If Google tells us anything about what people are thinking, sexless marriage is never too far from people’s mind. Searches for ‘sexless relationship’ are second only to searches for ‘abusive relationship.’ The fact is that nearly 1 in 3 marriages are sexless, as defined by having sex less than 10 times a year. Many go decades without it. For those of us who find ourselves in such a predicament, there are many questions: Should I stay or go? Can this ever change? Is it worth leaving a relationship over sex? Am I a terrible person for not wanting sex with my partner? Is he/she?
I work as a sex coach for couples working to overcome sexless relationship to stay together, but I don’t just know the problem from a professional angle. I myself recovered from a sexless marriage after struggling with painful sex, lack of orgasm and an utter loss of libido when I understood that missing out on sex was missing out on an important part of myself and how I express love — and that things had to change.
The thing is that a sexless marriage doesn’t become so overnight. Mine didn’t. In fact, the sex itself is usually not the issue in a sexless marriage. Sex is a mirror of trust and vulnerability, expression and surrender in a relationship — or a lack thereof. It can help it grow or it can highlight all the weakness in its foundation and all the ways that partners lack trust in each other when it comes to talking about their sexual desires and what they need and want. A lack of sexual intimacy is often the result of a pernicious pattern of sexual disconnect that leads into patterns of pulling away in shame, rejection, and unrepaired hurt feelings, perpetuated long enough that it all becomes the hopeless “norm.”
Whether to stay in such a situation depends on how important sex is for you, what else is happening in the relationship, and whether you or your partner intends to do something about it.
Regardless of whether it’s you who’d rather avoid intimacy altogether or your partner who’s rejecting your advances, it’s important to ask these questions:
What does sex mean to you and your partner?
Like all important aspects of our lives, sex carries meaning. Understanding what sex means to both of you will tell you if you’re on the same page with your partner — or not. For some, sex is a recreational activity; for others, it’s a once-in-a-while pleasurable experience of rubbing genitals and sexual release; for others, it’s the utmost expression of physical love and connection without which they cannot have a meaningful romantic relationship. While discrepancies in libido can be physical, they’re also value-driven. If one partner does not value sex in the same way, they will not make it a priority, rejecting the other. This isn’t personal; but it is an important aspect of sexual compatibility and the ability to make it work. If sex is a major part of your dream for a fulfilling and nourishing romantic relationship, can you live without it? And if sex is not important to you, can you happily be with a partner for whom it is?
When faced vulnerably, these tough questions can lead to deeper and more satisfying solutions that honor both partners and what is important to them, however hard that solution may be.
Was sex good before?
I mean really good. Was the sex so good that it was worth wanting? Did it meet your needs and fulfill your desires? Did it nourish you? Did it feel free to express yourself fully? And did your partner meet you in the same way? Or was it just ok? Did you feel that there could be more — but you were afraid to express that? Were there things you were afraid to do, say or try? Did it feel like you had to withhold a part of you? And vice versa for your partner. Sex is supposed to be pleasurable and safe and connecting for it to be worth wanting. In fact, our desire for sex hinges on it. If sex is not worth wanting, we will not want more of it.
Having said that, bad sex itself is rarely the issue; bad sex can be fixed when both partners are willing to listen to each other, experiment, and learn by hiring a sex coach, reading books or taking a class. Where couples fall into despair is in patterns of not speaking up about it, creating a cycle of unsaid desires, unmet needs, and unrepaired hurt that breed resentment and anger and either passivity or contempt — all of which create close the door to closeness and intimacy. In my work with couples, those who are willing to speak to each other honestly and frankly about what they want in terms of what works for them inject much needed healing that makes change possible. It fuels each partners desire to do more.
Not everyone, of course, can do everything you want in sex. There are true and genuine differences in compatibility. However, understanding that and healing the hurt that came from lack of communication can enable partners to find solutions that work for both of them from a kind and loving place.
Is one of you physically unable to participate sexually? Has the body changed significantly to make sex painful? Is depression affecting your sexuality?
If one or both of you is permanently injured, suffering from chronic illness, or has faced a life change such as childbirth or menopause that makes sexual activity limited or impossible, physical as well as emotional impairment can change the nature of sex as its meaning and priority. However, in and of themselves, these impairments do not make a sexless marriage. It’s the emotional windfall from change that does. In facing (or not being able to face) their inner struggle with change, people will often pull away in shame or shut their partner out by ending communication, making it difficult to come close with each other — which sex requires. The relationship often spirals downward when neither partner feels safe or comfortable to genuinely express themselves and come towards each other — whatever circumstance life brings.
Physical and emotional limitations are certainly barriers to sexual activity. With desire and willingness to stay open and vulnerable with each other, couples can and do overcome these challenges and deepen their connection — whether it’s by deciding to stay together or by supporting each other to find alternatives.
All in all, there are many reasons why couples diverge around sex. But none of them in themselves necessarily create a sexless relationship or the end of one. It is the unresolved hurts — those moments where one or both partners feel unseen, unacknowledged and unfelt in their pain or needs — that calcify into patterns that keep couples apart and distant, killing sex in the process.
So the last question to ask is:
What has been left unrepaired?
When hurt feelings are left unrepaired and partners feel further and further away from each other, the desire to come closer through sex naturally disappears. Lack of sex follows lack of connection, intimacy, and most importantly, trust that they can be heard and supported. On top of this, couples often collude by staying silent or by blaming each other. It’s easier to have no sex at all than to deal with hurt feelings and unpredictable emotions, but the more they avoid the deeper conversation, the more the resentment and anger grow, further pushing them apart and making reconnection impossible. This cycle is hard to break, but not impossible. I see this with my clients all the time: couples who are willing to get vulnerable and make honest admissions of the ways that one or both avoided dealing with the situation not only repair the relationship, but strengthen it.
In this way, problems with sex are crucibles for growth. They’re invitations to step into your power by taking a stand for what matters to you and choose what is right for you, freeing the other person to choose to meet you or find alternatives that are right for them. And the level of heat and eroticism — the things that keep sexual intimacy going and going — depend on each individual’s ability to be in integrity with themselves.
A sexless marriage is an opportunity to confront each other honestly and vulnerably to heal areas of yourselves and your relationship. It may look like staying together and strengthening your closeness and bond, or it may be leaving your partner to seek what you need and allowing them freedom to find their fulfillment. There are no right answers to this challenge — only answers that honor and work for you and your partner. First get clear headed about this. Then talk to your partner.
If you don’t feel that you know the answers for yourself, talk to a sex coach or sex therapist to get clear about what you want and what’s important to you. Enroll into couples coaching and let a trained professional help you both break through the patterns to deeper connection. Know that you never have to do this alone.