How to Deal With a Sexless Marriage

Suffer, cheat or divorce are your options — unless you open up

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You want sex, your partner doesn’t — and hasn’t wanted it in a while. Now what?

Maybe you’ll see a marriage therapist, who’ll have a range of ideas to get the spark back, from scheduling sex to talking about your fantasies. Hopefully, the spouse with the MIA libido will see a specialist to see if there’s an underlying medical problem.

Still, if you’re like most long-time sex-starved people, you’ll just go on suffering, especially if you have young children at home. Maybe you’ll have an affair. And maybe you’ll split.

Because really, what other options do you have?

You could open up your relationship — that’s generally not an answer you’ll hear from a marriage therapist, although I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be on the table. If you aren’t interested in having sex with your partner, does that mean they should be OK with that? Is there nothing you would be willing to do to make sure their needs are met (because you love them, right)? Or, does it not matter to you?

And that’s a real problem for a lot — perhaps as many as 80 percent — of couples.

Philosophy professor and author Mark D. White wondered about this in some Psychology Today posts a few years ago. While there are all sorts of discussions about marital sex or lack of sex, he notes, we rarely, if ever talk, about the ethics of a spouse refusing to have sex with the other for years.

It’s understandable — sex must be consented to, and thus we are loathe to say a husband or wife “owes” the other sex. Yet most people expect a healthy sex life when they say “I do.”

So, he asks, what can you do when your partner doesn’t meet your sexual needs?

So, we’re back to the few limited options — end the relationship or change it (he gives no love to the idea of continued suffering).

Change it, sure — but how?

Maybe by having an affair. Does being in a sexless relationship justify infidelity (White doesn’t say yes or no, just that “you have to make a decision that you feel is consistent with your moral character and that allows you to look at yourself in the mirror when you get up in the morning”).

Affairs are problematic for many reasons, but so is continually not acknowledging your partner’s needs, as Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel beautifully explains:

Being “neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting” is not loving behavior, and often is as — and sometimes more — damaging as physical abuse. And yet, there is no great societal outcry over ending those sorts of behaviors — just societal shaming and blaming of the often-long-suffering spouses who cheats or who wants a divorce, yet another “failed marriage.

But for the men and women who stay in relationships that continue to ignore their sexual needs, the damage is real. Here’s what some have told me:

From Katrina:

From Joy:

From Lisa:

From Sally:

From Lonely Wife:

From Bern:

From Bwood:

And, finally, from Sam:

Actually, Sam, I think many people — men and women — realize just how damaging withholding sex can be, especially if they’re the ones who are subjected to the withholding.

So, if no one wants to end up this way — and I’m assuming none of us wants to — what’s the answer?

Honestly, communication (yeah, that):

Couples need to talk about sex — not once, not twice, but continually as things change in their life, whether because of kids, work or financial stress, illness, aging — you name it. It’s an ongoing conversation because we have different sex drives and different sex drives at different times in our life. And it needs to be brought up early in the relationship — what will we do if one of us is unable or unwilling to be sexual?

If sex matters to you and you expect it in your romantic relationship, there’s only one way to know if your partner’s on the same page as you are — talk about it and come to some agreements (preferably in a relationship contract) and continue to talk about it.

You could also suffer, cheat, explore consensual non-monogamy or split.

Those are your choices. What will you choose?

Want to learn how to create a relationship contract? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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