animation of lady blowing off dust from peach and eggplant sex reference
Xaviera Altena
Xaviera Altena
Relationships

Can A Sexless Marriage Be Saved?

The advice every couple needs to hear.

If you can’t remember the last time you had sex with your spouse, you’re not alone. According to one study that analyzed survey data back to 1972, approximately 15 percent of marriages are “sexless,” meaning the couples say they haven’t had sex in the past six months to a year. Yet there’s no one definition of what constitutes a sexless marriage, according to Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist and author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage. And just because you aren’t having regular sex doesn’t mean your marriage is irreparable, or even in trouble, she adds.

“There are marriages where both people have low desire and they’re quite comfortable and happy having sex only occasionally,” she says. “It’s when there’s asymmetrical sexual interest that it becomes an issue.” In other words, one partner wants to heat up the sheets twice a week, and the other wants sex twice a month — or twice a year.

Still, even a mismatch in libido doesn’t have to be a fatal blow, so long as you keep the communication going and are both willing to address the issue, says Heitler. “Maybe you find a middle ground, and there’s at least enough sex happening to make the other person feel taken care of,” she says. “When there’s no accommodation, that’s often what drives people to cheat. It’s not just the lack of sex. It’s the lack of sensitivity or caring about what’s important to the other partner.”

Sometimes sexual incompatibility (or an illness or injury that interferes with sex) is clear from the start of the relationship, but the partners find creative ways to stay connected and fulfilled. In other cases, the libido issue develops over time.

There are a number of reasons that desire may dampen in a marriage. Age, for one. Many (though not all) people experience a normal decline in sexual interest as they get older, says Heitler. Stress and health issues can also cause your sex life to take a hit.

Then there’s the big M: Menopause. Hormonal changes can make it harder to become aroused and also make sex uncomfortable, as the skin inside and around the vagina becomes drier, thinner, and less pliable.

The good news, says Heitler, is that if you can get past that first stage of initial arousal, then the later stages of sex are often just as good and even better. “You can still get aroused and have an orgasm if you can just get into it.”

It may not sound particularly romantic, but scheduling sex can also help. “Successful couples often get into a rhythm of, ‘We have sex Sunday morning. We have sex Wednesday night.’ It makes a huge difference in how long you sustain your sexual relationship. It may feel awkward at first, but once you get past those first few weeks, it just becomes part of what you do.”

Making these kinds of changes is challenging, though, if one partner experiences not just sexual disinterest or low levels of arousal, but an actual aversion to sex. This may happen because of trauma, like prior sexual assault or abuse, says Heitler. Or it may be a sign of deep dissatisfaction with the marriage itself.

“There may be resentment or anger or emotional disconnection that’s manifesting through your sex life,” says Heitler. In these cases, she suggests seeing a couples therapist or sex therapist who can help you uncover the problem and — hopefully — move beyond it.

In the end, some couples also find that an open marriage works for them, says Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of Dr. Romance's Guide to Finding Love Today, especially if illness or injury has rendered sex difficult or impossible. “If one of you has unmet sexual needs, be willing to talk about it and work together to create a solution,” she says. “Sometimes, the couple agrees to keep their marriage and have liaisons outside the relationship.”

Are you in a sexless marriage? We will be covering this topic again in the near future. If you'd like your story included (you can remain anonymous), please email us at thegirlfriend@aarp.org and put "marriage" in the subject line.

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animation of lady blowing off dust from peach and eggplant sex reference
Xaviera Altena