Wondering why a loving relationship lacks sexual intimacy? Want to overcome the drought and revive your sex life? Let’s talk.
One of the most common complaints among people in long-term relationships? Sexlessness.
Lack of sex in romantic partnerships can be frustrating, whether you’re the one who wants more of it or the one who doesn’t.
But there are many ways you can enhance your sex life and improve your relationship in the meantime.
What is a sexless marriage?
Generally speaking, a sexless marriage or relationship is one in which there are few or no sexual encounters between partners. There’s no universally accepted definition.
Some signs that you could be in a sexless relationship include:
- having sex less than 10 times in a year, or not at all
- a lack of physical and emotional intimacy
- tension between partners over frequency of sex
One study from 1993 found that 16% of married couples had been sexually inactive in the previous month.
Dr. Laura Vowels, a sex and relationship therapist, and researcher at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, estimates that between 2% and 10% of marriages today are sexless.
Sexual desire and frequency ebbs and flows for everyone, so if you’re going through a dry spell or just feel out of sync with your partner, try not to fret. It’s natural and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in a sexless relationship.
Consensual sexless marriage
Lack of sex poses an issue when the level of desire differs between partners. But for couples who mutually agree that sex isn’t a priority, sexless or low-sex marriages can flourish.
There are plenty of valid reasons people remain abstinent in marriage, including:
- equally low sex drives
- religious practice
- avoidance of STIs and unwanted pregnancy
If neither partner believes sex is necessary to show and maintain a loving connection, a strong relationship can persist.
Why does it happen?
When it comes to sexless marriages, there are many possible causes, and sometimes the exact cause is hard to pinpoint. Here are some common reasons why one or both partners may not be interested in sex.
Sexual desire discrepancy (SDD)
SDD essentially means that one partner wants sex more often than the other. Your sexual desires are out of sync.
One 2015 study found that 80% of people experienced SDD within their relationship in the past month.
Everybody — independent of gender identity — experiences drops and surges in desire. Still, if your partner wants sex a lot more than you do (or vice versa), feelings can be hurt, and frustration can grow.
Mental or physical illness
Chronic health conditions, depression, joint or muscle pain, cancer, and other ailments can significantly impact your sex life.
Lowered libido may be a side effect of the condition itself or the medication used to treat it.
For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the first pharmacological treatment for depression. But sexual dysfunction is among their most common side effects.
In one study, Dr. Laura Vowels found that dissatisfaction in relationships where partners had differing levels of desire mostly stemmed from poor communication and disengagement.
Making no effort to work with your significant other in times of sexual desire discrepancy only worsens the situation and can snowball into a lack of sex altogether.
After being in a committed relationship for years, it’s easy to get bored with familiar, bland sex.
If sex is no longer fun and exciting, you’re far less likely to make the time and effort to do it.
How can a sexless marriage affect mental health?
It’s generally true that sex and intimacy are beneficial to your mental health.
One 2015 study confirmed previous findings that frequency of sex is associated with well-being for people in relationships. While relationship and life satisfaction remained fairly stable for couples who had sex at least once a week, those who had sex less frequently expressed lower satisfaction levels.
The frustration and conflict that can go along with sexless relationships can take a severe toll on mental health.
For the person with greater sexual desire, “over time they often start to feel less sure about the state of their relationship (Does my partner still love me? Are we still stable?) or their own sexual self (am I still attractive to my partner? Am I good enough in bed for my partner to want to have sex with me?),” Dr. Laura Vowels says.
Relationship and intimacy coach Amy Color from Vancouver, British Columbia, also explains, “Sexless or sexually depleted relationships cause people to feel lonely, insecure, rejected, and ashamed. Negative feelings lead to negative behaviors: rage,… affairs, substances, overeating, over-shopping, ‘over-porning,’ and depression.”
Is it a deal-breaker?
Most people agree that sex is a necessary part of any romantic relationship. In one Pew Research Center survey, 63% of respondents said that a satisfying sexual relationship was important for maintaining a successful marriage.
However, this doesn’t mean a lack of sex always has to spell the end.
Dr. Laura Vowels believes happy relationships are possible without sex.
“There are people who are happy to remain in a sexless marriage because there are so many reasons why one might want to stay in the relationship,” she says. “Sex is generally good for relationships and provides a whole host of benefits for people, but this doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to still have a healthy relationship.”
Still, dwindling sex and intimacy can certainly have negative impacts on relationships. Whether it’s a “deal-breaker” is up to you.
How can we rebuild our partnership?
While you may feel discouraged if your partnership has gone sexless for a prolonged time, keep in mind that there are ways to rebuild and rekindle your sexual relationship.
Communication is key
Communication is a critical component when it comes to your sex life.
One British study found that maintaining sexual interest in your partner is associated with ease of communication and emotional closeness.
But what should you be communicating about? To boost your sex life and enjoy the sex you’re having, consider these tips:
- Tell them what you want. You don’t have to be shy. Research indicates that when women talk openly about their sexual likes and dislikes, they orgasm more frequently.
- Talk about performance problems. Even though it can be awkward, having frank discussions about erectile dysfunction, delayed orgasm, or pain is important.
- Be understanding. It can feel like a personal dig when your partner doesn’t want to have sex but try not to jump to conclusions. Maybe they’re feeling sick, had a long day at work, or are simply not in the right headspace for sex tonight.
Though it may seem like a drastic measure, going to a therapist can help break down walls of communication and provide the guidance you and your partner need to improve your sex life.
Dr. Laura Vowels uses emotionally focused therapy and sensate focus with her clients.
“Emotionally focused therapy focuses on understanding the negative interaction cycle and helping couples to break out of the cycle and to connect with each other again emotionally,” Dr. Laura Vowels says. “[It] helps couples to talk to each other about the issues and open up an emotional dialogue about their fears, needs, and longings.”
Sensate focus, she explains, “combines elements of mindfulness (staying in the present moment) and exposure therapy (gradually getting used to something that’s feared or avoided).”
Being intimate doesn’t always mean sex.
Intimacy can include physical touch like:
It can also mean emotional closeness, like sharing a deep conversation.
Some research indicates that showing affection, whether verbal or physical, may be an effective way to increase the likelihood of sex.
Up the romance
Whether you have kids, demanding jobs, high stress, or all of the above, making time for romance can seem impossible. But if your sex life isn’t where you want it to be, rediscovering your romantic roots is a powerful tool.
Consider having a date night, taking a weekend trip, or just lighting some candles at home. Romance can be sprinkled in daily, too, with love notes, sweet texts, or little compliments.
For some couples, penciling sex into their calendar is a helpful tool in keeping the sexual relationship alive.
You’re busy. They’re busy. And it’s easy to let weeks of mismatched schedules go by with no sex.
Knowing the idea ahead of time can not only ensure you have sex more, but the anticipation can also serve as a form of foreplay between you and your partner.
Even if you’re not in the mood when the time comes, sexual contact can help trigger an increase in your libido and make it more likely you’ll be eager to jump into bed (or onto the counter) next time.
Spice it up
It’s easy to fall into a routine when you’re in a long-term relationship. Instead of mindlessly coasting through average sex, consider trying something new, whether it’s a new place to have sex, a different position, or a fun toy.
“‘They’ say a relationship takes a lot of work. I say relationships need more play,” Color says. “People tend to think of sex as penetration with orgasm as the goal. Sexual pleasure is the most overlooked element to a great sex life… Stay curious, find out what makes you moan with pleasure, and you’ll never get bored!”
Research shows that couples who report higher sexual satisfaction often incorporate greater variety in their sex acts.
One study found that reading erotic fiction helped women significantly boost their sexual desire.
Sexlessness can feel like an impossible problem to solve, especially if you and your partner find it difficult to discuss it openly. But with time and effort, things can get better.
Dr. Laura Vowels shared promising news: “We recently finished a study which showed that people were able to move away from anxiety, fear, and avoidance into self-confidence and satisfaction with their sexual relationship with their partner. This gives me hope that we can help more and more couples to find their sexual selves again.”