Sex and the Ailing Marriage: Choosing Counseling over Resignation

Couple sitting on opposite edges of bed“We never have sex anymore.”
“He wants it all the time.”
“I think my wife is seeing someone.”

These are some of the common opening lines I hear from couples who have landed in my consultation office. Certainly, sex is not the most important component of a happy and healthy marriage. Yet it remains one of the primary signs of an unhappy or failing marriage. Some of the most common problems in the bedroom include infrequent or absent sex, extramarital affairs, and addictive cybersex. The presence of any of these will, over time, erode the foundation of even the strongest marriage.

A recent study indicates that 15% to 20% of marriages are “loveless” meaning that the couples have sexual intercourse less than 10 times per year. This occurs in recently wed couples nearly as often as in long-term partners. Many of these couples are anxious and reluctant to address the lack of sexual activity or to explore ways to build greater interest and excitement into their sex life. They are likely to rely on vague clichés such as “there’s no chemistry between us” or “we’re both just too tired.” These couples often make tremendous and rapid changes in therapy as they uncover ways to rekindle their relationship.

Historically, couples faced these sorts of challenges with denial or benign neglect. Some sought out specialized help in the form of sex therapy. In the latter instance, the focus of their work would have been almost exclusively on increasing sexual passion or encouraging more experimentation and playfulness in the bedroom. And, while for a certain percentage of people the presence of an underlying sexual dysfunction and/or a history of sexual abuse are truly the cause of a failing sex life, for most couples, problems in the bedroom stem from a much broader range of issues.

Some biological differences between the sexes can lead to misunderstanding and resentment in the bedroom. Many men, unaccustomed to exploring their feelings, think that through the act of intercourse they are reaffirming their love for their wife whereas women often need to feel emotional intimacy before they can experience physical arousal. It’s common for men to turn to sex as a way to relieve stress, unaware that their partners require a relaxed state of mind as a prerequisite for good sex. Couples who are willing to talk frankly about how timing and setting influence their readiness for and interest in sex often fare better than those who are reluctant to share their thoughts and preferences. The latter often are greatly assisted by a psychotherapist who creates a relaxed atmosphere and encourages, with a non-judgmental mindset, these exploratory conversations.

Certain couples, especially those who tend to avoid directly addressing other marital tensions, are prone to using sex as a weapon, both assaultive and defensive. A wife who feels hurt by her husband’s absence or angry outbursts may assert herself indirectly by refusing her husband’s advances. A husband who feels bullied by his wife in other domains, may reassert his masculinity by being overly aggressive in bed. These are common scenarios. Other examples include a wife becoming seductive towards other men as a means of retaliation for her husband’ s lack of support or admiration, or a husband retreating from sex when experiencing jealousy regarding his wife’s intense friendships. These struggles can be subtle; most often, they occur outside of the couple’s conscious awareness.

Extramarital affairs remain the most commonly cited cause of divorce. Affairs are one of the most painful events that couples encounter and yet, remarkably, nearly two thirds of marriages survive and even thrive following this traumatic experience. Recent studies reveal that 15-35% of married women and between 20% and 50% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship. These problems have been compounded in recent years with the use of the Internet for online affairs, which only 45% of men believe to be evidence of infidelity, or for online pornography addiction. Some couples remain together due to financial and religious concerns or because of their commitment to their children. For a good percentage of marriages, an affair is a powerful wake up call to address profound cracks in the foundation of the relationship.

Cybersex and internet pornography are recent additions to the challenges that couples encounter in the bedroom. The 2006 movie Little Children highlighted the destructive impact of Internet sex on marriage, with the depiction of a man compulsively masturbating online and displaying no interest in sex with his wife. The increase in pornography in recent years has been exponential: it accounts for 25% of video rentals and is the fourth most common reason people give for going online. Psychoanalyst and brain researcher, Norman Doidge, MD has written extensively on the causes of this hobby and, in some cases, addiction. As with other addictions, the brain, when exposed to increasingly hardcore sexual images, builds up a tolerance: in order for the pleasure centers of the brain to be activated and dopamine to be released, the intensity has to be ratcheted up a notch. The reality of one’s sexual relations with one’s real partner of several years cannot meet the brain’s need for ever-heightened stimulation. The challenges of trying to relate to a partner while trying to get their “fix”only makes things worse. Boredom, increased anxiety, and avoidance of sex with one’s mate then set in and the cycle perpetuates itself.

For many of these problems, couples therapy can provide a safe, structured, and supportive environment in which to explore unacknowledged grievances and to learn essential tools to promote affection, communication, and respect. John Gottman, the noted marital expert, believes that improving the friendship, promoting playfulness, and devoting adequate time to the marital relationship will set the stage for an atmosphere of sexual desire. Many therapists agree with this outlook and stress that rather than working on sex therapy techniques, couples will benefit most from working on broader issues. Some basic goals include improving listening skills, promoting an atmosphere of mutual appreciation, and scheduling time for the couple. Often, couples find that when they feel more valued and emotionally safe within the relationship, everything, including affection and sexual passion, begins to flow more freely.

© Copyright 2009 by Suzanne Burger, Psy.D., therapist in White Plains, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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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  • Sandra

    Sandra

    February 18th, 2009 at 11:59 AM

    This article is speaking directly to me. I found out very recently that my husband has been using internet pornography for years now, and suddenly everything became clear to me. We had always had a very good sex life as far as I was concerned but it was becoming increasingly difficult to have a connection in the bedroom. He really did seem to be very disinterested in me. I thought for sure that he was having an affair. And i guess in a strange way he was, only it was not with just one person. It was with the hundreds of porn websites that he frequented over the years. I was so angry that I could have knocked his head off. But I knew that in order for our marriage to survive I had to come to a time and place where I could forgive him and begin the hard work that it would take to move on. We have entered couples therapy and you are right- it is not just about sex but about learning how to reconnect with one another. I have to learn that this was not about me and that he has to be the one to deal with and overcome this compulsion to seek an escape from life online. It is hard work but I have faith that we will get there.

  • Dr. Stephanie Buehler

    Dr. Stephanie Buehler

    February 18th, 2009 at 6:46 PM

    I am a sex therapist, and while I agree with some of what you have written, I don’t agree 100%. For many couples, it is a myth that if you fix what’s wrong outside the bedroom, they will start having sex.

    The fact is that we get poor sex education–it’s all the 2 p’s–plumbing and prevention. People get into long term relationships and they don’t understand the level of communication that needs to occur to keep sex passionate and meaningful. And, a whopping 40% of women and 30% of men have a sexual dysfunction–and that’s probably under reported. BTW, the stat that I have on sexless marriage is 25% of marriages. If this was an illness, it would be called an epidemic.

    My wish is that more therapists would have deeper and broader training in human sexuality so that fewer of them would continue subscribing to the myth of “fix the relationship, fix the sex.” Sometimes sex really is bad, or desire is mismatched, or someone has an aversion to sex, or sex is avoided because hurtful comments have been made. These symptoms deserve to be treated as such.
    Dr. Stephanie Buehler

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    February 19th, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    Dr Buehler I agree with you. I think that when there is a mismatched desire in the bedroom from either party that has to be fixed as well. People can have a great relationship outside of the bedroom but real issues there that continue to hurt the overall relationship.

  • Paula

    Paula

    February 20th, 2009 at 3:56 AM

    Well I think there are some very different issues here. It is one thing when a couple does not have compatible sex drives- it is another when the connection happens to be missing elsewhere in the marriage and just happens to carry over into the bedroom. Not everything can be fixed with great sex!

  • Olivia

    Olivia

    February 23rd, 2009 at 2:59 AM

    The ultimate result from this though from my standpoint is that marriage is not just something that you can give up on. Yes that is often the easy way and there are situations in which there is abuse and cruelty that of course the relationship should end. But in many other instances we must make a better effort to keep families intact and together. Do not give up. We all know that there are some fantastic family and couples therapists out there and available along with sex therapists who have loads of information that every couple can use to get their relationships moving again in the right direction. Sometimes it seems that couples hit a bump in the road and they are ready to throw in the towel. Marriage cannot continue to be looked at this way. It takes effort and work to keep a marriage strong and there will always be peaks and valleys. But I am a firm believer that if you work at it that can only make a relationship stronger than ever before. I wish that others could get to the point where they feel the same. Marriage is a scared institution and you have to be willing to give 100% all of the time to make it work.

  • Julian

    Julian

    February 25th, 2009 at 1:59 AM

    I think everyone at some point likes to delve in fantasy and watching porno doesnt make you an addict. Unless of course you do it everyday and find yourself slipping into a zone of must have. I believe understanding and accepting each other goes a long way when life takes a little zing out of the love. Sex is only a by-product of that.

  • Dr. Nicole Coffelt

    Dr. Nicole Coffelt

    February 25th, 2009 at 5:43 PM

    It is my earnest wish that more couples would pursue counseling much, much earlier than they actually do. As a therapist, the biggest dilemma that I see on a regular basis is that people pursue this avenue after one or both have entered a state of hopelessness. This is often too late. While such despair may be evidenced by an infrequent or nonexistent sex life, it can also be demonstrated in many other ways… a lack of respectful communication, a sense of apathy with regard to the other person or the marriage as a whole, etc. Another powerful force that has a tendency of sneaking in and eventually damaging the closest of relationships — but which we have the power to dilute — is that imposed by unresolved emotional wounds from childhood and/or past relationships. I just picked up a fantastic book on this topic that (so far) I’d highly recommend: “When the Past is Present: Healing the Emotional Wounds that Sabotage our Relationships,” by David Richo. Could be a helpful resource to add to the list of books by John Gottman for therapists and couples alike.

  • Holly

    Holly

    February 27th, 2009 at 12:23 AM

    It’s very difficult to go on when love has died. Sometimes what kills it most is having no time at all. The mundanity of everyday life and long distance in a relationship kill the connection like nothing else. Sex doesnt fix things where love doesnt bind.

  • Gayle

    Gayle

    February 28th, 2009 at 6:10 AM

    I dont know if I sound crazy but I’ve stayed in a loveless marriage for the last 5 years cos the sex has been great. I guess I dont have any expectations out of my spouse and neither does he. I dont think we are “faithful” to each other but that hasnt really bothered me or him. We dont have children by choice and I think that has not made it complicated.

  • Vanessa

    Vanessa

    March 13th, 2009 at 2:27 AM

    I agree as well with Dr. Stephanie… I am 38 years old and for me I often think something is wrong with me. There are so many times i just want to go to bed and don’t really think about having sex.. Maybe it’s cause I’m getting older, I don’t know… My husband even points it out that I’m not as interested as I used to be.. I often think, if it’s not the same thing over and over maybe I would be interested.

  • Daisy

    Daisy

    March 15th, 2009 at 1:11 PM

    No one said marriage was easy or would be easy.. as with any relationship… it takes work… as with the sex of it….it does help if the sex is spiced up every once in a while… but sex isn’t everything.

  • Felicia

    Felicia

    March 15th, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    I have to disagree a little with Daisy.. I think many would be lying if they said sex really didn’t matter.. It does to me, but it’s not the main thing….I dont want someone just lying there and not doing anything, but I also don’t want some to think they have to have it every single day neither.

  • Teah

    Teah

    March 20th, 2009 at 3:04 PM

    it would be great if both great sex and a great relationship were available in one person… What I mean is.. some have great sex, but the relationship and closeness isn’t there while some have great relationship, but the sex is lacking…. It would be nice to have both.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    February 4th, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    I know there is a lot of merit to this article and believe it can be most helpful for clients. That said, I firmly believe Dr. Buehler makes an excellent point. In my work, I know how enhancing the overall relationship can indeed enhance the sexual part of the relationship and yet that piece needs to be delved into as well. Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT

  • maribelaguirre@hotmail.com

    maribelaguirre@hotmail.com

    March 25th, 2013 at 2:10 PM

    This article is just in time. My husband and i got married 5 years ago. When we first started the sparcle was there, then the daily routine and me lead him feel frustrated about our intimacy. He has expressed he needs to have more intimacy with me, but he felt he has pushed too much for me to change and have more desire for sex, which i dont. I love my husband a lot but i feel his comments, and him just pushing too much, makes it difficult for me to be engaged and feel the need to have sex. Our marriage is in crisis now. He is at the point where he is ready to leave our marriage because of our intimacy. Any comments or help would really help. Thank you.

  • tee

    tee

    July 12th, 2013 at 6:48 AM

    I been married for 3 yrs and I cheated thru the marriage and still is struggling with being faithful. I do go for a couple of months to a yr then I’m back ready to leave my husband. I hate being like this and I need to find a solution or my life will be without my husband and children and to top the cake I’m 4months pregnate and is still not content with my husband. Help please anyone!

  • Julia S

    Julia S

    September 5th, 2014 at 1:22 AM

    Infidelity might cause a lacking intimacy between couples.One should immediately seek help of therapists for the sake of the marriage.

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