Every marriage goes through ups and downs, with times when sex is a priority and other times when it’s not. But if you and your spouse are not having sex at all, you need to understand why and figure out whether that’s acceptable or if there’s something you can do to fix it.
If the reason is a medical issue or a medication side effect and both parties have agreed to no sex, limited sex or alternative ways to stay intimate, you may be OK with your situation. However, if one partner still wants to have sex and the other doesn’t, that’s where problems lie.
“Most couples report that they want to be emotionally, intellectually and sexually stimulated in a healthy relationship. In particular, after couples reach the age of 50, they have often completed the majority of parenting. They might be able to start getting away on romantic vacations or explore parts of their sexuality that have been dormant,” says David Helfand, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in couples therapy and retreats in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
Can a marriage be successful without sex?
While physical intimacy is typically essential to most marital unions, it’s not necessary for all. “First and foremost, some asexual people in relationships do not feel the need to engage in sexual activity. In addition, couples can find other ways to express love and affection when physical intimacy is not possible or desired by one partner due to medical issues, chronic illness or other factors,” says Kalley Hartman, LMFT, at Oceans Recovery in Orange, California.
Hartman says the key to success is communication and understanding. Both partners must be aware of and accept each other’s feelings, needs and desires for the marriage to thrive.
“You must also acknowledge that there are various types of intimacy, such as cuddling, massages, holding hands or kissing, that can help bridge that gap between two people,” she says. With patience and effort, both partners can build a strong relationship without intercourse if they’re motivated and on the same page.
However, when one partner wants more than the other is able or willing to give, it can lead to hurt feelings and resentment.
Where did the sex go?
If sex was hot and heavy once upon a time but has now taken a dive, there’s usually an explanation. “There are a variety of reasons why couples end up not having sex, such as medical issues, lack of sex drive, marital conflict, past traumas, lack of trust or security, anxiety and others,” says Jennine Estes, LMFT, in San Diego, who owns two group practices focusing on relationships. The most common reasons middle-aged couples stop having sex are erectile dysfunction and low sex drive.
Decide what sex means to you
You and your partner should assess how each of you truly feels about the role of sex in the relationship rather than making any assumptions. “Additionally, you have to define sex as a couple,” says Helfand. “Most heterosexual partners define sex as vaginal intercourse. This is a very limited view, and it can harm your sex life if you aren’t open to other possibilities.”
Around age 50, women may experience significant hormonal changes that can lead to a lower sex drive. At the same time, men can struggle with erectile dysfunction. “Mutual masturbation, oral sex and other kinds of stimulation can be very rewarding and help keep the passion alive in your marriage,” Helfand adds.
What does a sexless relationship look like?
If you decide on a sexless marriage, it should be clear how each partner defines that. “Does a sexless marriage mean that although there is no sex in the relationship, either partner is free to explore sex outside of the marriage?” asks Jordanne Sculler, LMHC, who heads a practice in New York. “Or does it mean that either partner isn’t interested in having sex at all?” It’s helpful to explore what sex means to each person. Setting ground rules is also a must.
Lack of sex when one partner still wants to have it can leave people vulnerable and may open up the marriage to potential affairs, notes Estes. That’s why defining rules and expectations is essential.
What are some things you could do if you find yourself in a sexless relationship?
- Make the topic of sex safe to discuss: Don’t sweep it under the rug, as this only creates more shame and disconnection.
- Seek out couples counseling. “Talking to a professional is key to navigating the situation in a way that will keep your relationship strongly connected and secure,” says Helfand.
- Get medical support: If there is a medical reason for the issue, get expert advice.
- Discuss alternatives to intercourse, such as masturbation or oral sex.
- Seek individual counseling if one partner has medical issues, anxiety or trauma that impacts the sexual relationship.
- Talk about the beliefs you have surrounding sex. “When we work with couples, we help them draft what is called a ‘Relationship Vision,’ which discusses the aspirations you have for your relationship and your vision for its future ...," says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and a certified imago relationship therapist who founded The Marriage Restoration Project.
“Couples generally don’t choose to be in a sexless relationship, but rather the relationship slowly moves in that direction as passion fades and life stressors emerge such as financial stressors, children and health issues,” Anna Hindell, LCSW-R, CIYT, a licensed clinical social worker providing psychotherapy in New York City, tells The Girlfriend.
Hindell says that, unfortunately, when the sex stops, the passion and desire tend to die down as well. “If couples are open and talk about what is going on and what they want from the relationship, it is possible to work out a sexless marriage based on love, desire, attraction, compassion and partnership.”
Finally, Rabbi Slatkin says a sexless marriage can improve if the couple can work on the relationship and explore why they are not intimate. The best option is typically to try to fix the relationship rather than cheating or getting a divorce.
What do you think? Can a marriage really survive without sex? Let us know in the comments below.