Finding Your Way in a Low-Sex or No-Sex Marriage

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Low-sex and no-sex marriages have been around for a long time. In the bawdy 411 B.C.E. play Lysistrata, Aristophanes has Spartan and Athenian women agreeing to withhold sex until their warring husbands agree to lasting peace. Female novelists such as Virginia Woolf and George Eliot (real name: Mary Anne Evans) also have written about them. And remember the so-called frigid television housewives of the 1950s? Today they’d often be considered cause for alarm.

Those of us who are boomers born between 1946 and 1964 probably are among the first generation to think we should continue having hot sex well into old age—after all, didn’t we invent guilt-free sex during the summer of love in 1968? Weren’t we the first to embrace birth control?

The collision between this sense of sexual entitlement and the physiological reality of an aging body is distressing for many of the 50- and 60-plus-year-old people who phone me in a panic.

There’s no single reason so many of us are suddenly so unhappy with our sex lives, but I’ll explore a few. First, many people are depressed and/or taking psychotropic drugs that squelch erotic feelings and numb erogenous zones. Second, women may be less inclined to stay married when they have the financial ability to leave their husbands. (In this piece I’m focusing, of course, on heterosexual partnerships.) In my 30-plus years as a marital therapist, I’ve found that women file for divorce about twice as often as men.

I’ve also noticed that parents are increasingly obsessed with their children, organizing and chauffeuring them to so many activities—from soccer to Spanish lessons to kiddie-yoga—that it would make an air-traffic controller dizzy. Young couples with babies at home also have problems as they sacrifice sleep and intimate time together. Nursing mothers, in particular, often cease to feel like sexual beings. One mother I know slapped her husband’s hand away when he caressed her breast: “Those are for Timmy!” He laughs about it now, but at the time he said he was “crushed and indignant and resentful of my first-born son.”

It’s difficult enough for married couples to find time for conjoint therapy with me in my office. So how do they find private time for sexual intimacy?

Despite the example of Aristophanes’ wives, I believe few women consciously withhold sex. Among couples I work with, I more often see smoldering resentments slowly driving a wedge between men and their partners. This is why marital counseling can be helpful—but only if the therapist is experienced with couples.

The old-fashioned or traditional approach suggests that marriage counselors should focus on getting husbands and wives to talk to one another, with the idea that better sex flows with better communication. And most of us buy into this. I often get couples to face one another and discuss, for example, the last time they shared an intimate experience: Who initiated, and how? What did each of them enjoy most about the encounter, and what were potential turnoffs? Sometimes the results are surprising. Todd, for instance, loves to have Laurie (not their real names) stimulate him orally while they’re driving on long trips. He is astonished to learn that she’s disgusted with this, but has felt too insecure to turn him down.

Better communication is important—but only when it’s about the real issues. Intimacy involves more than simply talking. The problems you are having sexually can be symbolic of problems within the relationship. But no-sex or low-sex marriages can be perfectly happy. I can’t tell you how much sex you should be having, but I will say that erotic connection—whether or not you have intercourse—can be the glue that holds you and your partner together through challenging times.

Sex comprises only about 20% of what goes into satisfying marriages, but when it’s missing, it becomes 80% of the problem.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CCS, therapist in Los Osos, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bret

    Bret

    September 26th, 2012 at 2:21 PM

    The main reason why this problem is not tackled at an early stage in most couples is because it does not happen rapidly,it happens gradually,and the couple just doesn’t know when the sex declined and is now non-existent.I went through this stage a few years ago and all the things that come with raising a family overtook our sex lives and it was just zero sex for me and the wife.

    Talking about it didn’t really help because even though we spoke of it we didn’t know how to go about solving it or even have the time and energy to indulge ourselves.Finally what did help was a friend’s advice to prioritize things and even have date nights minus the kids. It did bring the spark back.

  • rosalyn

    rosalyn

    September 26th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    you are spot on there with the concluding part.sex is not everything but just like water it is necessary in a marriage.while its not necessary to have loads of it to enjoy,it is necessary nevertheless.thanks for the insightful article.

  • Tiffany.H

    Tiffany.H

    September 26th, 2012 at 11:53 PM

    There are so many couples leading perfectly normal lives as a couple and having no marriage issues without any sex at all! Maybe it is a fact hard to grasp for those whose relationships have traditionally leaned on this aspect but there are a lot of such couples.Sex lost is not love lost and certainly not marriage gone awry.Things can remain normal as long as that CONNECTION between the partners remains strong.

  • FT

    FT

    July 29th, 2016 at 11:10 PM

    Tiffany… you’re kidding yourself.

  • Ivan

    Ivan

    September 27th, 2012 at 5:32 AM

    Things can after marriage.Its not the same as being in an unmarried relationship.And when the kids start to arrive the chaos has no bounds.All this can push the sex out of a relationship.It is not easy but working on your relationship would help.I am no expert to give precise pointers but yes a little bit of an effort can be the difference between a separation and a marriage that overcomes all these bumps and still survives well for a long long time.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    September 27th, 2012 at 6:07 AM

    Thanks for broaching this subject.

    While you make many interesting points, I particularly agree with “smoldering resentments” accounting for a decline in intimacy.

    I have been a Psychotherapist for many years. I love my work, especially with couples. When people dominantly feel they “don’t matter,” they become protectively distant. I often see couples who behave like prize fighters, in their respective corners, who only come out to fight. They are often fighting to “matter.” This is hardly a fertile ground for intimacy, with or without sex.

    Thanks for giving providing meaningful insight about the subject of sex in relationships.

  • Ashley

    Ashley

    September 27th, 2012 at 10:44 PM

    It’s never a good idea to lose focus even if the sex isn’t great anymore. Constant work is required for the relationship to survive all the bumps that come on the way and lack of sex is one such bump.

    It’s better to stay focused on the relationship rather than let yourself lose interest in it due to the disappearance of just one aspect.

  • Felix

    Felix

    September 28th, 2012 at 5:41 AM

    To all those saying sex isn’t important-It certainly is and I have no idea why you say that! While there are a whole lot of other things in a relationship and further more in a marriage, sex was,is and will remain an important part of a romantic relationship. And its demise can drastically push the relationship into a different direction.

    So the key would be to ensure that this doesn’t happen and that the fire remains. Saying its not present and that’s okay is not going to make it work. Getting it back on track will!

  • Liss

    Liss

    September 30th, 2012 at 5:41 AM

    While marriage can exist without sex, it seems to be primarily marriages where sex isn’t possible that flourishing without sex is most likely to occur. Illness or injury making sex impossibe can divide couples, but can also bring them closer together. In my practice I find couples reluctant to talk about being a “no sex” couple – one or both are embarrassed because they think no one else has this issue. So I’m thankful to the author for writing on this topic. Providing a safe environment for talking about this issue can be difficult but I’ve found that if I prepare the way by normalizing the fact of marriages with various amounts of sex, from very frequent to low or no sex, it’s helpful.

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