A sexless marriage is, for our purposes, a marriage where the lack of sex is distressing to either or both parties. A sexless marriage is often perpetuated by a vicious cycle started by unrealistic expectations, that then leads to anxiety and avoidance. Trauma can also play a big role in creating a sexless marriage cycle. Sexless marriage is the topic of our podcast episode this week, so if you prefer to listen check out the episode here.
Let’s break down “sexless marriage” to its roots and then find a way to build healthier patterns.
What is a Sexless Marriage?
Sexless marriage is a term that encompasses more than simply a relationship where the couple hasn’t had sex ever. Our podcast guest this week Braxton Dutson defined sexless marriages as a relationship where spouses have sex less than 10 times a year. According to his research, about 20% of couples fit this definition at some point in their relationship. Other sources define sexless marriage differently, such as this older article from the New York Times. However, the “official definition” is less important than your feelings on the topic. If you feel distressed by the infrequency of sex in your relationship, the principles shared here can help you move forward and create a better pattern for sex in your marraige.
What Causes a Sexless Marriage?
A sexless marriage is often the result of a cycle of expectations, anxiety, and avoidance.
Our society creates a lot of high expectations on how sex should look and feel. Males are expected to get aroused quickly, last a long time, and please their partner through hard, thrusting penetration. Females are also expected to get aroused quickly and spontaneously, and orgasm during penetration. These expectations only scratch the surface of all the messages we hear everyday on what sex should be like.
Unfortunately, most (if not all) of us will fall short of these expectations. Whether on your honeymoon night or after years of marriage, at some point all of us will feel that our sex life looks nothing at all like the movies.
Too often, this failure to meet expectations causes a lot of anxiety. We worry about our own performance. We overthink what our spouse might be thinking, and don’t want to disappoint them. We get frustrated with ourselves and wonder why we can’t just “do it”. These negative thoughts and emotions can actually dampen sexual desire and condition us to associate sex with anxiety.
Anxiety about sex doesn’t just come from unmet expectations. Anxiety about the quality of the relationship, daily stressors, or generalized anxiety/depression all also dampen sexual desire and arousal. Many people, especially women, experience pain during sex. Painful sex could definitley lead a woman to expect that sex to be unplesaent. If this is you, consider reading our Painful Sex post on ways to make the expeirence more enjoyable for you. Others have experienced trauma that makes it hard for them to trust their body or spouse during sex. Another big factor in a sexless marriage could be a growing family, and the growing time constants and responsibilities that come with it.
Whatever the source of the anxiety, once our brains learn to associate sex with stress we start to avoid it altogether. This avoidance can be unconscious. When our spouse brings up sex, we find ourselves looking for anything else to do. Often times, we pick a fight because our brain will use anger to protect ourselves from our fear of sex. Once we’ve set this pattern, the times we do force ourselves to have sex can be painful, awkward, or just bad. This only reinforces the sex-anxiety connection, strengthening the cycle. If you feel like you have sex with your spouse because it’s your duty, try reading our post From Doing it Out of Duty to Desire.
In Summary: we expect sex to be bad, and therefore don’t get aroused or loose that arousal quickly. This leads to another bad sexual experience, which leads to more stress/anxiety about sex.
How to Create a Better Pattern
So now we’ve figured out how marriages become sexless. But how do we break that cycle? First, we have to examine our own history and expectations to determine the root of the problem. Then, we need to work on our communication, reset expectations, and create a healthy environment for sexual experiences to grow.
What is your sexual history? If you have been abused in any way, you may want to reach out for professional help so you can start to heal from your experience. If you haven’t experienced abuse, that doesn’t mean you don’t have some lingering trauma. Maybe you have had pain during sex. Maybe you have been verbally belittled or told in some way you are not good enough. Maybe your upbringing taught you to value “sexual purity” above everything else and that message is still affecting how you feel about sex.
Take the time to examine how you feel about sex. Where did those feelings come from? How had your life experience affected your relationship with sex?
What expectations do you impose on your sex life? In popular media, couples are often shown spontaneously making out with each other and then falling onto the bed and having sex. These images are hard to live up to as they are not connected to reality. Many people do not experience spontaneous desire, and instead respond to their partner’s bids for intimacy. This is why foreplay is so important! Here at Get Your Marriage On!, we believe in foreplay. Try out our posts Fun Foreplay and Foreplay All Day Long to get some great ideas on how to foster sexual desire.
Any time there is an end goal in mind, that sets an expectation that has potential to create anxiety. Goals look like “If I don’t ejaculate, it’s not sex” or “I should be orgasming everytime we have sex” or “I should be able to orgasm during penetration”.
In reality, penetration is not the only sexual experience a couple can have. There are so many other ways to create and build sexual intimacy with your spouse! Maybe consider taking a “sex break” where you cultivate other ways to be intimate together. Read our post on Sexual Fasts to hear other benefits of a sex break.
After you explore your own history and expectations, work on communicating with your spouse. I know the idea of talking about sex can seem awkward, unsexy, or uncomfortable. But the best way to break your sexless cycle is to be open and honest with each other. Let your partner know you are willing to leave behind expectations in order to have an intimate experience with them. In every relationship, there is a higher and lower desire partner. Often, the higher desire partner feels frustrated that they get shot down, and the lower desire partner feels guilty about not being able to please their partner. The best way to confront this situation is to get rid of your expectations and be in the moment with your spouse. Explore what things feel good and help your spouse feel closer to you. Acknowledge there are more ways to show love than sex. Talk about other ways you two can give and receive love. Express gratitude for what they are able to give. Read our post When the Higher Desire Spouse is Anxious for Sex for more strategies to help both parties.
Emily Nagoski has done a lot of research on sexual relationships, and has a lot to say about high and low desire power dynamics. She teaches that we are all “different but normal” when it comes to sexual desires. Coming to terms with our own sexual desires and accepting ourselves as we are can help a lot with sexless marriages. Listen to her TedTalk on the topic, or get her book Come As You Are for research-based strategies to help both partners.
Sex is not about discovering the “secret ingredient” to being satisfied every time. It is about going with the flow and focusing on deepening your intimacy with your spouse. Developing a sex-ful marriage will take a lot of work, but is incredibly possible for everyone who is willing to set aside expectations and work together.
Written by Amanda Severson with Get Your Marriage On!