Moving Forward in a Sexless Marriage
Recently, a 36-year-old man posted something stupid on Reddit. This is not breaking news — this happens likely thousands of times per day, but the post made it over to Twitter, and people went in. The issue at hand? The guy hated his wife’s haircut. While he knew he couldn’t tell her not to get her hair cut, he admitted, “I know it sounds stupid, but every trip back to the hairdresser feels like a little slap in the face.” However, the husband mentioned one small detail that got everyone’s attention: he and his wife do not have sex.
Redditors mostly provided uncharacteristically astute commentary: “I don’t think this is about her hair. The haircut is just a tangible thing that you are focusing on. Your main issue is the lack of sex,” one user wrote. Reddit has long been a sanctuary for people in sexless marriages. There is a whole subreddit with 182,000+ subscribers called r/DeadBedrooms, where people go to complain, commiserate and seek help for their relationships. (There is no official demarcation of what makes a marriage “sexless,” but studies usually count couples who haven’t had sex in the last year, or marriages where sexual intimacy happens 10 times or fewer a year.) The subreddit’s top post of all time is actually the story of a person with a lower libido (dubbed “LLs” on the site) trying to initiate sex with their partner. The poster triumphantly explains their realization after initating sex the night before, “My husband’s mood today is fantastic…I’m realizing how much of his joy is missing in a sexless marriage[.] I will keep reading here and working on my end of initiating.” For most posters, that’s the ultimate fantasy: their partner finally understanding just how important sex really is to them, and more importantly, why.
The traditional (read: heteronormative and sexist) narrative is that men are always ready to have sex, while women are constantly faking headaches to avoid it. That is simply not the case. According to Pam Costa, M.A. in clinical psychology and founder of Down to There, a site devoted to getting people to talk about sex more, men and women pretty much experience low sex drive equally. Costa asserts that while sex can feel “easier” at the beginning, after a few years with someone, the “in love” hormones fade. Sex can start to become less frequent as couples encounter road bumps like depression, physical health concerns, the loss of loved ones, pregnancy, childbirth and miscarriages, or as a result of mismatched desire levels. But sometimes, the problem is simply that people don’t know how to talk about the sex that they want to be having. And no matter the reason, Costa says that honest communication about sex can help. We asked Costa our biggest questions about sexless marriages and how to address them.
How common are sexless marriages?
The accepted rate is somewhere between 10%-20% of marriages; I consider that pretty common. One of the first things I want people to know, if they are in a sexless marriage, is that they are not alone. They are in good company. It is very common.
Are men and women equally concerned about sexless marriages?
Absolutely. I think it is harder when a male partner has lower desire, because we do have this cultural narrative that men should always be ready. Because of this, in a hetero relationship, there can be additional shame when it is the male partner who has a lower sex drive. But, again, you are not alone.
What makes a sexless marriage so damaging?
Sex is often a very important component of intimacy, and we all seek out intimacy in different ways. For some of us, emotional intimacy is more important than physical intimacy, or cuddling is more important than penetration. When it comes to a relationship, having shared forms of intimacy is really important. Often, in couples that come to me, one person says, “But I’m fine. Everything’s fine!” And the other person says, “How can you say that? This is anything but fine.” That is where it starts to impact other parts of the relationship: If one person is missing the intimacy that is important to them, they can start to be resentful or frustrated. Or the person who doesn’t want to have sex can start to feel guilty or broken.
So, you could have a sexless marriage and still believe you have a good marriage?
Yes, exactly. You can have a sexless marriage and have a happy marriage. You also don’t have to have sex to make it a marriage.
Right. Some people, including those who are asexual, might be completely fine not having any sex.
Yes, if one partner is asexual (doesn’t feel sexually attracted to anyone, or has low or absent interest in or desire for sexual activity) this could absolutely play a role in a marriage being or becoming sexless. For someone who already knows they are asexual, choosing who does not require sex to be part of a satisfying relationship — or who is more invested in the emotional or other aspects of the relationship — can work very well. For someone who only discovers once in the marriage that they are asexual, discovering this identity can provide a lot of relief to both the person who identifies as [asexual], as well as their partner: the tension around the ace partner not wanting sex suddenly has a reason that is not related to the relationship itself.
What are some of the common causes of sexless marriages?
There are usually two big reasons. One, there is a desire mismatch, just like how people like to eat different amounts. What can often happen with that mismatch is that the person who desires sex more asks and initiates; when the other person says no, they start to feel rejected. And no one wants to feel rejected, so they slowly stop asking. That is very common. The other thing that also happens is that you have some sort of life milestone that makes sex difficult. Maybe you have kids, who are taking more of your time and attention. Maybe you got laid off at work. There are also things like health crises, and maybe you didn’t have sex during that period. Or maybe you have pain during sex.
Are there situations that cannot be “fixed”? Couples whose sexual desires are simply too incompatible? What do you do then?
Yes, which I why I encourage couples to review their sexual history together. What peak sexual experiences have you had? — or have you never had any? That way you can learn more about what you need to have sex that you enjoy. When you can do that — and not from a pressurized standpoint of “You have to provide that for me” but from a standpoint of “Wow, when we were on vacation in Hawaii and we had sex in a bathroom that was really a turn on for me because it was spontanteus” — that really helps. Then you can ask, “What are other ways that we can bring spontaneity into our sex life?” That is a really good thing to learn about yourself.
When you are able to actually start to having those difficult conversations more from a curious angle than from a pressure angle, you can start to see whether or not there is enough overlap between what the two of you desire to make it work. Certainly I work with couples who do that and realize: “We’re not enough of an overlap; does that mean we need to separate? Does that mean we need to be creative about how we get our intimate needs met? Or do we need to go outside of this relationship?”
How should partners communicate about desire discrepancies?
When I work with couples with a desire discrepancy, what we often figure out is that one of the things often underlying that is: “I’m not getting the type of sex that I want in order to desire it.” If you are the partner who has higher desire, relative to your partner — and these are probably the people who are going to be most distressed by a sexless marriage — I think a little bit of introspection is usually helpful to acknowledge that maybe the reason you guys stopped having sex is that your partner stopped getting what they need to desire sex.
This can happen for a lot of reasons. In the beginning hormones make it easier, so we think we don’t have to try hard. There is also lack of sex education: Sometimes someone hasn’t learned about their own desire, or how to give a partner pleasure. Or maybe they weren’t taught about how to talk about sex. So maybe they lack the skills to communicate with their partner about what they desire. Maybe if I’m the higher desire partner, I never learned how to ask my partner what they want, and create an opportunity for them to provide feedback.
What is the first step of course correcting a sexless marriage?
When someone comes to me in a sexless marriage, wanting to have more sex, there are four steps that I go through with them:
- Know that you’re not alone.
- Seek support. Talk with your friends about it or find a coach or a therapist. Read a book — I recommend Come As You Are.
- Speak up. If you want to bring this up with up with your partner, speak up lovingly about why sex is important to you because otherwise they don’t know. The script I usually encourage goes something like this: “Hey this relationship is important to me, you are important to me and intimacy in a relationship is important to me. I care about us and I want to work on improving our intimacy.”
- Ask what is important to them. Because maybe sex isn’t important to them, but something else is — better communication, help around the house or mental health.
What happens after you first bring this up? What is the work that has to be done?
I think it is important, when talking about a sexless marriage, to realize that the idea of going from no sex to the classic script that we have around sex might be a bit of a stretch. If you are a hetero cis couple, you might need to expand your definition of sex — outside of “penis in vagina,” or beyond orgasm. Throw away the myth that you have to finish, because that is a lot of pressure. When I have couples who are trying to go from a sexless marriage to a marriage where they are having sex again, expanding that definition of sex is really helpful.