Behind closed doors, millions of couples are harboring a not-so-dirty little secret: We still love each other, but we don’t have sex anymore.
Can a romantic relationship exist without sex? For an estimated 40 million people in the United States, the answer is yes. Whereas the average married couple over age 30 has sex 58 times a year (just over once a week), 15 to 20 percent of couples are “sexless,” according to national surveys.
What Does ‘Sexless’ Mean?
There is no shortage of opinions about what constitutes a sexless marriage. Some couples aren’t having sex at all, while others do the deed multiple times per week but would still describe their relationship as sexless. So how does a couple earn this dubious distinction?
The U.S. Health and Social Life Survey defines “sexless” as having sex fewer than 10 times per year. But a number can’t neatly quantify intimacy; frequency of sexual contact depends on the unique desires of each couple.
Some partners are content to connect sexually once a month or less, perhaps because both have lower levels of sexual desire or one has a low sex drive or medical problem that the other accommodates. To other couples, once-monthly sex would spell the end of the relationship; instead, multiple times per week is the status quo.
The real question is whether one or both partners feels there isn’t enough sex in the relationship. The issue gets heated when one partner has a higher libido than the other, or when sex fulfills a need other than intimacy or enjoyment, as may be the case when one or both partners suffer from love, relationship or sex addiction.
Some committed spouses struggle with underlying emotional disorders like sexual addiction, which can leave even the individual having daily sex feeling deprived because they are using sex more as a means of reassurance or control than to playfully improve an intimate connection. Those who seek intensity as a substitute for intimacy may find emotional comfort and distraction through compulsive masturbation, with or without pornography, and by using prostitutes, casual hook-ups and extramarital affairs instead of being sexual with their partner. In these cases, couples can only begin healing their relationship once the underlying sexual addiction or intimacy disorder has been identified and properly treated.
Is a Waning Sex Life Inevitable?
Although both men and women can have a low sex drive, studies show that twice as many women as men are in this position. This means that in many marriages, a woman will be with a spouse who wants sex more than she does.
It is common for sexual desire to ebb and flow over the course of any long-term relationship. Sex isn’t abundant in every relationship, even in the early days of romance, and for many couples the demands of daily life get in the way. Busy schedules, illness, work pressures, child rearing and money problems can all dampen the mood. The prospects of a steamy sex life get even slimmer if a spouse suffers from low self-esteem, depression, trauma, anxiety or another mental health issue.
Although it is common, sexless marriage is not the fate of all committed couples. Most people know at least one couple that remains hot for each other decades into a marriage. But it requires ongoing effort and frequent communication about each partner’s sexual and emotional needs. Ironically, people are more willing to think about sex, watch others having sex and actually have sex than they are to talk about it with their partner.
If two or three months have passed without sex, and the deficit is troubling to one or both partners, it’s important to discuss the situation before a lack of intimacy threatens the future of the relationship. For some couples, a change in routine is all that’s needed. Scheduling regular date nights, taking a vacation away from the kids, and developing joint interests can help spouses reconnect. For others, there may be marital problems or personal issues that need to be worked out with an objective third party such as a therapist or marriage counselor.
Sexless and Proud?
Is a relationship without sex doomed to fail? Sex is a natural, healthy way for a couple to bond emotionally and is an important contributor to overall health and happiness. Studies show a close correlation between sex and happiness, and those in sexless marriages are more likely to report considering divorce.
A marriage without sex also may be more vulnerable to infidelity, and infidelity may deprive a marriage of the trust and communication needed for ongoing intimacy. Whereas women tend to cheat because of unmet emotional needs, men often cite a greater desire for sex as the reason they strayed.
But a sexless marriage isn’t necessarily a loveless one, and sex is by no means the only way to show affection. Someone who “gives in” to sex every week may do less to build intimacy in their relationship than someone who spends a lot of quality time touching, holding and talking to their partner. As long as both partners are satisfied with their level of intimacy, and honest about their feelings and needs, the relationship can thrive.
It all boils down to priorities. If sex is a priority for one or both partners, the couple will be strongest if they engage in an open dialogue and take steps to create a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. For those who achieve intimacy in other ways, sex may be an optional part of an otherwise happy relationship.