Sexless Marriage: Is It Time for a Contract Review?

Rear view of couple walking down street holding handsFondly called “The Port,” my hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts provides a gorgeous backdrop for a wedding. It’s a charming seaside city that boasts nostalgic reminders of days gone by when the harbor bustled with schooners and was jammed with commerce by the sea. The boardwalk and brick-laden downtown are a photographer’s dream. My kitchen looks onto a well-manicured private park. White rental chairs magically come and go most weekends from May through October. Brides, beaming in their white gowns, and grooms, dashing in their formal wear, signify the promise of a special union that will last forever. There’s nary a hint that the blissful glow of matrimony may wear off, much less that lovemaking will stop.

Are sexless marriages a sure sign that the honeymoon is over?

I’ve been a psychotherapist for a long time. Early on, I was taught that a couples assessment included asking if they were still sexually active. An affirmative answer was a positive predictor. If sex had stopped, the prognosis wasn’t good. I believed the question was far too personal for a first meeting, so I joked that I wouldn’t put them on the spot until the second session. By and large, women wanted to talk about sex and men didn’t. Many gents brokered terms in advance: “I’ll go to counseling, but if you bring up sex, I’m walking out.”

There is no one-size-fits-all model that says couples have to have sex. It’s between two people to decide what works for them. Cultural and religious messages may perpetuate the notion something is wrong if they don’t. When both people mutually agree not to engage in sex, I accept it. If it isn’t broken, it doesn’t have to be fixed. However, most couples who land on my counseling couch have big problems in the bedroom.

I’m a prolific internet surfer, as are most of the people I work with in therapy. Access to current research is as close as a keyboard. Subjects such as “sex” and “sexless marriage” may be explored in privacy, at one’s own pace. The abundance of articles, blogs, and books on these subjects strongly suggests that sexual dissatisfaction in marriage is a hot topic. Suffering in silence contributes to depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. These do not bode well for relationship health. People have questions and they want answers.

Sex is part of a larger connection between two married people. Clarity between spouses is essential. If problems exist, making meaningful changes may improve quality of life and marriage. My awareness/choice model invites people in counseling to know where they are before charting a course for where they want to go. Each partner bears personal responsibility for maintenance of the union. If one person has a problem, they both have a problem.

Preparation prevents poor performance. Prepare for a powerful conversation with a spouse by thinking thoroughly about yourself.

  • Self matters: Take some alone time for exploring your core story. Who are you and what makes you happy? “I want to talk about how unhappy I am in my marriage,” you might say. “Why do I have to talk about myself?” Because before there was a we, there was a me. And there still is.
  • Sexual history: Experience is our teacher. When intimate interaction with others is significant, it is stored in the brain as data. Memory retrieval is ongoing, even when we don’t request it. Once we learn how to drive, we do it without thinking. The same may be said for sex. Is the route scenic and enjoyable or simply the fastest way to get from point A to point B? Both have merit. The answer is subjective, contingent on individual and partner preference.
  • Marriage contract: Many people bristle at the word “contract.” “It’s not romantic or spontaneous,” they might say. Neither is feeling stuck, trapped, and miserable. “I’m afraid to think about it. This isn’t a good time.” There’s never a good time. You owe it to yourself to know why you’re unhappy. Contract reviews are opportunities for clarification, modification, and, sometimes, I wonder, with the high rate of divorce, whether marriage vows will become renewable contracts. Life is a dynamic process. Communication is essential for updating. Emotional bankruptcy and divorce are unpleasant alternatives, but rarely a concern when people say, “I do.”

Now validate your story. Get some paper, grab a writing utensil, and give yourself time to complete the following three reflection workouts.

Reflection Workout No. 1

Use a rating scale of 1 to 7. With 7 as the highest level of personal satisfaction, assign a number that captures how you honestly feel about your attractiveness, attraction for your partner, desire for sex, and desire for sex with your partner. Give reasons for the number and identify changes that would increase it by one. For example, if you rate your attractiveness as 4, identify why and what you are willing to do to take it to a 5.

Words of caution: People generally downgrade their attractiveness. Cultural pressure to be humble contributes to a belief that there’s always room for improvement. Unfortunately, thinking that way suppresses feeling good. That’s a problem when the goal is happiness. People also struggle with honesty regarding attraction for their partner. It’s protective. “I wouldn’t want my partner to give me a bad grade,” some might think. This often perpetuates denial, which, in turn, distorts the starting place for productive communication. Unacknowledged feelings fester. Once there, they generally won’t go away.

Reflection Workout No. 2

Draw a horizontal timeline. Make notations a few inches above and below it. Anything written above the line indicates positive experiences you’d love to have again. Anything below is something you do not wish to repeat, nonnegotiable. The past is the past, but you may learn from it and update for future decisions. Notations that hover closer to the timeline are negotiable experiences. You may or may not be thrilled, but they are acceptable compromises.

Reflection Workout No. 3

Assess the stress and strengths in your marriage. Draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and write the word “marriage” inside. Draw 12 circles around it like numbers on a clock. Think of relevant elements: money, home, cars, jobs, family, in-laws, sex, health, attraction, pets, hobbies, recreation, celebration, fitness, etc. Write one in each of the surrounding circles. You don’t have to fill all of them and you may add more, if necessary.

Are you in a sexless marriage? Was this agreed to in your contract? When partners demonstrate willingness to be agents for the change they want, especially in the bedroom, change can occur. If your partner is resistant to your invitation to think and talk, seek counseling. A facilitated discussion will likely move things along.

Choose one of three symbols to connect the center circle with each of the others. A straight line signifies a positive connection; things are going well. It’s important to recognize strengths. They are resources, especially when stress dominates your day. A zigzag line represents stress. It visually emphasizes a pocket of unresolved upset. A dotted line reflects things are so-so. Combined straight and stressed symbols help some people to portray that both are true. In these instances, note what is working well and what is not. Take a few minutes to complete the exercise. Don’t overthink it.

If reading this article and completing the three exercises above elevates your awareness, it’s time for me to remind you that you have choice. Create a list of viable options that will change your current situation. I call it a “whiteboard of options” and ask people in therapy to write at least five. Then, I ask them to cross off the most unrealistic and those that represent venting. This leaves reasonable steps that will take you one digit closer to 7 on that 1-to-7 scale.

Give a copy of this article to your partner. Ask them to read and complete the workouts too. Now, you are ready for a powerful conversation. Here’s a bit of advice: In order to effect change, it is better to say what you want as compared with dwelling on circular discussions about what’s not working well.

Are you in a sexless marriage? Was this agreed to in your contract? When partners demonstrate willingness to be agents for the change they want, especially in the bedroom, change can occur. If your partner is resistant to your invitation to think and talk, seek counseling. A facilitated discussion will likely move things along.

Finally, recognize that no answer is an answer. Actions speak as loud as words. It means the contract has already been voided. Plan accordingly. Don’t go back. Go forward.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pandora L. MacLean-Hoover, LICSW, therapist in Blue Hill, Maine

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mary


    September 28th, 2016 at 7:58 AM

    I could not live in a sexless marriage. Even when there have been times that I didn’t necessarily feel up to it, I think that it is part of what a husband and wife should do for each other. I just feel like for me the rift between us would grow to large to bridge without having sex to bridge it for you physically and emotionally as well.

  • gem


    September 28th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    how do you even get them into counseling when they refuse to talk about it?

  • Destinee


    September 28th, 2016 at 2:39 PM

    It certainly isn’t up to me or even my place to judge anything like that but I know that there are marriages that survive just fine without sex and then there are other relationships that are based solely on sex. I guess that you and your partner have to be the judges of just how important this is to the both of you and go from there.
    You can’t ever let what someone else feels is right or wrong dictate what goes on in your marriage. That’s your business and yours alone.

  • Dane


    September 29th, 2016 at 7:31 AM

    Why does having a marriage contract sound like something that only Hollywood couples would have?

  • kirby


    September 29th, 2016 at 1:59 PM

    Just because one person is alright with having no sex doesn’t mean that the other person is. Yeah in that case it is definitely time to sit down and talk about it because ignoring it is only going to make things worse.
    I mean, I guess if one partner wants it like that then they aren’t going to see it as a problem at all, but when this isn’t something that the two of you have decided on then it is like Houston, we have a problem.

  • Tim


    September 30th, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    Surely there are not that many men who would put up with that

  • Kevin


    October 2nd, 2016 at 2:33 AM

    There must be a hell of a lot that do , it’s nearly always the woman saying NO !! Sexless marriages are very common !!

  • Leonard


    September 30th, 2016 at 12:38 PM

    THere would have to be some revisions because this is not what I signed up for. Your physical relationship with one another has to be a big part of that. I am not buying into the fact that you can have a happy marriage without sex because that ain’t even a real marriage.

  • Kevin


    October 2nd, 2016 at 4:37 AM

    Every single solo by choice woman I know , has confirmed that women are happy , if not happier , being celibate. There is obviously a HUGE disparity in sex drives , men need a safe and effective libido killer , that does not affect the male drive to get things done , to bring men into line with women , men will achieve far more & women will be happy men are leaving them alone . The ” headache jokes ” are really truisms !!

  • Lindy


    October 5th, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    Personally I don’t know of any women, myself included, who are happier being celibate. I think that we are all always looking for ways to keep our relationships hot and spicy.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    October 7th, 2016 at 5:54 AM

    Hi Lindy,
    Thanks for reading my article and commenting. Feedback is great!

  • Renee


    October 14th, 2016 at 4:54 AM

    Great article!!! but I think its every individuals choice and where are at our core self, nobody now where that other person has been or where there heart and head is at, when comes to this subject, For me its a very hard subject and feel there are other ways to be able to get close with your partner and enjoy each other company with out being sexually active. But it is a conversation that tow people should of talking about prior to marriage, I do agree on that, but never thought about til now.

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