How to Deal With a Sexless Marriage
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?
Assuming that the sexual issues themselves cannot be solved and that the frustrated partner is not willing to deny his or her needs, then the partners have to acknowledge that one of them can no longer get his or her basic needs satisfied within the relationship — and something has to change. Either the relationship has to end, or the understanding within the relationship has to change to allow the frustrated partner to seek sexual fulfillment elsewhere.”
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:
I have a lot of people who come to my office who think that they are the virtuous people because they haven’t cheated. They have just been neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting, but they haven’t cheated. But betrayal comes in many forms. Betrayal is a breach, the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence.
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:
We have not had successful sex in 19 years. He has no interest in rectifying his problem. Wonderful man in all other ways, but I am very depressed over this.
To me, it’s not merely the act of sex. What I’m missing is being desired, having the intimacy and spontaneity that we had before. Breathing each other’s air, cuddling up, caressing faces, shoulders, derrieres, all of it. Secret looks, anticipation. Where did it go and do I have to go the rest of my life without it? This is not the relationship that I was “promised” when I bought the idea that we would be lifelong partners. I am in no way interested now in him. It is, in fact, a betrayal.
it is so hard to go without any physical connection. I feel cheated and misled. I didn’t sign up for this and don’t know what to do. I get where I am very angry with him and don’t want to even be near him. It helps to know I am not alone.
Doctors often ask if one is “experiencing a lot of stress”. For me, living in a sexless marriage is very stressful. Is that a normal reaction?
From Lonely Wife:
I live in a sexless marriage where my husband thinks it’s ok to brush over this because he loves me and we’re otherwise happy. Well I’m not. I don’t want to leave him because I love my kids, I have nowhere to go, I gave up my career for his etc. I cannot stand being trapped here for 20 years wasting my life away with a friend when I want a lover too. I feel so disgusted in myself and hate myself so much. I used to feel attractive but not I just feel worthless.
It’s been three and a half months since we have been together and I’m starting to consider other alternatives. This isn’t what I signed on for, but the phrase for better or worse still means something to me. If we can’t improve things I’m afraid I’ll be someone who will cheat, and that isn’t who I want to be.
My wife, who is 7 year older than I and I love deeply, has fallen into a not uncommon phase where she has no desire for sex. She attests to find me attractive still, but she just doesn’t feel the desire for sex anymore. Waxing a little selfish, this leaves me in the lurch as a healthy 40 year old male who loves his wife, finds her completely desirable and desperately wants to consumate (sic) that love … Two wrongs don’t make a right, but the hole created lends to such other problems as blocks in communciation (sic), unconscious distancing, wandering eye syndrome and the desire for the intimate touch even if it’s from another person/lover. It’s a terrible place in an otherwise very happy marriage.
And, finally, from Sam:
My wife tells me she cant (sic) decide if she wants to be in the marriage anymore. And she has no energy for sex. We have kids. She has asked me to be patient with her, but its (sic) two years now. I really want my marriage to work, but I am feeling frustrated and confused. Some woman (sic) do not understand how damaging withholding sex in a marriage can be.
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.