause, pregnancy), fatigue, and poor body image.
  • Stress, anxiety, depression, a history of sexual trauma, and difficulty being present are all examples of psychological issues.
  • Relational — being dissatisfied with your marriage, disliking your partner, and not feeling emotionally connected to your partner
  • Sociocultural — negative societal messages about sex that clash with religious beliefs

It's common for married couples to have a libido mismatch, also known as a "desire discrepancy" by experts, when one person is eager for sex while the other isn't. This can be problematic; generally, it results in either hostility from the person with the higher libido or avoidance, in which the usual "initiator" backs off due to rejection.


However, a sexless marriage could be caused by more than just a lack of sex drive. Asexuality is a sexual identity that can be discovered later in life, implying that a person has no desire for sex at all. If this happens, the couple may choose to pursue intimacy in other ways.


What's most important for a positive relationship dynamic to thrive is to open lines of communication so that issues like these can be worked out together. Finally, we come to the most important part...


How to deal with a sexless marriage?

If you're concerned about being in a sexless marriage, try to determine whether the issue is that you or your partner are sexually dissatisfied or that you're comparing yourself to other couples.


"People frequently ask, 'How much sex should we have?' and there is no should," Jordan explains. "We have a saying in therapy: 'Don't should on yourself.' Have as much sex as is comfortable for both of you. It's not about comparing yourself to others because everyone is unique. Comparing yourself to others will not make your marriage any happier."


However, if one or both members of a couple are bothered by the infrequency or loss of sexual connection, the issue must be addressed. Here are some things you can try to improve the situation:

  • Communicate

Communication is essential for any relationship to function properly: neither you nor your partner are mind readers. However, make sure you choose your timing carefully.


"Have the conversation before or after sex, but not while you or your partner is initiating sex." "Select a neutral, non-sexual time when there is privacy and no time constraints," Jordan advises. "Enter the conversation with the intention of understanding and being better understood, not of being right or proving a point." Another piece of advice? "Speak for yourself when you begin the conversation." Use 'I statements' (for example, 'I'm sad when we don't have sex') rather than 'you statements' (for example, 'you never initiate anymore, do you not find me attractive?').

  • Compromise — and that means both of you

If the problem is a "desire discrepancy" (a difference in libido), Jordan says that "communication and compromise are the keys to navigating this."


"Discuss with your partner how important sex is to you and what ingredients you require to feel sexually receptive. Then, with your partner, brainstorm ways to meet your needs while also meeting theirs." Remember that both of your needs and desires are important, and it's critical to determine how you intend to meet both of your levels of sexual satisfaction — whether within the marriage or outside of it through the exploration of non-monogamy. "Submitting to your partner's wants and desires will eventually lead to resentment and sexual avoidance," Jordan warns.

  • Build intimacy

Marriage and relationships require effort and must be nurtured in order to thrive. Making something together that you can share on a regular basis is a great way to improve and expand your intimacy. These things don't have to be sexual — connecting intellectually and emotionally is just as important in building a strong relationship.


"Discuss with your partner the type of intimacy you'd like to explore, and then devise a plan of action," Jordan advises. "Perhaps each week, you and your partner initiate a different type of intimacy." For example, one week you plan a recreational intimacy activity to explore with your partner (e.g., a hike), and the next week your partner plans a creative intimacy activity (e.g., a pottery class)."


Jordan advises you to go into the experience "with no pressure or expectation." This is just exploration, and the goal is connection, not making the best pottery or reaching the end of the hike."

  • Consult a therapist

In some cases, honesty and clear communication may be all that is required to rebuild your sexual intimacy. But if you don't, that's okay too; there are people who can assist you. Sex therapy and couples counselling assist couples in communicating their sexual desires, wants, and needs in a healthy and productive manner.


"After the couple understands each other, a therapist can help them develop a compromise that takes into account both partners' needs and does not lead to resentment," Jordan says, adding that a therapist may also be able to teach couples some "sensate focus exercises" — a series of acts exploring sensual, but 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 partners are unhappy with it. It doesn't matter what other couples are doing; what you both want and need is what matters.


If you're currently in a sexless marriage that's making you unhappy, that doesn't mean it's doomed. Your sex life, like everything else, has ups and downs, but if you're both ready and willing to put in some effort, you can work together to get to a place where you're both happy.

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