Tag Archives: sex

Involuntary Celibacy in Marriage

20790930 - close-up of couple's feet sleeping on bed in bedroomMost 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.

Involuntary Celibacy

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.

Both Genders

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:

  1. 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.
  1. Stopped abruptly—These couples started out sexually active and stopped because of some precipitating event, such as pregnancy, illness, infidelity or another intrusive stressor.
  1. 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.
  1. 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:

  1. Lack of interest by one partner
  2. Relationship problems and stressors
  3. Concern over physical appearance
  4. Addiction
  5. Physical or mental illness or disability
  6. 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.
  7. Sexual trauma
  8. Time demands
  9. Aging (although people in good health generally remain sexually active)
  10. Infidelity
  11. Pregnancy/childbirth
  12. Low Sexual Desire
  13. Sexual dysfunction
  14. Habituation to lack of novelty
  15. 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:

  1. Lower relationship quality
  2. Increased extra-marital sexual activity
  3. 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:

  1. Nonsexual benefits—Some people enjoy the close friendship, despite the lack of sex.
  2. Lack of alternatives—Some people think they can’t do better elsewhere.
  3. Financial constraints—Some people simply can’t afford to end the relationship.
  4. 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.
  5. Social prescriptions—In short, “What will the Joneses think?”
  6. 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:

  1. Channel energy elsewhere—Many people report putting time and energy into hobbies or other social relationships.
  2. 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.
  3. Therapy—Some individuals seek help in therapy, often for the resulting depression from living in this state long-term.
  4. Other sexual outlets—It’s not uncommon to see an increase in activities like masturbation, cybersex, or fantasy, or even seeking out alternative partners.
  5. 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.

References:

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

Photo credit: Copyright: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

The Truth About “Neediness” in Close Relationships

couple holding up backbend

“I don’t want to be needy,” I heard for the umpteenth time in a couples therapy session.  The reality is that sometimes we just need our partners to hold us up…and that’s actually a good thing.

At the risk of expressing an unpopular viewpoint, I think our societal views of independence often negatively impact our close intimate relationships.  Our western society highly values independence.  Independence can be practical in many contexts.  The concept of relying on others is frequently considered a weakness.  However, in intimate couple relationships, too much focus on individuality can work someone right out of a relationship, or precipitate anxious emotions, diminishing relationship happiness.

I have observed in clinical practice that many couples don’t understand that there is a concept called “effective dependence,” in which partners actually become more functional and exploratory in the world when they feel safe and secure in their close intimate relationships.  When couples don’t understand this and how it works, they often end up seeking independence at a level that paradoxically perpetuates the clingy behavior which can be smothering.

In other words, people think that if they respond to their partners’ emotional needs, then their partners will become more dependent and just want more.  Because of this fear, they push their partners away.

In fact, there is research showing just the opposite—that if a partner is responsive to dependency needs, the partner functions more autonomously likely because they feel more secure.  As human beings, we are wired to depend on one another.

Additionally, current research indicates that in the presence of a close supportive partner, the actual experience of physical pain can decrease.  Predictable support from a partner helps us regulate emotion more efficiently.

In the words of study author Brooke Feeney, “Because dependence on close relationship partners, particularly in times of need, is an intrinsic part of human nature, relationship partners who are sensitive and responsive to this behavior actually serve to promote independence and self-sufficiency, not inhibit it.” She further explains that “Attachment figures promote healthy functioning by providing a safe haven to which a relationship partner can retreat for comfort, support, reassurance, assistance, and protection, and by providing a secure base from which a relationship partner can explore the world and strive to meet his or her full potential.”

This is great news for close couple relationships, because it means there is a built-in mechanism for potentially enhancing individual well-being.  Famous psychologist and marriage expert Sue Johnson wrote, “It is easier to be completely yourself if you are securely connected to those you depend on.”  We actually individuate more readily in the environment of an accepting partner.

Couples don’t always recognize this benefit, however, and actually end up eliciting the type of anxiety associated with clingy behavior.  Some partners think they are doing their companions a favor by being completely independent without ever needing anything without realizing that “if my partner is always perfectly fine without me and needs me for nothing, it in essence means that he/she could leave me.”

Many people in relationships haven’t learned that it is beneficial to reach out overtly to a partner for support, or they haven’t learned how important their responsiveness can be.  I often spend time helping couples understand effective dependence.  There are two sides to this concept—learning to reach out to a partner and learning to show up for a partner.  Many people haven’t learned to do either one.

Sometimes when a partner has dependency needs, a spouse can even get triggered to withdraw.  They get the idea that they aren’t good at meeting those needs or they don’t know how, or they don’t recognize needs, and so they push it away, generating relationship distress.  It is very common.

In a very typical example, I recall once having a wife in therapy tell her husband that sometimes she just needed reassurance that he still loved her.  He looked at her for a moment without responding, and then turned to me and began explaining that as a surgeon, when he completed a particular procedure, that procedure was expected to stay functional for at least 15 years.  “If something goes wrong before then,” he added, “then it means I must have done something wrong.”

I remember watching him very carefully with furrowed brows, trying to discern what he was really trying to tell me by explaining this surgical procedure.  I checked in with him, “So, are you saying that if your wife has insecure moments when she needs reassurance that you still love her, it’s like saying you’re a bad husband or you aren’t doing your job of loving her correctly?” “Essentially, yes,” he fired back.

“Oh, okay, so at those moments when she is reaching out to you for reassurance, you don’t see it as her reaching out because you are the antidote….you actually see it as her implying that you are a bad husband?”  “Yep,” he nodded.  I continued, “So it sounds like you also need some kind of reassurance from her that you are the person she wants to be with and that you actually help her in those moments…it’s important to you to feel effective?”  “Yes,” he added, “When she keeps coming back to me needing reassurance, I just end up thinking I can’t ever fix it so why does she keep coming to me?  I just want it to go away.”

This is a routine pattern in therapy, and while I observe this reaction with both genders, I actually see it more in males who have been socialized to be independent and solution-oriented, and who can actually be shamed by their wife’s emotions, because they have been socialized away from attuning to vulnerable emotions.  I can’t exaggerate how often I have seen men in very powerful career positions who are absolutely terrified of disappointing their wives and causing a perceived emotional firestorm.

It’s not uncommon for husbands to be completely freaked out by crying wives.  If their wives are crying about something they have done, they feel even more shame.  They often miss the cue that they are wanted.  They experience it as being pushed away.  It can be experienced as rejection.  They commonly withdraw in those moments when they are actually needed the most, and end up rejecting their partners in return.  They don’t realize how important their presence can be, even if negative emotion doesn’t immediately dissipate.

I once asked my own husband if he experienced my tears as shaming, because I observed it so much in therapy, and it comes up in therapist trainings.  “Absolutely!” he answered just a little too quickly, “If you are crying, then I feel like a lousy husband.”

SOOO….in light of the research indicating that we are wired to reach out to someone for support in this big bad world, and that getting comfort from a partner in a high quality relationship is actually an efficient way of regulating emotion, how do we make the most of effective dependency in a close bonded relationship?

  1. Take turns.  In a healthy partnership, couples take turns needing each other and being there for each other.  This is important, because sometimes one partner will stop withdrawing and stay more present to meet a partner’s needs, but he/she won’t reach out with their own needs because they don’t want to risk upsetting the system.  This happens a lot with men who are disconnected from any emotional need and who don’t want to exacerbate any kind of emotional response in their wives.  They will often (not always) reach out for sex because it’s a way to get both physical and emotional needs met.  It doesn’t even occur to many people (especially men) to have emotional needs, but they have them.  We all have them.  Remember the surgeon who felt like a failure when his wife was insecure about whether or not he loved her?  That implies an unspoken emotional need on his part, for example, to be enough.

 

  1. Have a conversation about what your emotional needs are. I am often trying to help couples uncover these needs, which are usually related to some form of acceptance, support, and reassurance of love.  There are many ways to language these needs.  A common one is knowing that your partner would choose you again if given the chance.

 

  1. If you don’t know how to meet the need, reassure your partner that you are trying to figure it out, but you might need help. You might also need to balance your own emotional need (e.g. to be “enough,”) with your partner’s, and have an overt conversation about it.  My husband hates feeling like a failure.  If I am crying about something and he is processing it with me and my emotion stays high, he starts feeling ineffective.  I have to sometimes reassure him that even though I’m still upset, it helps me that he’s still there with me.

 

  1. Recognize how sexuality can be entwined with emotional needs. Many people don’t know how to verbalize emotional need, either because they don’t have the awareness or language, or they are shamed by having emotional needs because they think they shouldn’t need anyone, or they fear rejection.  It’s not uncommon for sexuality to be a way to get emotional needs for love and acceptance met.  It’s often a form of, “If you’ll let me get that close to you, then I know you still want me, love me, etc.  I’m still good.”

 

  1. Realize that learning to both reach out for and to meet emotional needs can be a learned behavior. I have had lots of couples in therapy get better at this process, and as a result, grow a more secure relationship.  It’s as important to be able to take in someone’s offer of support as it is to ask or offer support oneself.  People forget this sometimes and reject the support they are actually wanting.  Accepting support matters a lot.

A.A. Milne, creator of children’s classic storybook character Winnie the Pooh, seemed to understand attachment relationships very well.  In one exchange, Pooh expresses, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” And THAT is how relationships promote independent functioning.

 

References:

The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence by Brooke C. Feeney.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92(2), 268-285.

Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat by James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson.  Psychological Science, 2006, 17(12), 1032-1039.

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by Susan M. Johnson, 2004, New York: Brunner Routledge.