If your marriage is sexless, there is a way back to rekindling intimacy. It’s not easy, but it might not be as impossible as you think, either! We’ll help you understand some potential causes and then give you some direction to start point your marriage relationship back towards the wonder and joy of sex.
The Problem of Roommate Marriages
Sexless marriages are more common than I thought. In fact, research has found that 16% of marriages identify as sexually inactive.[i] However, what is surprising is that the research is not as common as you might expect. This topic was more difficult to find research on!
The first study we found looked particularly at marriages in which one spouse greatly desired sex to be a part of the relationship, but was forced to remain involuntarily celibate (desiring sexual contact but not receiving it for 6 months) due to the wishes of their spouse. This is a common situation in sexually inactive marriages.[ii]
The 6-month mark was someone arbitrary, but the researchers suggest that the length of time one has been celibate is not as important as whether one self-defines as involuntarily celibate.[iii]
The bottom line is your marriage is sexless if your spouse thinks it is, or you do.
Another study looked at whether sexually inactive marriages were less happy and stable than those with sexual activity. Donnelly found that sexually inactive marriages were correlated with the following:
- Unhappiness in the marital relationship
- Increased likelihood of separation
- Lack of shared activities
- Few arguments over sex.
She concluded that “although sexually inactive marriages are not uncommon, they are not happy, stable marriages in which the partners simply do not have sex. Lack of sexual activity may be a danger signal for many marriages.”[iv]
Perhaps it would be more useful to think of sexual inactivity as a symptom of a problem rather than thinking it is the problem itself.
Think about it; if it doesn’t change, and your marriage remains sexless, you’re at risk of seeking to fill that cavity elsewhere. That’s not good.
Consider thinking of it as a symptom because if you take care of the relationship you’ll probably see this take care of itself. In fact, when Caleb does marriage counselling, he spends more time repairing and reawakening the bond that exists between the couple. When that secure, emotional connection is thriving again, most couples sort out the sex issues by themselves.
To those of you who are withholding sex… I want to challenge you. I get why you might be doing that, but there are consequences that I want you to be aware of. Here are some of the consequences of sexless marriages, all taken from the same study[v]:
- “some of the most common responses to involuntary celibacy are sexual frustration (79%), feelings of depression (34%) or rejection (23%)”
- 26% report problems with concentration
- 35% described deficits in self-esteem that occurred as a result of being rejected.
If you’re unhappy in your marriage, I can see why you’d withhold sex to kind of force the issue or try to regain some power, but in all likelihood, it’s actually really working against you – if repairing the marriage is what you want to do.
If your husband or wife is acting like a monster, why would you want to have sex with him or her? I get that! At the same time though, withholding sex is not a successful strategy for moving towards repair. The Bible even talks about the danger of withholding sex in 1 Corinthians 7 – we’re not to do that.
Yet, I would guess the reason why you’re withholding or your spouse is, is because you want intimacy – not just sex. If your spouse is not abusive, a better strategy would be to address the lack of intimacy rather than just highlight it by withholding sexual intimacy as well.
So let’s get practical here. How are couples who find themselves in this situation supposed to move forward? There is not a lot of research on this, but looking at what we do have gives much insight into the roots of sexless relationships, which can give us some direction on how to move forward.
Finding the Root of The Problem
Here is something for you to think about. It is theorized that “couples stop sexual contact when one partner sees the costs of sexual activity as outweighing rewards and no longer perceives the balance of the exchange as equitable.”[vi]
How does a spouse get to a point in which the costs of sex outweigh the benefits? A variety of situations can lead to this, but the number one answer in a study from 2008 was a “lack of interest by one’s partner (either ongoing or appearing suddenly).”[vii] Couples reported that this lack of interest usually came out of one of the following stressors or life situations:
- relationship problems
- physical appearance
- illness (physical and mental)
- sexual dysfunction
- low sexual desire: low or no desire for any type of sexual activity
- lack of sexual interest: not desiring sexual contact with one’s spouse, but desiring or having other sexual outlets
- combination of the above.[viii]
It seems, based on this research, that how a couple moves out of a sexless marriage will have a lot to do with what is at the root of their sexual problems.
If one or more of these issues are present in your marriage, that’s what you need to work on.
For example, if pornography is a major issue in your marriage, your job is not to out-sex the porn world. You can’t – it’s not real life. Pornography addiction has to be addressed.
If pregnancy and having a baby led to the lack of interest, then restoring the marriage union as the most important relationship in the family unit is possibly where the focus needs to be.
If a physical illness has led to sexlessness, then it’s about doing whatever you can to remedy that illness so you can restore this part of your marriage. In some cases, if there is permanent and irreversible sexual dysfunction then it becomes about how you can find other ways to be sexual with each other, given those constraints.
In any case, it is helpful to be forthright about the problem, even though it’s hard to talk about. Really get to the root of the matter and take care of that. Often we just talk about stuff, or discuss the symptoms – if you want to see change, you need to get to the root issues.
Re-Establishing Patterns of Communication
Probably the best place to start is to try to reopen the communications link. Donnelly found that couples in sexless marriages tend to not argue about sex[ix]. Arguing about sex may be more normal than you think. If you never talk about it, chances are, it will never happen.
Researchers state that “most sexual behavior involves a level of bargaining, which includes decisions about initiation, timing, and types of sexual activities. When negotiations break down, partners may withdraw from sexual interactions.”
You get to sexlessness if you stop fighting for it. Not that I want you fighting against each other, but I want you fighting for your marriage. If you look at it that way then it might give you back the strength you need to reopen the subject, and hopefully talking about root causes and why you got to where you are today, and how to get back.
Sometimes it can be really overwhelming to know where to start.
Start Talking About Sex
Move past the fear, and start making those difficult conversations easier to have! Our conversation guide will lead towards more open discussions about sex with your spouse.
In an interview, Donnelly was asked, “Can people in a marriage that has become sexless rekindle their sex lives?”
She replied, “Some do. But once a marriage has been sexless for a long time, it’s very hard. One or both may be extremely afraid of hurt or rejection, or just entirely apathetic to their partner. They may not have been communicating about sex for a very long time (if ever) and have trouble talking about it. Couples who talk over their sex lives (as well as other aspects of their marriages) tend to have healthier marriages, but it’s hard to get a couple talking once they’ve established a pattern of non-communication.”[x]
Re-establishing a pattern of communication seems to be the first step in moving forward in sexless marriages.
Next Steps Forward
Apparently, there are mixed opinions about what to do to rekindle marital sex, but Donnelly believes that moving forward will look different for each couple. Moving forward may begin with one of the following:
- Take a weekend away from the kids – go on a vacation or cruise
- Find time to be alone as a couple
- Find help re-establishing communication through professional assistance.
- Finding some way to talk explicitly about sex is essential.[xi]
That would be our advice too – you need both parts of what is being suggested. One is to carve out time for your marriage where you two are able to be alone, and be able to speak calmly and safely to each other. The other part is that you need to talk this through. At the very least, use our discussion guide or even better, the assistance of professional help.
Your marriage does NOT have to stay at roommate status. In fact, it probably won’t over the long term anyways (in that you won’t have a marriage in the long term…) so you really want to address this in the way that you feel is likely to be most successful in restoring your marriage and intimacy and sexuality.
[i] Denise A. Donnelly, “Sexually Inactive Marriages,” The Journal of Sex Research 30, no. 2 (May 1, 1993): 171–79, doi:10.1080/00224499309551698.
[ii] Denise A. Donnelly and Elisabeth O. Burgess, “The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship,” Journal of Marriage and Family 70, no. 2 (May 2008): 519–35.
[iv] Donnelly, “Sexually Inactive Marriages.”
[v] Donnelly and Burgess, “The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship.”
[ix] Donnelly, “Sexually Inactive Marriages.”
[x] Tara Parker-Pope, “When Sex Leaves the Marriage,” Well, 1244048846, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/when-sex-leaves-the-marriage/.