No matter how intensely a flame of passion may burn during the newlywed phase—or any other point in a marriage—desire can ebb and flow. And, over the years, a burning fire is liable to downshift into a spark. That spark can then fade and perhaps even blow out completely, resulting in a marriage without sex.
If this is true for you and your relationship, first know that you’re not alone. A 2009 New York Times piece notes that 15 percent of married couples hadn’t had sex in the past six months, and a 2003 Newsweek piece estimates 15 to 20 percent of couples had sex fewer than 10 times per year (which the experts interviewed define as “sexless”). While that intel is indeed dated, it certainly stands to reason that plenty of people—maybe even more now, considering the recent reports of millennials having markedly low sex rates—are still not doing it often or ever.
And while for some couples, having a marriage without sex may conscious, positive choice within the scope of their relationship, for others the situation can be a very painful experience. “Having lived in a sexless marriage for decades, I can personally say that it was one of the most painful times of my life,” says sex and intimacy educator Xanet Pailet. It’s not necessarily the lack of sex that causes the pain but rather the lack of intimacy with your partner. “We can live without sex, but we cannot live without connection and intimacy. Usually, it is that lack of intimacy and emotional connection that creates a deep sense of loneliness and despair.”
While it’s definitely possible to have a strong, intimate connection without sex involved, if intimacy feels lacking in light of a marriage without sex, it’s an issue to address. Below, find the common reasons sex vanishes from the itinerary—plus tips for how to get your groove back.
5 possible reasons a couple may end up in a marriage without sex.
According to Pailet, stress is often the top reason to explain a marriage without sex, which makes sense given that stress can be such a libido killer. “When our cortisol levels are running high, we cannot relax enough to even find our desire for sex,” she says. “This is truly unfortunate since having sex, and especially having an orgasm, actually brings cortisol levels down and is a great natural stress reliever.”
2. Lack of time
Whether it’s due to working long hours or being new parents with added responsibilities, Pailet says not having enough time can put strain on a marriage and lead to a decreased or non-existent sex life. “When you’re exhausted, sleep becomes the priority over everything else.”
3. Emotional issues
Emotional blocks such as anger, resentment, feeling under-appreciated and not emotionally connected to a partner can also lead couples to stop having sex.
4. Unsatisfying sex
Not being satisfied with what’s happening in between the sheets is another common cause of sexless marriages. This is why healthy communication about what works for you, sexually, is so key. Without honest and forthcoming conversation, how can your partner know what you like? “Many people don’t actually know what they want and don’t understand their own arousal patterns, which makes it very challenging to give their partner feedback,” Pailet says.
5. Major life events
When life throws you a curveball in the form of a life-changing event, it can shake up all areas of your life including those related to sex. This can be a number of things, like the birth of a new baby, taking care of an elderly parent, getting a new job, moving, and struggling with health issues. These major life events, Pailet says, can pose difficulty to couples working to find their flow again. Then, suddenly, it’s been weeks, months, or even years since they’ve gotten busy.
Below, find 4 tips for bringing back the heat to a marriage without sex.
1. Communicate your sexual needs
If both partners desire to heat things up in the bedroom again, there are steps you can take to rekindle the flame. The first is communicating with each other. “Talking about the fact that you’re not having sex can open up the door to better communication and create more connection,” Pailet says. That conversation can then lead to future chats during which you can both express your sexual needs and desires without shame.
2. Make sex a priority
If not having enough time is the primary issue, then bringing the steam back can be as simple as reprioritizing and penciling in sex dates in your calendar. “Scheduling sex sends the signal that this is an important part of your relationship, and that you are willing to make time for it,” Pailet says. “A sex date can go in a lot of different directions and does not have to involve intercourse. What’s important is that you have some sort of physical intimacy, even if it’s just a make-out session.”
3. Remove goals and expectations
Another popular reason many couples end up in a marriage without sex is because they put too much pressure on themselves and their partners to achieve a certain goal, like an orgasms. This, of course, can make sex feel like a chore rather than an opportunity for pleasure, which is why Pailet recommends removing pressure, goals, and expectations, and simply working to be in the moment and enjoying yourself. “When the expectations of a specific outcome, like intercourse and orgasms, is removed, then you can be more present with your partner and yourself and truly enjoy whatever is happening,” she says.
4. Work with a professional
Still, sometimes the lack of sex can be a symptom of a deeper issue. If you suspect this might be the case, Pailet recommends enlisting the assistance of a professional, like a sex coach or therapist, to help you and your partner work through.
Did you know there are different ways to get turned on? Learn what separates responsive desire from spontaneous desire. Plus, here’s the difference between intimacy and instamacy.
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