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Does Your Relationship Lack Sex And Intimacy?

The hard truth about trying to salvage a sexless marriage.

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Alicia Rihko
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The movies paint a rose-colored picture: meet-cute, followed by wild sex and a happily ever after. It’s a dreamy, escapist plot. But life doesn’t always follow the fairy-tale narrative —especially when it comes to sex and intimacy.

“Our sex life basically died after our daughter was born nine years ago. We’ve had sex maybe a dozen times since,” says Nadia Bennett*, 46. The longest dry spell she remembers? Four years. “At first, I figured that once the kids were older and less dependent on me, or when our work situation changed and we were less tired, the desire would naturally return.”

Bennett is living in a sexless marriage. But she is not alone. A 2018 U.S. General Social Survey found about 19 percent of married people were in what could be considered sexless relationships, reporting having had sex “once or twice” or “not at all” in the last year. Most experts agree with The Social Organization of Sexuality, which defines sexless marriage as having sex no more than 10 times in a given year, or less than once per month.

The numbers may be clear cut, but the paths to which many arrive at a sexless marriage are varied.

“Sometimes it feels like a chore,” admits Nell Longstreth*, 44, who says she and her husband haven’t had sex in over a year. “After our daughter was born, I think we were still happy even though we were both too tired and always ‘on’ to have sex very much.”

The massive lifestyle shift of new parenthood is a common reason to which many couples attribute a dip in sex. Other times, a bland routine makes sex stale and undesirable. Couples get bored. Sex goes out the window. The longer the spark is gone, the harder it is to rekindle.

These are the common explanations — the ones women whisper about on playdates or read about on mommy blogs. But for others, the reasons run deeper and darker.

“I was sexually assaulted as a teen, lost my virginity to rape,” says Bennett. “The trauma from those experiences coupled with an all but nonexistent sex drive has always complicated my relationships.”

It’s no secret that sexual desire is just as much a mental game as it is a physical urge — especially for women. Emily Nagoski, a sexual health expert and author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, dedicates several chapters of her book to the aftereffects of sexual trauma. In it, Nagoski writes, “Trauma results when a person has control over her body taken from her, she freezes, and then she can’t unlock.”

Like sexual violence, things like menopause and perimenopause, childbirth and endometriosis may influence sexual ability and desire. For some, the cocktail of factors results in Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), a condition marked by deficient sexual activity. A 2016 study found that HSDD is present in 8.9 percent of women ages 18 to 44, 12.3 percent ages 45 to 64, and 7.4 percent over 65. So, it’s pretty clear that the idea of a sexless marriage is, well … complicated. It doesn’t help that there are human emotions tangled throughout. “[I feel] mostly lonely and rejected,” says Longstreth. “I would probably be OK with it if we had other forms of intimacy and contact.”

All is not lost, however, according to experts. “A sexless marriage can be saved if both partners are willing to put in the work,” says licensed professional counselor Christine McWilliams. “It is important to listen to the person who is unhappy and hear specifically why they are feeling that way. Can the couple reach a compromise that feels good to both?”

Likewise, closeness can be cultivated through shared interests, goals and even responsibilities.

“Intimacy in general is built over time. Every moment we connect with our partner and create feelings of happiness, it builds a deeper and deeper connection. Sex can help create intimacy, but it is only one of many factors contributing to it,” explains licensed mental health therapist Matthew Lachman of Cleveland Sex Therapy.

For these reasons alone, many individuals may be perfectly content with the lack of sex in their relationship. McWilliams notes that a sexless marriage doesn’t have to be negative. The critical piece of making this work, however, comes down to the presence of some sort of connection. “If couples talk about it openly and know it is safe to share their honest thoughts and feelings, the couple can remain strongly bonded as they continue to strengthen other parts of the marriage that matter to them.”

Communication, it seems, is key. It might not be an easy or comfortable conversation, but as Lachman notes, “If you can’t be vulnerable with your partner, who can you be vulnerable with?”

It may come down to seeking professional help. Therapy — the hush-hush practice of yesteryear — is all but touted by today’s young people as a basic right of passage to adulthood.

For Ashleigh Renard, author of  Swing: A Memoir of Doing It All, therapy is a must. “Go to therapy, even if your partner won’t,” she says. “Get good with yourself.” Renard recounts her humorous attempt at rehabbing a shabby marriage by becoming the “world’s worst attempted swinger” and how she and her husband came back from the brink of divorce. “I was incredibly sad and lonely for a long time after realizing how low we had set the bar for emotional intimacy in our relationship.”

Renard’s story has a happy ending, but for those couples still in limbo, Lachman says they can “absolutely salvage a sexless marriage.” First step? Prioritize communication … and don’t believe everything you see in the movies.

*Names changed for privacy