Most of us would agree that having an enjoyable sex life (whatever that looks like to you) is important for them to be happy. For some people, this might mean having little or no sex. For others, it might mean having sex every day.
But what happens when you find yourself in a “sexless marriage?” What does that even mean? Do you need to “fix” a sexless marriage and, if so, how?
Being in a sexless marriage is difficult for both partners. We’re going to look in detail at what’s going on, where the problems are, and what you can actually do about it.
Table of Contents
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what it feels like to be in a sexless marriage, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. When people talk about a “sexless marriage,” they’re not always talking about the same thing.
You might think that a sexless marriage is exactly that; a marriage where you don’t have any sex. But that definition is a little too narrow.
When we’re thinking about the impact on the relationship (and the people in it), the key feature of a sexless marriage is that one or both people want more sex than they are currently getting. It’s a consistent mismatch between how much sex is desired and how much actually takes place.
When researchers are trying to understand a sexless marriage, they usually look at relationships where you have sex no more than 10 times a year1.
Remember that there’s no “correct” amount of sex you should be having in a relationship. The amount of sex you’re having only becomes a problem if one person wants significantly more than they are getting or feels pressured into sex they didn’t want to please their partner.
Now that we know what we mean by a sexless marriage, we can try to understand how being in this type of relationship can affect people. Although we’re talking about the effect of a sexless marriage on a husband, this actually applies equally to whichever partner wants more sex.
It’s also really important that we highlight that none of these effects are the fault of the person who wants less sex. They’re not anyone’s “fault”.
This isn’t about assigning blame or deciding who is in the wrong. No one is. We’re trying to understand the impact of a sexless marriage to help us find a solution that makes everyone happy.
Wanting more sex than your partner can be a bit of a blow to your sense of self-esteem2. When you’re being rejected for sex, it’s normal to feel unattractive. If it happens regularly, you can start to feel worthless or even disgusting.
This isn’t just a case of having a bruised ego and needing to put on Big Boy Pants. It can really knock someone’s self-image and sense of self-worth.
Someone who is consistently sexually rejected by a long-term partner might start to pick faults with their body, their actions, and anything else they can think of as they try to understand why they’re sexually unappealing.
Feeling sexually rejected can feed someone’s “inner critic.” This is the little voice in your head that tells you when you do something wrong or calls you stupid. Sexual rejection can leave him wondering “Is it because I’m too fat? It’s probably because my hair’s receding. I’m just too ugly for a woman like her.”
If you imagine hearing these kinds of thoughts in your mind all the time, you can see how it would quickly eat away at your self-confidence.
Our society places a huge amount of emphasis on being “sexy.” For women, this is usually focused on being young, slim, and conventionally pretty. For men, it’s often more about how many women they’ve slept with and how attractive they are to women3.
If your husband feels sexually rejected, he might feel as though his masculinity is being threatened. This can leave him feeling ashamed. If he thinks you discuss your sex life with your friends, he might well feel judged and humiliated as well.
Obviously, there is so much more to masculinity and being a man than how many women you’ve slept with. We know that and you know that. He almost certainly knows that as well. Unfortunately, that won’t stop him from feeling ashamed and emasculated.
Often, when one or both of you feel as though you’re in a sexless marriage, you’ll also feel an emotional distance in the relationship. This is because sex can be a key part of how we maintain our emotional closeness with our partner4.
This isn’t true for everyone5. Sexual attraction isn’t the same as romantic attraction, but for most people there’s a strong overlap.
When we’re sexually intimate with our partners, we typically feel a strong sense of emotional closeness as well. Even the post-sex cuddle feels emotionally different from cuddling up in bed before sleep without sex.
If you used to have sex but have now stopped, an important form of regular emotional connection between you has disappeared. This can be hard to replace, especially if you don’t feel able to talk about the lack of sex in your relationship.
A good relationship is based on trust. Both people need to trust that their partner wants the best for them and wants them to be happy. If one person feels rejected, this can damage the trust within the relationship.
That trust can be damaged further if the other person feels pressure to have more sex than they want to.
Neither person is necessarily in the wrong. It’s ok to want or need sex and it’s equally ok to not want to have it. It’s also ok to communicate those feelings. When it comes to talking about sex, though, both people often feel too awkward to talk openly and there can be a lot of guilt, stigma, and embarrassment.
Being in a sexless marriage doesn’t have to damage trust in your relationship, but it often does.
You might wonder how you find yourself living in a sexless marriage. Here are some of the major reasons behind a lack of sex within a relationship or marriage.
Sometimes you can develop an unconscious “ick” reaction to your partner. You might not know exactly what’s going on or why, but there’s something about them that feels “off.”
Getting “the ick” is a problem you’ll usually face earlier in a relationship. At that point, it’s often easier to simply walk away and find someone new. If you get the ick during your marriage, you might need to dig a little deeper to understand what triggered it and why.
A sudden loss of interest in sex is a common reaction to a breach of trust or betrayal within your relationship6. That makes sense. We usually need to trust someone and feel safe with them before we want to be intimate and vulnerable enough to have sex.
If there has been a betrayal such as lying or cheating within your marriage, you might find that your libido disappears entirely until the trust can be rebuilt.
There are many health issues that might influence your sex drive. These can include childbirth, menopause, hormone imbalances, and many more7. Some health conditions can reduce your desire for sex whilst others, such as vaginal dryness, cystitis, or vaginismus, can make intercourse extremely painful.
Either of these types of medical issues can leave you not wanting sex.
Mental health issues can also make it difficult to sustain the kind of sex life you might want. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder can reduce your sex drive, leaving you frustrated at yourself for your loss of libido.
Experiencing sexual trauma can have a huge effect on your sex drive8. A recent trauma might leave you feeling unsafe. You might struggle with the thought of someone touching you sexually, have feelings of shame or disgust, or have emotional outbursts when you attempt sex.
Even if your trauma happened a long time ago, it can still come back to haunt you and damage your sex life. You might want to push yourself to “just get over it,” but that’s rarely effective. You might also find it difficult to explain your feelings to your partner.
Nothing kills your libido faster than having your partner feel like they’re entitled to your body or having sex used as a bargaining chip. Sometimes, you might start to withhold sex because you feel pressured or because you’re angry with your partner about something unrelated.
Using sex as a bargaining chip typically reduces how loving and intimate it feels. This makes it even less likely that you’ll be interested in sex in the future.
Sometimes, there’s nothing actually “wrong” with you or your partner. You might just have dramatically different sexual needs. You might even be asexual. There’s nothing wrong with having different needs, but it will need to be something you talk about with your husband.
Again, we’re talking about what you can do as a woman, but that doesn’t mean that the responsibility for fixing this should fall on you. I want to say again, you aren’t doing anything wrong by not having sex you don’t want.
Also, we’re assuming that you want less sex than your partner but that might not actually be the case. There’s nothing wrong with you being the one who wants more sex. Most of these tips can work equally well whichever side of the sexless marriage you find yourself on.
Your first task is to decide how you feel about the amount of sex in your relationship. You might agree that you’re in a sexless marriage and want to increase your interest in (and enjoyment of) sex. That might not always be the case, however. You might not think you’re in a sexless marriage and you’re perfectly happy with the amount of sex you’re having.
That’s completely ok and you shouldn’t push yourself into having more sex than you want. There is nothing wrong with not wanting sex every day or week, or even every month or year. If you’re happy with that, you shouldn’t be trying to change it.
It is important that you’re honest with both yourself and your husband if that’s the case, however. A relationship or marriage is supposed to fulfill both of your needs. You have the absolute right to have your need for little sex respected, but he also has the right to have his need for sexual affection to be fulfilled as well.
If you don’t want to change the amount of sex you’re having but he’s not happy in a sexless marriage, be prepared that you might have to decide that you can’t both be happy in a relationship together and you need to go your separate ways.
Talking about why you’re not having sex in your marriage is deeply uncomfortable. It’s possibly one of the most uncomfortable conversations you can have. Unfortunately, opening up the conversation and talking openly about what’s going on really is the most important thing you can do.
Choose a time when you both feel relaxed and you have plenty of time to talk. Explain that you love them and you want both of you to be happy in your marriage. Describe what you think is going on and ask them whether this matches how they see things.
It’s especially important that you use I statements when you’re talking about the reasons behind your sexless marriage. It’s essential that neither of you feels accused or blamed. Explain your feelings and listen carefully to what your partner tells you about their experiences and feelings.
You might find that your husband doesn’t want to talk about the effect your sexless marriage is having on him. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. If you’re going to rescue your marriage, it’s going to be important that both of you open up.
If you would like to change the amount of sex you have but you find sex painful or you’re having difficulty becoming aroused, one of your first steps (after talking with your partner) is to talk with your doctor.
They may be able to identify a medical reason for your lack of sexual interest.
Unfortunately, the medical community has only recently started seeing female sexual desire as something worth investigating. This may be why some medications can have a dramatic impact on sexual desire but mention erectile dysfunction or male impotence on their list of side effects9.
Try asking your doctor specifically about any medications you might be taking and whether they might affect your libido. If you feel your doctor isn’t taking you seriously, ask to speak to a different doctor.
Sometimes, you want to want sex but you just don’t. If you wish you had a higher sex drive, it’s helpful to spend some time learning more about your own, personal sexual needs. What turns you on? What turns you off?
You might also find that masturbating helps you to learn about how you like to be touched. If you discover what feels good to you, you can help your partner to understand that as well.
If you feel brave enough, you can talk to your partner about what you’ve learned. You can tell him what you fantasized about, any sex toys you particularly enjoy, or any of the things he could do that would drive you crazy.
Even if you don’t feel able to describe these in detail, you can find other ways to make sure he knows what you need. You could write a letter, or simply start moving his hand and guiding him toward things that feel good for you.
As well as learning about yourself and starting to see yourself as a sexual person alone, you can work together to rediscover how you work sexually as a couple.
If you previously had a fulfilling sex life that has since deteriorated, one of the problems might be that you’re still stuck in the past. You’re both falling back on old habits and patterns that used to turn your partner on, but they’re not working anymore. If that’s the case, you both need to drop those old habits.
You can try acting as if you’re in a completely new relationship. Start out by having dinner together and agree that you can kiss but that you won’t have sex. Spend a few weeks slowly building up, paying close attention to what you both like and dislike. Gradually allow yourselves to get more and more intimate.
Gently guide each other, learning how to ask for what you like. Try not to be upset or awkward if he asks you to do something differently. That’s the whole point.
This absolutely isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution, but it can work well for some people. If sex isn’t an important part of your life, you might want to consider whether sexual fidelity is important to you or not.
If you don’t feel jealous at the thought of your husband having sex with other women, you might want to consider whether you’d be willing to try having an open marriage. This would mean that he could have his sexual needs fulfilled outside of your relationship.
Not everyone is happy with an open relationship. Our society tends to put a high value on sexual fidelity as a sign of commitment. It’s often how we tell the difference between a close friendship and a relationship. If sexual fidelity is important to you, you should never feel pressured into an open marriage.
Open relationships are not an easy fix. They can take a lot more time, communication, and courage than more traditional relationships. You need to be completely upfront about what is and is not ok for you, and you’ll have to negotiate carefully to make sure you’re all happy with the rules you agree to.
Opening up your relationship is also rarely a solution to a failing relationship. It can help if it’s only your sexual needs that have diverged and you still have a strong emotional bond based on mutual trust and respect.
Absolutely. There are many ways that a sexless marriage can survive. In some sexless marriages, both people are happy without much sex. Other sexless couples will open up their marriage to allow sex with other people. Sexless marriages fail due to communication breakdown, rather than the lack of sex itself.
A healthy marriage is one in which both people are having all of their needs met. If you find a way to meet each other’s needs in a sustainable way, a sexless marriage can be perfectly healthy. If one person is expected to ignore their sexual needs, it’s not healthy.
Having sex once a month is close to what researchers call a sexless marriage. The problem with a sexless marriage isn’t the number. It’s whether you feel like your sexual needs aren’t being met. If you want sex every day, then once a month is a sexless marriage for you.
It’s almost impossible to know how often sexless marriages end in divorce. One study found that sex was only mentioned as a factor in about 10% of divorces10. Sexless marriages can often have other problems that cause or are caused by the lack of intimacy.
Being in a sexless marriage can have a huge effect on your husband and on you. One of you feels that their sexual needs are ignored and the other can feel pressured into sex they’re not comfortable with. Being brave enough to talk about the problem is your first step in creating a relationship where both of you feel happy and fulfilled.
What are your thoughts? Could you stay in a sexless marriage? Have you ever rekindled the romance, or do you think that it never comes back? Please let us know in the comments. If you know someone who’s suffering in a sexless marriage or feeling guilty about their lack of sex drive, please do pass this article on.