You might be thinking, “What’s considered a sexless marriage? Am I or someone I know in one?” And there is a standard definition. But whether it applies to your scenario can vary.
If we look at the strictest of definitions, a sexless marriage (according to “The Social Organization of Sexuality”) is when couples aren’t engaging in sexual activity or are having minimal sexual encounters.
But what’s considered “minimal” sex?
Dr. Rachel Becker-Warner, a relationship and sex therapist from the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota, defines it as “any partnership where sexual intimacy occurs 10 times or less within a year period.”
However, she also points out that “the difficulty with that definition is the subjectivity of ‘sexual intimacy’ and the concrete stipulation on frequency.”
You get to decide if you fit in society’s definition of a sexless relationship or not. Sexlessness doesn’t have to be a loss of intimacy.
“I think a sexless partnership is better defined as a conscious or unconscious avoidance of pleasure-based physical contact between partners,” Dr. Becker-Warner says.
So, if you’re just having less sex than you think you “should be” and are fine with it, there’s nothing to be worried about.
But if the frequency of sex is a concern in your relationship or partnership, don’t panic. There are solutions.
What’s essential for you and your partner, besides figuring out whether you meet a specific frequency, is to define what sex means to each other. Stop relying on internet stories or other couples’ experiences to dictate what’s “normal.”
No one, except for the individuals in the relationship, should decide if being in a sexless partnership is concerning. Everyone is different. If you and your partner are content with having sex every quarter or once a year, then that’s fine.
But if one of you is feeling hurt from not having your sexual needs met, then this is a sign the relationship agreement isn’t working and needs to be modified.
Sometimes an escalation in fantasies or actions can be a result of feeling less intimate with your partner. For example, if you’re starting to feel resentful and fantasizing about having sex with your co-worker, it might be because you haven’t connected physically with your partner for a while.
Dr. Becker-Warner outlines other factors to consider:
- You can’t remember the last time you and your partner enjoyed sexual intimacy.
- Sexual intimacy is the last thing you want to think about, or your heart hurts when considering the state of sexual intimacy with your partner.
- There’s hesitancy and/or avoidance of initiating physical touch, either because of the potential rejection or the possibility that it’ll lead to unwanted sex.
- Other forms of intimacy (touching, love languages, etc.) are also lacking in your relationship.
- You feel disconnected from your partner.
- You feel that sex is only when the genitals (particularly the penis and penetration) are involved.
If these outline your situation, then you may want to look back at when and why it started. It’s important for partners to define what sex means to them before addressing their perspective or the problem. This is critical to ensure both you and your partner are on the same page when discussing sensitive and personal issues.
This phenomenon may have been at the start of your relationship, or may have begun after a significant life event. It could be a result of hormonal changes. Maybe it developed after losing interest after enjoying sex with your partner. Or perhaps you and your partner have fallen out of sync, desiring sexual activity at different times, and thus avoiding it altogether.
A serious shift in mental state
It’s natural for couples’ sexual activity to ebb and flow, but for couples who report unsatisfying sexless periods, there tends to be a pattern that Dr. Tameca Harris-Jackson, a couples therapist and AASECT-certified sex educator, attributes to a mind-body connection.
For example, sexless periods tend to emerge after:
- dealing with an illness
- experiencing significant body changes
- having an unresolved conflict
- high levels of stress
- feeling constantly worried
“Essentially, the more worried you are, the more it will impact your body, and the less you or your partner will feel aroused or turned on enough to desire sex,” she says. “If you are experiencing menopause or expecting, that can also impact the ability or desire to have sex.”
Intense life factors or situations
Dr. Becker-Warner states that sexlessness is attributed to several life factors, including:
- periods of grief
- life adjustments
- time factors
- betrayal (due to affairs, relationship challenges, or finances)
- internalized sexual stigma
- communication struggles
- untreated mental health issues (depression, sexual anxiety, trauma)
- acquired disability
In Dr. Becker-Warner’s work, a lack of sexual intimacy can become a challenge when one of the partners is negatively impacted and longs for something different. She also notes that, “Long-term partnerships go through their own development, and a significant part of that development is adjusting to loss, including the novelty surrounding sexual intimacy.”
Other common causes
Many other factors can lead to a sexless marriage or relationship. They include:
Talk about it with your partner
If the lack of sexual activity and decreased frequency with sex bothers you, it’s time to talk about it with your partner. As Dr. Becker-Warner says, “Getting relationship help always starts with communicating that an issue exists and a desire to work on it together.”
Before you speak with them, write your concerns down beforehand and say them out loud. Make sure you aren’t assigning blame or shame on your partner.
Dr. Harris-Jackson reminds partners to talk about it, don’t avoid it, and to speak from a place of care and concern, while being careful to avoid blaming.
In these cases, it’s essential for the couple to seek professional help from a mental health therapist who specializes in human sexuality.
If you need help with phrasing, seek guidance with a professional A sex therapist who specializes in relationship and sexual difficulties can help you understand what factors led to the sexless relationship. They can help figure out a plan to get you and your partner to a place where you both feel connected to each other again.
A sex therapist can also help you become more confident in understanding your sexual needs, as well as teach you how to be more open with your partner about them.
A therapist can help you investigate alternative avenues that can lead you and your partner back to each other, while finding some common ground to meet each other’s physical and sexual needs.
Try activities to help reignite romance
When intimacy withdrawal comes from timing and availability, sometimes the best answer is to make time. Proposing a date or activity may be the key to reigniting your relationship and naturally segue into helpful conversations for each other.
Try asking your partner if they’d like to:
- Try a new class or one-day workshop together.
- Go to a night event at a museum, play, or concert.
- Take a vacation, staycation, or retreat with the intention of relaxing.
- Have more sex — simple and straightforward!
Most of all, if you’re feeling distressed and the urge to run off with someone else keeps you up at night, don’t fret. Don’t minimize your needs. Focus on validating your experience, and find the time to communicate with your partner what your heart and body know they need.
You’ll find different prevalence rates on sexless marriages based from data taken from older surveys, such as this 1993 study that found 16 percent of married individuals in the United States reported not having sex in the month before the survey.
A more recent 2017 study found that among 18- to 89-year-olds in the United States, 15.2 percent of males and 26.7 percent of females reported no sex in the past year, while 8.7 percent of males and 17.5 percent of females reported no sex for five years or more.
Those who didn’t have sex in the past year cited the following reasons for not having sex: being older and not married.
According to Dr. Harris-Jackson, “Stats are estimated to be much higher when you account for non-married and other identified relationships. Bottom line, it is much more common than people know.”
Avoid phrases like “dead bedroom” or “bed of death” if talking to your friends or therapist. The emotions those words carry are loaded with resentment and can affect the way you talk to your partner when you get home.
Besides research on the topic being sparse and dated, Dr. Becker-Warner also notes that “most of the studies available are focused on monogamous heterosexual married couples” and not representative of sexually and gender diverse partnerships.
When you look at divorce statistics, a 2012 study found the most common reasons are growing apart (55 percent), communication problems (53 percent), and finances (40 percent). Infidelity or affairs are also a common cause.
Research doesn’t directly connect sexless marriages to divorce, but it can be a factor. It’s just never the only factor.
For some partners, sexual intimacy is an essential aspect that enriches their connection to one another and provides an outlet for a physical expression of affection or love.
If the frequency of sex has decreased to a point that divorce is on your mind, take a step back to consider whether you still feel comfort, trust, and love for your partner. Often, not having sex, or having less sex, is a symptom of something bigger.
If you and your partner have tried to work issues out and feel divorce is the right answer, that’s OK, too. Divorce isn’t a sign of failure. It may be painful and complicated, but it’s not for a lack of love. Divorce is the opportunity to reprioritize yourself and your happiness.
However, Dr. Becker-Warner reminds us that sex as intimacy doesn’t have to be true for everyone. “For others, sexual intimacy is either unimportant or has become a less important part of connection.”
And sex isn’t always necessary to have a healthy relationship.
“There are many people who are in healthy, happy, and vibrant relationships, and they are in what could be defined as low- or no-sex relationships,” Dr. Harris-Jackson says.
“It’s important to remember that sex and intimacy are not the same thing. Intimacy is the experience or act of loving, connecting, and sharing,” she continues. “Intimacy and good communication are key and critical for a healthy relationship. Sex is an important component for many partners, however, and that must be heard and respected for those individuals.”
Remember this: You and your partner get to decide if you fit in society’s definition of a sexless relationship or not — and whether it matters at all! Sexlessness doesn’t have to be a loss of intimacy.
As Dr. Harris-Jackson reiterates: “A sexless partnership does not mean it is an unhappy partnership. On the contrary! A partnership filled with intimacy and support can be very fulfilling if that is what the partners set as a priority in their relationship.”