There may come a point in your marriage when you notice that you aren’t having as much sex as you used to (because…life). You might wonder how much sex is considered healthy and whether or not you should be concerned, especially if you would never describe your union as loveless. According to a report from the General Social Survey, the average married couple has sex about 58 times per year, or a little more than once per week. This falls in line with a 2017 study from the Archives of Sexual Behavior that surveyed 14,885 married people, aged 18 to 70+, and found that the average married adult, err, goes at it, 56 times a year, or roughly once a week, a decrease from 1989 when it was 67 times per year. However, what’s considered “normal” can vary for many couples, and just because you’re not having sex doesn’t necessarily mean you’re headed for a divorce if you’re both otherwise satisfied.
“Some people will tell you that they have too little sex—and that could mean it’s only three times a week, as in, it used to be three times a day, and now its dropped down considerably,” Dr. Sue Varma, board-certified psychiatrist, couples counselor and sex educator on faculty at NYU Langone Health, says. “Another person may say, wow, I’d do anything to have sex that frequently with my partner. People get into unrealistic comparisons with others over some arbitrary standard.” However, Dr. Varma thinks if you can’t remember the last time you’ve had sex with your partner, then it might be an issue.
“Life would be easier if we could state an actual scientific number of how many times we should have sex but in reality, there is no right answer to this equation, Patrice N. Douglas, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Owner of Empire Counseling & Consultation, says. “Once a week seems to be the ideal for most marriages but sometimes once a month can be healthy as well.”
- Okay, so what makes a marriage sexless?
- Having less sex during marriage is common.
- A sexless marriage can survive.
- What happens in a marriage without intimacy?
- Sexless marriages can be fixed.
- Sometimes it’s fine if there’s no sex.
- Bottom line: just communicate.
- Yes, You Can Fix A Sexless Marriage. Here’s How.
- Get real and get serious
- Lighten up and have fun
- Are Sexless Marriages and Relationships Normal?
- 5 Women Sound Off On Their Sexless Marriages
Okay, so what makes a marriage sexless?
Many experts consider the definition of a sexless marriage as one that engages in sexual intercourse less than 10 times a year. However, Varma prefers not assigning a specific number as there are varying definitions. “Sexual intimacy can take so many forms and expressions and isn’t strictly limited to genital contact in the traditional sense,” Dr. Varma explains. “I would say that the idea of a sexless marriage also alludes to a variety of unmet needs.” Needs, of course, range from person to person. So it’s important for you and your partner to let each other know if yours are not being met.
Having less sex during marriage is common.
A 1994 survey in The Social Organization of Sexuality showed that roughly 15 to 20 percent of married couples are in a sexless relationship. Many different factors can contribute to a decrease in intimacy. There can be life stressors like financial struggles, as well as physical changes such as weight gain or loss that can cause insecurity, and mental health issues, to name a few.
Of course, there can also be issues in the relationship like resentment, infidelity, and boredom. All of these factors can affect the desire to have sex with your spouse. “In the beginning of a relationship, many couples make it a priority to have sex,” Dr. Varma says. “Over time, we become habituated and desensitized to the novelty of it all, and there is a more common, deeper sense of knowing someone.” Douglas adds that droughts are normal.
A sexless marriage can survive.
While there isn’t much research showing the survival rate of a sexless marriage, they don’t always lead to divorce. Though, according to Douglas, a lack of intimacy should still be taken seriously. “While sex does not define or keep a marriage together it can cause additional relationship issues related to anger, isolation, infidelity, and those could end in divorce,” she says. Dr. Varma adds, “If there is conflict and contempt, and one or both partners doesn’t take any responsibility, this can erode trust and love in a relationship.”
What happens in a marriage without intimacy?
Dr. Varma points out that many people end up slowly easing into this change and find it becomes normal. “There are some partners who don’t have sex—they have resigned themselves into some sort of agreement,” Dr. Varma says. She also says some stay together because they feel it’s better than separating or are too afraid to make the effort to change things. Some couples may also feel that the benefits, whether it’s companionship, financial, co-parenting, or security, outweigh the decision to separate. Whereas others just don’t value sex that much, which is also okay.
Sexless marriages can be fixed.
If you’re in a sexless marriage and want to fix it, there is hope. A lot of it is based on communication and a willingness to be open with your needs. Dr. Varma suggests finding a time to speak when both partners are not feeling angry, tired, or stressed. Read: skip the late-night pillow talk.
“Talk about the way it’s making you feel; maybe you are the one who wants to have more sex, better sex or just affection,” she says. And it might sound odd, but making time in your calendar to have sex with your partner can help, “Some people think this is so unsexy,” Dr. Varma points out, adding that you can still be spontaneous even when you’ve made your intentions known. Sending texts that are playful, and flirtatious can help plant the seeds of seduction, she says.
If your partner is the one who is more concerned about the lack of sex, listen to their concerns, be understanding, and make sure you’re willing to communicate. Douglas also says it’s important to create intimacy beyond “sex,” whether it’s with physical affection like hugging, kissing, or caressing of the hair, or with compliments. You can also show your partner that you care by spending time with them, or doing things that might make their day easier.
Sometimes it’s fine if there’s no sex.
Some marriages don’t necessarily need sex, and that’s okay, too. There are plenty of reasons for not having sex, ranging from cultural to health-related, or simply personal preference. “It depends on the relationship,” Douglas says. “Some people don’t engage in sexual intimacy and are fine with it.”
Bottom line: just communicate.
According to Dr. Varma, the reality is that people sometimes have different narratives in their heads. Sex can serve different purposes, whether it’s a form of bonding, a type of expression, connection, intimacy and feeling love and desired. If a partner is connecting these feelings to the act of physical sex, the abscence of it might greatly affect the relationship. Which is why it’s always important to have open communication with each other to make sure you’re on the same page.
For more stories like this, sign up for our newsletter.
Jennifer (name changed) didn’t have sex with her ex-husband on their wedding night. “I chalked it up to fatigue,” she says. But should it have been a red flag? Well, maybe.
It’s not that it didn’t happen that one night that was the problem; it’s that it was the first of many sexless married nights. As an engaged couple, Jennifer and her fiancé were doing it about three times a week, but once they said their vows, it quickly dwindled to about once a month—sometimes less.
“It’s common for spouses to have different amounts of sexual desire. If you’re the spouse who’s unsatisfied, it’s important to communicate with your partner, compassionately.”
Some experts call marriages that average 10 rolls in the hay per year or less “sexless,” but other experts take the word more literally, like Susan Yager-Berkowitz, who coauthored (with her husband) Why Men Stop Having Sex: The Phenomenon of Sexless Relationships and What You Can Do About It (Harper Perennial, 2008).
“If a couple is content with intimacy less than once a month, and happily married, I doubt they would refer to themselves as having a sexless marriage… and neither would we.”
But even if there’s no perfect definition for a “sexless” marriage, everyone seems to agree that they’re common. Newsweek estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of couples are in one, and sexless marriage is the topic of myriad new books—like Yager-Berkowitz’s—and plenty of articles and columns. Back in 2003, Newsweek‘s cover blared, “We’re Not In the Mood,” and the story didn’t go away. In 2009, The New York Times reported that about 15 percent of married couples had not done the deed in the past six months to a year.
It’s not a given that a couple’s bedroom activity will fizzle over time—we all know a randy couple who’ve been married for decades—but any number of factors could start the tailspin. California-based psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media, 2008) lists these as the most common causes of sexless marriages: one partner had their feelings hurt or got turned down too many times, one got too busy or neglectful, or one or both partners has a communication problem of some sort.
As for how much sex a healthy couple should be having, that varies—and is up to the couple to figure out. Dr. Tessina’s best advice is at least once a week, saying that “intimacy keeps you glued together. It’s what you need in order to nurture your connection to your spouse. You’ll be a lot happier with each other and feel more cared about if you’re regularly having sex.” (Having sex at least once a week can also increase longevity, according to a recent study.)
Couples shouldn’t feel like they have to stick to once a week during stressful or tumultuous times. And of course, there can always be an off-week—or longer. It’s natural, in fact, to have ebbs and flows during your relationship. But when a couple has had a long period—say, several months—without sex, it’s important to address the problem, so months don’t become years, Dr. Tessina says. “Some couples won’t have sex for two years and then come in to my practice and ask for help. We can get to the bottom of the problem at that point, but it’s more challenging,” she says. “If they haven’t had sex for a couple of months, that’s when they really should be asking questions. That’s a good time to come in and have therapy. Otherwise, anger and frustration builds, and it takes longer to fix it that way.”
After a period of sexual inactivity, you and your partner can get back on the proverbial horse. “Remember how you connected back then and repeat that,” says Dr. Tessina. “It could be a few words, a gesture, a kind of look or touch.” Do new things together, go on a trip or try some thrilling activities to try to keep things fresh.
It’s common for spouses to have different amounts of sexual desire. If you’re the spouse who’s unsatisfied, it’s important to communicate with your partner, compassionately. “Say, ‘We haven’t had sex in a while, and I miss you,’ ” recommends Dr. Tessina. “Don’t complain about it—that’s not going to get you laid. Go for the sweetness.” Choose the time of day that works for both of you; maybe set the scene with some candlelight, romantic music or whatever helps you both get into the mood. “Try to make it as easy and simple as possible to get together, and it gets easier to do,” says Dr. Tessina. “In a long-term marriage, you have to pay attention to keep the sex going. It won’t keep going by itself.”
The experts agree that a marriage without sex isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can be more vulnerable than one with regular sex. Luckily, it’s doesn’t always take much to keep up a routine—but it does take some effort. Judith Steinhart, EdD, a clinical sexologist in New York City, suggests getting back into the groove by reading erotic stories or watching X-rated movies together and opening a dialogue about each other’s sexual desires. What gets each couple—and each person—back on track will vary, so explore ways to loosen up your current attitudes about sex, shake up your routine a bit and begin to talk about sex with your partner.
“The focus needs to be on giving and receiving pleasure,” says Dr. Steinhart. “And letting the feelings in.”
If you’re the one who doesn’t want to have sex, closely examine what’s going on in your life and your relationship and ask yourself why. It could be a physical condition you should see a doctor about, or it could be negative feelings toward something in your relationship—and that could be something you can get past.
“Remember that it’s important to your relationship to keep you partner sexually satisfied,” says Dr. Tessina. “There are deals you can work out. Maybe you can hold your partner while they masturbate, for example.”
So is a sexless marriage ever okay? Yes, says Dr. Steinhart, as long as both partners honestly feel happy and satisfied with their relationship without sexual intimacy.
“If a couple is OK with their pattern, whether it’s infrequent or not at all there isn’t a problem,” says Dr. Steinhart. “Some would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ ” That’s why it’s important to keep an open dialogue with your spouse, to continue to connect on other levels and to make sure both of you are truly content with the status of the relationship. Dr. Steinhart adds, “It’s not a lack of sex that’s the issue, it’s a discordant level of desire.”
Sadly, Jennifer never really got to the bottom of why her ex stopped wanting to have sex with her. “As for theories, I came up with a slew of possible reasons, he’s stressed, he’s busy, he’s tired, he’s sick, he takes me for granted, he’s gay,” she says.
From YourTango.com: The Truth About Sexless Marriages
Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Yes, You Can Fix A Sexless Marriage. Here’s How.
This article first appeared on SHE’SAID’ and has been republished with permission.
Quick — when’s the last time you had sex with your spouse?
Time’s up! If you had to think about it, it’s been too long. But don’t feel bad; you’re far from alone. Couples therapists estimate that around 20 percent of marriages are sexless (and that’s just in the United States).
Before you get too comfortable in your once-every-month-or-two pattern, you should know that your marriage qualifies as “sex-starved” if you have sex 10 times or less in a year. So you could actually be getting it on every six weeks or so and still have a problem, technically speaking.
How often is often enough? A recent study out of the University of Toronto-Mississauga found that once a week is the magic number for keeping relationships happy and healthy. The study, which was based on responses from 33,000 Americans over a period of more than 30 years, found that having sex more than once a week didn’t make couples any happier – but did find a significant decline in happiness when sex was less frequent than that.
If you fall into the less-than-once-a-week category, chances are that you’re aware things could be better in your relationship. You might feel confused about why your sex life has dwindled, or you might know the reasons. In either case, there are things you can do to put the spark back into your sex life — so don’t give up.
Get real and get serious
Communication is the answer to almost any problem you can think of in your relationship: it’s always a good idea to talk about what’s going on. So the first thing to do is have an honest conversation with your spouse about why you’re not having sex. Yes, it might feel awkward. It could be painful. The potential for hurt feelings abounds. But isn’t it better to know the truth? Get real with each other, about don’t be afraid to say what’s really on your mind. If you’re going to get naked with this person physically, you should be able to get naked emotionally, as well.
If, after you’ve talked, you’re both on the same page about wanting to save your marriage, it’s time to get serious about fixing the problem. Don’t just pay lip service to the idea of having more sex, and fall right back into your same sexless routine. Make a goal of how many times you’ll have sex (aiming for that once-a-week benchmark) and get out your calendars.
You Might Also Like: Why It Doesn’t Matter What Kind Of Orgasm You’re Having
Los-Angeles based psychologist and sex therapist Erica Marchand tells The Huffington Post that putting sex on the “to-do” list might seem like a drag, but it’s necessary. “All my clients hate ‘scheduling’ sex, but really, with the busy lives we all lead, there are rarely opportunities for spontaneous sex,” she said. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. However, this doesn’t mean doing something you’re uncomfortable with, or having sex as a “service” to your partner. Your sex dates should be something you’re both committed to, and comfortable with.
Lighten up and have fun
Once you’ve talked it out and made the decision to increase the amount of sex you’re having, it’s time to remember that sex is supposed to be fun. Flirt with each other. Go sex-toy shopping together. Plan fun dates, that may or may not end up with sexy times. Take the pressure off and don’t focus only on intercourse. If it’s been a while, you might need to learn to relax and enjoy each other’s touch again. If that’s where you are, Kristin Zeising, a San Diego-based psychologist and sex therapist, tells The Huffington Post that she has clients practice “sensual touching exercises” that entail giving your partner “loving, affectional touches from head to toe” at whatever pace feels good to you both.
Cuddling could be a great way to get things started, too — although there’s some debate about whether or not it fuels the erotic fire, or kills it. In general, touching each other is a good idea, so if you’ve gotten out of the habit of holding hands, kissing hello and goodbye, hugging each other, patting each other’s butts when you pass by, etc. — get back in the habit!
Another thing to keep in mind is that many of us are hung up on some idealized image of what sex should be like, and it could be holding us back. Psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, author of Money, Sex, And Kids: Stop Fighting About The Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, advises couples to lighten up. “Because of movies and TV, most couples have an exaggerated, stressful image of sex,” Tessina tells The Huffington Post. “Focus on having fun and realize that some sex encounters go well, some don’t…Spend more time giggling, talking and being silly during sex.”
If you’ve tried it all — talking honestly, seriously trying to solve things, scheduling sex, taking the pressure off, and having fun together — it might be time to admit that there’s something more serious wrong with your relationship, and it’s not salvageable. But don’t give up before you’ve given it a try. Sometimes all it takes is a small shift to make a big difference. And keep in mind, the goal is once a week, not every day. It’s totally doable — and so are you. So go and get it!
More From SHE’SAID’:
9 Ways To Feel Connected To Your Partner If You Can’t Orgasm
18 Ways To Put The Spark Back In Your Sexless Marriage
The Upside To Scheduling Sex (And Why You Should Try It)
Are Sexless Marriages and Relationships Normal?
Tune into any TV show, the radio, or your Twitter feed, and the message is clear: If you’re in a relationship, you should be having hot, mind-blowing, on-top-of-the-table sex … all the time.
Yet research shows that 10 to 20 percent of romantic relationships in the United States are “sexless,” according to Robert Epstein, PhD, a San Diego-based research psychologist and founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Beverly, Mass. That accounts for about 40 million people in the United States.
And that may be an underestimate, because people are reluctant to ‘fess up about no-sex relationships. Because of society’s obsession with sex, some couples feel ashamed to admit that they’re not experiencing a certain level of sexual frequency or satisfaction.
In fact, one survey found that 30 percent of male participants in their 40s and 34 percent in their 50s who were in a relationship hadn’t had sex the previous year. For women in their 40s and 50s, about 21 percent reported no sex with their partner in the previous year.
So what’s really going on in America’s bedrooms?
What ‘Sexless’ Really Means
Technically, a sexless relationship is defined as when a couple has sex less than once a month or less than 10 times a year, says Dr. Epstein.
What does that mean for your relationship? One thing is for sure — it doesn’t mean your relationship lacks love, says Jennifer Freed, PhD, marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Barbara, Calif. She estimates that about 5 to 7 percent of the couples she sees in her practice are perfectly happy in their sexless marriages.
If you’re in a sexless relationship, the main thing you should ask yourself is: Are you and your partner content about not having sex?
Are Sex-Free Marriages Always a Bad Thing?
Relationships lose the sex factor in a variety of ways. Both partners may have a very low sex drive and choose not to have sex very often. Sometimes, however, life gets in the way: A couple’s sexual satisfaction may be disrupted by pregnancy or a new baby, health problems, or aging in general.
Epstein remembers a psychology professor who said this: When sex is good, it’s 5 percent of the marriage, but when it’s bad, it’s 95 percent of the marriage. “The key is to understand what’s good and bad,” he says. Good means that each person’s sexual needs are being met. Bad means that at least one person’s needs are not being met.
If both members of the couple have a very low sex drive and their needs are being met, then they can have a perfectly happy, sexless marriage, he says.
When there’s a physical reason behind the lack of sex, such as a health problem, and both members of the couple have agreed that they’re okay with their rate of sexual activity as a result, they can also be happy. After all, couples can hug, cuddle, hold hands, give each other back rubs, spoon, and be intimate in other ways.
Problems occur when there’s an imbalance. This could happen if one partner has a low sex drive and the other has a high sex drive — even if they both started out with similar sex drives and then one’s sexual satisfaction needs changed, or if one partner develops a health issue, such as incontinence, that leads them to shy away from sex, and the other partner isn’t happy with the change.
Not very surprisingly, many people in sexless relationships aren’t happy. According to preliminary data that Epstein has collected from 3,000 people in the United States and Canada, 4.8 percent of men identify themselves as having a low sex drive, and more than twice as many — 10.8 percent — of women say they do.
“That’s a big difference,” Epstein says. “It suggests that females in general will be with males who have higher sex drives.”
What Should You Do About Your Sexless Relationship?
If you’re wondering where your relationship falls, take one of Epstein’s research tests online at arewegoodtogether.com or myloveskills.com.
Sexless relationships aren’t something for couples to aim for, Epstein says. Becoming sexually intimate is good for emotional bonding and great for your health and well-being. It burns calories, strengthens your immune system, has cardiovascular benefits, elevates your mood, and feels good.
But couples also shouldn’t feel as if they have to measure up to the Hollywood standard of sexual satisfaction or performance, Freed says. “Successful relationships have to be something that you create uniquely,” she says.
If you’re concerned about the state of your sex life, get more information on therapy, treatments, and ways to spice things up in our Sexual Health Center.
5 Women Sound Off On Their Sexless Marriages
If you struggle to recall the last time you had sex with your spouse, you’re not alone. According to one study that analyzed survey data back to 1972, approximately 15 percent of marriages are “sexless,” meaning the couples say they haven’t had sex in the past six months to a year. But that doesn’t make it any easier — for some — when a week without sex turns into a month and a month turns into a year or longer. Some couples see a lack of sex as a sign the relationship is over; others don’t.
To find out more, here are the stories of five women and their sexless marriages.
I have been married almost 20 years. I married a man knowing he had erectile and performance issues. I was in denial, but married him anyway. We have lived a tumultuous marriage, almost divorcing. We have three kids. Two were conceived through artificial insemination (twins). We have been in and out of therapy, dealing with everything. I have worked on talking about our sex life. I started marking off time to have sex to make sure we did so at least every six months. Sex has always been way more important to me than it has ever been to him. He has taken performance- enhancing drugs. The difficulty with this throughout our marriage has turned me off to anything physical with him. I am no longer yearning for a physical companion. We are friends, and I stopped trying for more. He — 100 percent — is not having an affair. This is working for us for now, but deep inside I don’t think it will be forever. Life is busy for now, raising my kids and working full time. I have to say, given financial freedom and stability, I would not be where I am today.
I want to stress that it’s important for women NOT to ignore their gut feelings, or their honest concerns, about their husband’s lack of a sex drive. I was dissuaded from standing up for myself in part by the data that suggest a percentage of men just aren’t interested in sex. As I explain to my friends today, “you can convince yourself of anything because you can usually find an article or some research that ‘proves’ it.” This is what happened with me. I was concerned about our lack of intimacy, and I was concerned that my ex-husband was gay … but I could always find articles or research stating that in some percentage of marriages, this lack of intimacy was normal. In my case, my ex-husband was attracted to men for almost our entire 25-year marriage. Many times, I initiated what I thought were honest discussions about the fact that he was seldom interested in having sex with me. After these discussions, he would make an effort, but it was never long-lasting. At times we went as long as nine or 12 months without sex. Eventually, on Jan. 1, 2014, he finally said out loud that he was attracted to men. He told me in the weeks afterward that he had no plans to tell me that day, and that he had hoped to continue keeping it secret while he dabbled on the side in a “safe” way. To this day I beat myself up for not speaking up louder, being more decisive — doing something — to produce some true honesty on this issue. This is the advice I have for women: Speak up! You deserve honesty, and you deserve a full expression of marital love.
As of July 2019, I joined the ranks of those who have not had sex with their spouse in over a year. My husband has health issues that cause him to be in constant pain and, to top it off, he has low testosterone. He has no interest in sex anymore. In the past I have tried to talk to him, but it always sounds like I am putting him down, and I know he feels bad. We are just stuck in this pattern of me wanting sex but not initiating it, because I know either he will turn me down or if he manages to get an erection, it goes away within minutes. This leaves neither of us satisfied — and me feeling unsexy and unwanted. I can’t seem to talk to him without crying, which puts him on the defensive. I know he loves me, and I love him. I am just lonely in our relationship.
I have been in a sexless marriage for over 15 years. My husband and I are very much in love, and I am sure that we both wish that things could be different. I went into early menopause at age 31, which did slow things down a bit. But at the same time, my husband suffered erection issues, and I can see that this bothered him immensely so I guess as time went on, intimacy became less and less important. The frustration that we both would experience was becoming ridiculous. As time went on, it became a two-year, four-year, seven-year, 10-year stretch with no sex. And then came prostate cancer, and after this surgery erection was virtually impossible. Do I wish that things were different? Certainly, but I don’t focus on that aspect of our life. All day and every day I enjoy what we do have, which is each other.
I have been in a sexless marriage for the past six years. It all changed when I had a hysterectomy in 2010. I tried for the first few years after the hysterectomy … I tried hormones orally and some vaginal prescription to increase secretions. I tried lubricants and ended up with just using vaginal estradiol to keep atrophy from occurring. Then I finally gave it up, as it was just too painful for me. He says he still loves me, and I do love him, too, but now we don’t do anything at all. No kissing, no holding hands and no intimacy of any sort. I don’t do anything because, personally, I don’t have any desire, plus I think I have a mindset that it will hurt regardless of what we do or don’t do. Then I worry about getting carried away and knowing I can’t allow him to penetrate me. I miss having sex, but we didn’t really have sex on a regular basis throughout our marriage. I think we had more sex in the beginning. But then kids came around, there were activities, and life took over. We almost divorced in 1999, but then moved from one state to another. There was one more time with a brief separation during our first year in the new state, and another time later. Then things resolved themselves and we are still together. We have not considered counseling. On occasion, I think it would be good for us. But I don’t think my husband would behave the way he does at home. I think he would put on a show for a therapist just to get through the sessions.
Are you in a sexless marriage? We will be covering this topic again in the near future. If you’d like your story included (you can remain anonymous), please email us at [email protected] and put “marriage” in the subject line.
Is your relationship still filled with sparks? (Lauren Fleischman for The New York Times)
Why do some couples sizzle while others fizzle? Social scientists are studying no-sex marriages for clues about what can go wrong in relationships.
Married men and women, on average, have sex with their spouse 58 times a year, a little more than once a week, according to data collected from the General Social Survey, which has tracked the social behaviors of Americans since 1972. But there are wide variations in that number. Married people under 30 have sex about 111 times a year. And it’s estimated that about 15 percent of married couples have not had sex with their spouse in the last six months to one year, according to Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, who has studied sexless marriage.
I recently spoke with Professor Donnelly about how much researchers really understand about no-sex marriages. Here’s our conversation.
Is there any indication that the sexless marriage is becoming more common? Or are we just hearing about it more?
I suspect that we just hear more about it. Back in the days before reliable birth control, having a sexless marriage was one way of limiting family size. Those were also the days when women were not supposed to enjoy sex and often used it as a bargaining tool in their marriages (because they were socialized to do so). Plus, unhappy couples (who are less likely to have sex) were more likely to stay together because of social expectations, or because they had children they were raising.
Why does a marriage become sexless? Does it start that way? Or does sex fade?
The answer to that one is both. Some of the people in our sample never had much sex from the beginning, while others identified a particular time or event (childbirth, affair) after which sex slowed or stopped. Some people become accustomed to their spouse, bored even, and sex slows. For others, it is the demands of raising a family, establishing a career, and mid-adulthood. And there are people who have very low sex drives, and may even be asexual. They may have some sex with their partners to begin with, but it becomes unimportant to them (and usually not so unimportant to their spouses). These folks may also be dealing with guilt, issues with the human body, or feel that sex is “dirty” or only for procreation. A small number of couples showed a mixed pattern, where they would have periods of “feast” and of “famine.”
Are couples in sexless marriages less happy than couples having sex?
Generally, yes. There is a feedback relationship in most couples between happiness and having sex. Happy couples have more sex, and the more sex a couple has, the happier they report being. But keep in mind that sex is only one form of intimacy, and that some couples are fairly happy (and intimate) even without sex. In my 1993 study, I did find that people in sexless marriages were more likely to have considered divorce than those in sexually active marriages. There is no ideal level of sexual activity — the ideal level is what both partners are happy with — and when one (or both) are unhappy, then you can have marital problems.
Can people in a marriage that has become sexless rekindle their sex lives?
Some do. But once a marriage has been sexless for a long time, it’s very hard. One or both may be extremely afraid of hurt or rejection, or just entirely apathetic to their partner. They may not have been communicating about sex for a very long time (if ever) and have trouble talking about it. Couples who talk over their sex lives (as well as other aspects of their marriages) tend to have healthier marriages, but it’s hard to get a couple talking once they’ve established a pattern of non-communication.
There are mixed opinions about what to do to rekindle marital sex. For some couples, it may be as simple as a weekend away from the kids, taking a vacation or cruise, or just having some time off, alone. Others may need help in re-establishing communication and may seek professional assistance. The sad fact is that there are few counseling professionals that deal with this issue. Often, marriage counselors focus on other aspects, rather than sex. While these other aspects may play a big role in sexual inactivity, talking explicitly about sex is essential.
Are people in sexless marriages more likely to get divorced?
In my studies, as well as others, people in sexless marriages report that they are more likely to have considered divorce, and that they are less happy in their marriages.
Some of our former respondents have kept in touch with me, and the happiest ones are actually those that have moved on to other partners. It may be that lack of sex is a signal that all intimacy in a marriage is over, and that both would be happier in other situations. I know that this may not be a popular idea with the religious and political right, but it may be a better solution than staying in a marriage that is hurtful and unfulfilling.
In sum, these situations are just so complicated. Each couple has to examine their specific histories, their motivations and goals, and whether it is worth it to them to work on putting sex back in the marriage. It can be a difficult task and require that people take emotional and physical steps that aren’t comfortable for them.
What else are you trying to learn about sexless marriages?
I’m hoping to begin some longitudinal work which follows couples over time, to try and understand better the processes they experience, how they make decisions, and how these decisions affect their future happiness. Ultimately, I’d like to know how those who were able to repair their sexual relationships did so.
What is a sexless marriage? Can it affect your mental health?
Research suggests that being in a sexless marriage doesn’t mean that you and your partner are never intimate. It means that you are only having sex once or fewer times a month.
When sex is lacking in a marriage, both partners suffer. It’s more than just having an orgasm and feeling great (though that doesn’t hurt either). It’s about connecting with your partner in mind, body, and soul. It is about feeling secure in your relationship.
When these important aspects of love are taken out of the marital equation, trouble is soon to follow.
Here are 7 studies that prove that a sexless marriage can hurt your relationship and your mental health- and there’s nothing shallow about it.
Sexless Marriage Causes Depression
Research proves that marital satisfaction is significantly associated with being satisfied in bed. Not only does sex feel amazing and lower your stress levels, but it also connects a couple on a romantic and emotional level.
Another study highlights that increasing sexual activity from once a month to once a week can raise happiness levels as much as making an extra $50,000 at your job.
When you do not have the emotional connection and the flow of beneficial oxytocin running through your body that comes from having sex, you may begin to feel depressed.
Here are some signs that your mental health has taken a turn toward depression:
- Feeling helpless, sad, and alone
- Experiencing feelings of worthlessness
- Constant fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant pessimism
- Feeling unmotivated
- A significant change in appetite or eating habits
- Digestive issues
- Scattered thoughts or difficulty concentrating
See Also: 7 Ways You Can Start Coping With Depression Naturally
Reduces Marital Trust
Studies done by Northwestern University and Redeemer University College found that trust is important to a happy marriage.
The precious oxytocin hormone released during intimacy has been shown to cause a substantial increase in trust, allowing people to feel braver, more trusting of their spouse, and more willing to take emotional and social risks together.
When you are in a sexless marriage, you may feel less physically and emotionally trusting of your partner, which can damage other areas of your relationship.
Straying Thoughts and Hearts
Couples who spend time together are happier than those who don’t and it doesn’t have to be special. Studies show that anything from washing dishes side by side to romantic date night can boost happiness and lower stress. And sex certainly contributes to happiness.
Studies also suggest that the oxytocin released after sex is responsible for feelings of monogamy – particularly in men.
When you are not feeling emotionally or sexually satisfied in your marriage, you may have thoughts of looking elsewhere for such satisfaction. This may cause you to feel guilty or worse, follow through with your desire to cheat and possibly ruin your relationship.
See Also: Tips For Happy Marriage: 7 Simple Ways To Maintain A Loving Relationship
Stunts Communication Skills
When you are no longer intimate with your spouse, you may feel uncomfortable opening up and being vulnerable with one another. This can severely stunt your communication skills.
We have all heard that communication is the backbone of a healthy marriage, but did you know communication also contributes to a healthy sex life? Research proves that couples who are willing to talk about sex enjoy higher relationship satisfaction and increased orgasm frequency in women.
Couples need to discuss their sex life. Communicate about what feels good in bed, what kinks you’re into, and what you and your spouse can do to make sex feel more satisfying for you. It is also essential that couples be open, honest, and kind about what may be stopping them from enjoying a healthy sex life.
Studies show that stress can negatively affect your libido. Hurt feelings from past relationship mistakes, marital boredom, and certain medications can also play a role in a lowered libido.
You Become Easily Irritated
Sexual satisfaction predicts heightened emotional intimacy for couples. The more satisfied you are in bed, the closer you will feel to your partner. When this intimacy is lacking, you may find you are growing apart or becoming irritated with one another.
Because oxytocin makes you feel calmer and less stressed, a lack of this love hormone can do just the opposite. As your mental health and relationship happiness decline, you may start to feel annoyed with your spouse over small things. Arguments become more frequent and you may even hate being in the same room with them.
Lack of Intimacy Hurts your Emotional Connection
Is it normal for your sex life to take a dip? Yes and no. Research shows that later life couples (ages 70-86) were more likely to choose emotional intimacy over sexual intimacy as they age. But those same studies also indicate that midlife couples (ages 50-69) often become distressed by changes in their sex life.
So yes, your sex life is sure to change and go through ebbs and flows the older you get. However, a complete lack of sex or only having sex once a month is sure to create problems in your marriage and with your mental health. Instead of favoring your emotional connection, you may feel like you are growing apart.
When you are not being regularly intimate with your spouse, it can cause resentment to build. You may start to wonder why your spouse doesn’t care about your sexual satisfaction. More importantly, you begin to question why they are giving up on the emotional connection you share or overlooking the wonderful benefits that sex brings to your marriage.
If you have discussed your sex life at length and your spouse doesn’t seem to want to change or communicate about why they are resistant to intimacy, it can cause you to feel neglected, hurt, and angry.
If a lack of intimacy is causing you to have thoughts of straying, you may even start to resent your spouse for making you feel the need to look outside your marriage for pleasure or validation.
Are you living in a sexless marriage? If so, this can affect your fidelity and self-esteem. It can weaken the love you once felt for your partner. There is no doubt that a lack of sex can hurt your mental health, your feelings, and in some cases, even your physical health.
Like this Article? Subscribe to Our Feed!
Author: Syliva Smith
Sylvia Smith loves to share insights on how couples can revitalize their love lives in and out of the bedroom. As a writer at Marriage.com, she is a big believer in living consciously and encourages couples to adopt this principle in their lives too. By taking purposeful and a whole-hearted action, Sylvia feels that every couple can transform their relationship into a happier, healthier one.
- More Posts (4)