Don’t Settle for a Sexless Marriage

Sexual partnerships are as variable as snowflakes. Each couple dances to a unique harmony. For some, sex remains a vibrant and fundamental part of the love and intimacy between them. But for many others, sex fades into a boring and infrequent routine or it just doesn’t happen at all. And that’s not a happy place to be.

Each couple dances to a unique harmony.For many couples, sex—or the lack of it—becomes the white elephant in the room. They ignore; they avoid; they work around it. But generally, it’s an underlying irritation and cause of increasing anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Whether lack of sex is the cause of these emotions or is collateral damage caused by other problems becomes hard to tease out. Just the fact that the darned elephant is sitting there on the couch takes a lot of energy to ignore.

Relationships without sex are common—it’s estimated that from 20 to 30 percent of marriages are sexless, which is roughly defined as having sex 10 times per year or less. Even though women tend to struggle more with libido during menopause, “women don’t have a corner on low libido,” says Michele Weiner-Davis, therapist and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage in this very worthwhile Ted talk.

The number of times couples “do it” per year isn’t the point. Really, who’s counting? It’s the level of contentment and connection between them that counts.

“If a couple is OK with their pattern, whether it's infrequent or not at all, there isn't a problem," says clinical sexologist Judith Steinhart in this article. “It's not a lack of sex that's the issue, it's a discordant level of desire.”

And that discordant level of desire—when one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t--can cause deep, relationship-destroying pain.

We’re hard-wired for connection. We crave intimacy and emotional safety within our committed relationships. And sex is a powerful intimacy-builder.

But when it becomes the sole task of one partner to ask for sex, and when he or she is frequently rejected, a hurtful dynamic is set in motion. More is at stake than a roll in the hay. One’s self-worth and sense of being attractive to, connected to, and cared for by a lover is on the line. In research studies, that kind of rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.

Over time, repeated rejection morphs into anger, frustration, and contempt—or withdraws into boredom. Communication and connection on other levels shut down. Intimacy flattens like stale beer. We all know couples who don’t touch or make eye contact, or share a joke.

With discordant levels of desire, the person with less need for intimacy controls the relationship, says Weiner-Davis in this article. The bargain goes like this: “I am not into sex. You are. But I don't have to care about your sexual needs. Furthermore, I expect you to be monogamous.”

Besides being unfair, the fatal flaw of this unspoken agreement is that relationships are built on mutual caretaking, and when that falters, the essential contract begins to crumble. Sex in a loving relationship is a reaffirmation of that mutual caring—a giving and receiving of pleasure, intimacy, and trust. That’s what we all deeply long for, and if it goes away, we deeply grieve its loss.

So, whether you’re the withholder or the seeker in your relationship, there’s good news. Even couples in long-term relationships can reignite the flame. “It’s never too late to have a passion-filled marriage,” say Weiner-Davis. That doesn’t necessarily mean shades of gray, sex on the kitchen table kind of passion, but it does mean a renaissance of sexy touch, playfulness, cuddling, and general “canoodling,” says Foley.

For starters:

  • Explain how you feel. Often, the partner with a lower libido doesn’t understand the hurt caused by rejection and lack of physical intimacy. Explain how much you miss the physical expression of love in your relationship. That it’s painful to feel he or she isn’t interested in being close to you. That you don’t want to settle for parallel, unconnected lives. That sex is important.
  • Just do it. If you’re the low-libido partner, sometimes, you just have to get started in order to feel desire. If your partner clearly needs a little cuddle time, seize the opportunity to please and affirm your partner, whether you feel like it or not. If you can’t get into the mood, you can touch, kiss, and pleasure your partner in other ways—masturbation or oral sex, for example.
  • Get creative. Familiarity and routine can be a serious buzz kill in a long-term relationship. Sometimes, mixing it up a little reignites the spark. Maybe recall the moves that used to turn you on or maybe take a midwinter break for a rejuvenation weekend. Be new lovers for each other.
  • Get a physical. We all slow down with age. This isn’t problematic in itself, but if the slowing is one-sided or if either or both of you want more action between the sheets, then a complete physical workup should be one of your first steps—for men and women. Sexual functioning is linked to so many physical and emotional variables—medication, stress, depression, illness—that teasing out the possible intersections is a job for the professionals. Once they’re diagnosed, sexual issues can usually be treated or improved.
  • Get counseling. Maybe you need a few sessions to jump-start communication. Maybe you need a deeper dive to unearth ingrained bad habits. Counseling, group therapy, a marriage retreat or some other reset might help address blind spots and self-defeating behavior. If your partner doesn’t want to go, you should go alone. "Counseling can help you figure out strategies to help yourself," says Sallie Foley, director of the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Michigan in this article.

Tackling a sexless marriage isn’t easy. Even if the status quo is unsatisfactory, changing it is risky and uncomfortable. If you’re continually gnawing on irritation; if you feel rejected and unattractive to your partner; if you’ve shut down and settled for boredom, it’s time to rattle that cage, express your feelings in a loving way, and actively seek out help.

 


Dr. Barb DePree MD
Dr. Barb DePree MD

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2 Responses

Gary
Gary

October 30, 2019

From the article: The bargain goes like this: “I am not into sex. You are. But I don’t have to care about your sexual needs. Furthermore, I expect you to be monogamous.”

From the article: Besides being unfair, the fatal flaw of this unspoken agreement is that relationships are built on mutual caretaking, and when that falters, the essential contract begins to crumble. Sex in a loving relationship is a reaffirmation of that mutual caring—a giving and receiving of pleasure, intimacy, and trust. That’s what we all deeply long for, and if it goes away, we deeply grieve its loss."

I want to add some comments because I don’t think the above fully captures how frustrating this situation can be for a man with a high sex drive. It’s not just “grieving the loss of pleasure and intimacy”, it’s that in a committed marriage, you can’t ethically go out and have it with someone else as a substitute while your wife deals with her issues, goes to therapy, or whatever, for MONTHS.

And here’s the absolute icing on the cake. When this happened in my situation and my wife was entering menopause, I had grown children i their last years in high school who were having sex. I’m not the envious type at all in terms of externalizing it, and I’m very sex positive and encouraging with my kids, but what drove me completely mad was that here I had children living in my own house who had sexual privileges I DID NOT HAVE. They could go out an have sex with anybody they wanted, while I was essentially not allowed to have sex with anybody, and I was supposed to just “suck it up” for who knows how long. It stung that the best I could do was resort to porn, while my kids were going out and having real sexual relationships. Yet my kids looked to me for sexual advice (little did they know my situation!). It almost got to the point where I was tempted to ask them what it was like to have sex with enthusiastic partners. I felt infantilized by my situation. As this situation went on for far longer than I ever thought I could tolerate it, I seriously considered hiring an escort, as I didn’t want the mess of an affair. I mean, if my own kids, who weren’t even married, could have sex, well, then, why can’t someone like me, who’s married??? LOL

My wife and I were even in therapy to resolve this situation, but the part about being incensed by my situation that my kids could have sex and I couldn’t, I felt that was too stupid to mention to anyone at the time. So I just bottled that up because it wasn’t fair to mention that to my wife, and obviously, not an issue the kids even need to be burdened with at all.

Mind you, my wife has so many other positive qualities that I didn’t hold this against her, since I knew it was stress, menopause, etc. So that insight on my part kept things from spiraling into a bad situation as I understand typically happens.

But you just have to understand how INCREDIBLY frustrating this is for a man with continued high libido well into midlife, especially when dealing with issues like menopause where the solution isn’t done in a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, or possibly forever.

NW
NW

December 31, 2018

If you have to negotiate and work at it like a tedious job then what is the point?

It is no fun and you might as well arrange your sock drawer

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