Most people get married with the expectation that they will have a sexual relationship. Yet, it can become one of the most challenging aspects of a long-term marriage. About half of all Americans report having experienced some type of sexual dysfunction. Negotiating an ongoing sexual relationship is rather complex. It includes questions about who initiates contact, how often sex happens, when and where it happens, and what behaviors are desired and accepted in the couple’s repertoire. Obviously, if couple communication is strained, navigating this area becomes more challenging.
Sex researcher and clinician Barry McCarthy points out in his trainings that couples who report having satisfactory sex lives claim that it only makes up about 15-20% of their overall relationship happiness, but couples reporting low satisfaction with their sex lives estimate that it accounts for 50-70% of the overall relationship satisfaction (which is usually dissatisfaction). In other words, if the sexual relationship is not going well, it’s going to take up a lot of space between the couple.
When I heard that the term “Sexless marriage,” was one of the most popular Google searches related to marriage, I wasn’t at all surprised. Clinically, I see many couples who fall into this category, and it creates an environment of distress for both partners in the marriage. Even though I hear “sex therapists,” (who don’t always have training in managing couple dynamics) make the point that a lot of couples can be emotionally disconnected and have “great sex,” I see those couples far less frequently than couples who feel completely emotionally disconnected or unsafe, and the sex is symptomatic of other things going on in the relationship. I estimate the ratio of couples who have good sex while emotionally disconnected at about 1:20 of the couples I see at best. Marital quality and sexual quality do have a high level of covariance and are probably recursive, meaning that a good overall marriage contributes to good sex, which also contributes to an overall good marriage, and vice versa.
Gaining reliable data about couples’ sexual relationships is nearly impossible because people who are willing to answer questions about sex are already going to be different than those who refuse (thus affecting the sample), people lie in surveys, and sex is such a broad and complex topic that it is measured differently across studies and is very subjective.
What is a “Sexless Marriage”
Even defining terms for a sexless marriage is difficult. The most quantifiable definition with which I am familiar is “fewer than 10 times a year.” However, if couples are having sex less frequently than this but are both happy with the amount of sex they are having, “sexless marriage,” is inaccurate. I have seen couples who have sex this infrequently and are ok with it.
Another limitation is defining what couples consider “sex.” Most people agree that traditional intercourse is sex, but an inclusion of other erotic exchanges could also be considered sex. I have also had couples who are not able to have traditional intercourse but engage in other sexual encounters and don’t consider the marriage “sexless.” It varies from couple to couple. Ultimately, the partner decides if the marriage is “sexless.”
Sexual Desire Discrepancy
The most common sexual clinical presentation is low sexual desire. This becomes more complex in the context of a romantic relationship where one partner has higher desire. The term “Sexual desire discrepancy,” or “SDD,” is used to describe this mismatch in a couple presentation. Couples with SDD are more likely to have relationship conflict, less stability and fewer positive communication interactions. Because the sexual relationship is so entwined with the interpersonal relationship, it makes sense to treat it in the couple context.
When one partner wants sex and one doesn’t, sometimes sexual interaction can dry up completely between the couple. It’s not uncommon to see couples in which one is desiring sex, but the other partner will not or cannot engage in the sexual relationship. This creates a situation of ongoing “involuntary celibacy,” for the partner desiring sex. Many individuals in long-term marriages live in this state indefinitely, albeit unhappily. These are individuals who are resigned to having no sexual activity, but who answer “yes,” when asked if they would like to return to sexual activity.
Researchers studying the phenomenon defined it as desiring but being unable to have sexual contact with a partner for at least 6 months. Their definition of sexual contact was any pleasurable interpersonal and physical interaction of a sexual or erotic nature, not limited to intercourse. It is not uncommon for me to see couples in which a partner has been living in a state of involuntary celibacy for years. Again, the number of months is not as important as whether the person self-identifies as involuntarily celibate.
Despite the stereotype that men end up as involuntarily celibate more often because it is assumed that they have higher sex drives, I see many women in this situation as well. Historically, I have seen more involuntarily celibate husbands, but I have definitely seen an increase in involuntarily celibate females over the last decade. It’s also common that as some men age and face health challenges, they not infrequently withdraw from sexual activity if sexual performance is affected.
Types of Involuntary Celibacy
The course toward involuntary celibacy is different for every couple. Here are four main types:
- Slowed over time—Most couples fall into this category. These couples start out sexually active and diminish over time. They can’t always identify when or why they stopped sex completely. Common reasons are a combination of variables, including a partner’s lack of interest, trauma, relationship problems, changed physical appearances, chronic addictions, physical or mental illness, or affairs.
- Stopped abruptly—These couples started out sexually active and stopped because of some precipitating event, such as pregnancy, illness, infidelity or another intrusive stressor.
- Little sexual activity ever—These couples report that sex was always somewhat difficult from the beginning. I see this presentation nearly as commonly as the first type. Sometimes couples desire but have not been able to consummate the relationship. The main reason given for this type is that it was never very rewarding for one or both partners. This can be related to some type of sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, inhibition and shame, physical barriers, early relationship pregnancy, or other early relationship struggles.
- No clear pattern—This is a combination of starts and stops at different times in the marriage for various reasons, with the sexual relationship being compounded by other problems.
Common Reasons (or a Combination) for Involuntary Celibacy
These are common in the research as well as in my practice:
- Lack of interest by one partner
- Relationship problems and stressors
- Concern over physical appearance
- Physical or mental illness or disability
- Medications—common ones I see are SSRI anti-depressants and blood pressure medications, but medications should only EVER be altered under the advisement of the managing medical physician.
- Sexual trauma
- Time demands
- Aging (although people in good health generally remain sexually active)
- Low Sexual Desire
- Sexual dysfunction
- Habituation to lack of novelty
- Guilt or conflict with religious beliefs
Consequences of Sexual Inactivity
Even though I realize that in many situations, a partner who decides that the marriage will be celibate is doing so out of a real or perceived inability to be sexual, the involuntarily celibate partner generally suffers greatly. In worst case scenarios, low desire partners are purposely withholding or dismissive of a partner’s desire to be sexual, which I think is particularly cruel in a relationship assuming lifelong fidelity. Additionally, it’s inappropriate to attach a religious banner to one’s low sexual desire, implying that the other partner is too “carnal,” or “devilish,” or generally “bad,” for wanting sex. That’s complete nonsense and to advance that notion is misplaced, self-righteous, and inaccurate. Refusing to get help and requiring that a partner remain celibate but monogamous without any hope for improvement is just a different type of betrayal .
Each relationship and individual will be different, but common consequences of involuntary celibacy are:
- Lower relationship quality
- Increased extra-marital sexual activity
- Decreased mental health—e.g. depression, low self-esteem, low self-worth, feelings of rejection and sexual and emotional frustration, decreased focus and concentration.
Why do People Stay?
Again, these reasons are varied and case-specific, but common reasons are:
- Nonsexual benefits—Some people enjoy the close friendship, despite the lack of sex.
- Lack of alternatives—Some people think they can’t do better elsewhere.
- Financial constraints—Some people simply can’t afford to end the relationship.
- Investment in relationship—People who have invested time, money and other resources into a family are often unwilling to walk away from it, despite the distress, or don’t want to upset the children.
- Social prescriptions—In short, “What will the Joneses think?”
- Religious or moral imperatives—Some people see their marital relationships as having spiritual significance and don’t want to make the wrong choice by leaving.
Common Coping Strategies
Common ways of dealing with involuntary celibacy are:
- Channel energy elsewhere—Many people report putting time and energy into hobbies or other social relationships.
- Compartmentalizing—Some people become very skilled at walling off the sexual part of themselves. I have had clients describe how they completely avoid anything that might access any kind of sexuality—in essence they describe becoming almost asexual so they don’t have to feel the pain of ongoing sexual rejection.
- Therapy—Some individuals seek help in therapy, often for the resulting depression from living in this state long-term.
- Other sexual outlets—It’s not uncommon to see an increase in activities like masturbation, cybersex, or fantasy, or even seeking out alternative partners.
- Resignation—Some people give up entirely and capitulate to the partner barring sex.
If you are in an involuntarily celibate marriage and are unhappy, you are not alone, and there is treatment. I am convinced that most people have no idea how many other couples are not having sex. They think it’s just them, and there is so much shame and pain around it that they don’t get help. The partner who doesn’t want sex often feels hopeless and broken and feels shame as much as the other partner feels the consequences of rejection. These can be dark and dismal marriages, and if that describes your situation, consider possible change.
What to look for: Most people have no idea where to get help. I have a caveat about “sex therapists.” Except for one state, this is a certification, not a licensed nor monitored profession. Like anything else in therapy, training and background are so varied that you can tell very little from someone’s license. In my experience, while there are some cases in which simple sexual interventions can address very specific problems, most cases are so complex and entwined with the emotional relationship, that I would only ever send my own children to someone HIGHLY specialized in couples’ treatment with POSSIBLY an additional background in sex therapy training. In most cases, I would look for an LMFT who specializes in couples’ treatment, because sex therapy is at least part of the training for this profession. The couples’ treatment part would be more important to me than the “sex therapy,” part, simply because in my experience, having taught human sexuality at the university level, having supervised marriage therapy students, and having studied sex therapy in detail, the sexual mechanics are far too simplistic for most complex couples’ cases. The emotional aspects of a relationship are more nuanced and challenging to shift, and are inextricably linked with sex most of the time.
A lot of marriage therapists aren’t going to spend their time and money paying for a “sex therapist,” certification, simply because they don’t need to, so the designation is limited in usefulness. I have seen many disappointing cases of sex therapists treating couples, who have no idea what they are doing; consumers don’t know how to tell the difference. Being a “sex therapist,” does not make someone a couples’ therapist.
Sex is a couples’ bonding activity. We are born to connect, and the hormones released in sexual exchanges are glue to a long-term monogamous relationship. It’s worth fighting for.
Lastly, don’t feel embarrassed. If you are struggling sexually, again, I promise you are not alone.
The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship by Donnelly, D. A. and Burgess, E. O. (2008). Journal of Marriage and the Family, 70(2), 519-535.
Using Emotionally Focused Therapy to Treat Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Couples by Girard, A. & Woolley, S. (2016). Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2016.1263703
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