Love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, but sex and marriage? That’s a different story, according to the latest research. Data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz discovered last year that “sexless marriage” is one of the most-Googled phrases when it comes to marriage gripes. In 2014, the second Australian Study of Health and Relationships revealed 14.6% of couples hadn’t had sex in a month, while a survey commissioned by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, US, found 12% of partners hadn’t had sex in the previous three months. Even more revealing? Another eye-opening poll discovered that, on average, 20% of spouses admit to not slipping between the sheets in the past year. These findings come as no surprise to experts. “Sexless relationships are the number one issue I deal with, particularly in couples over 40,” reveals Ian Kerner, a New York-based sex therapist. “That’s because our sexuality naturally evolves in response to the health, hormonal and lifestyle changes we experience as we age.” While this transition may be normal, it leaves many people wondering whether their sex life—and their marriage—is in trouble. Here, therapists, ob-gyns and researchers explain what a sexless marriage really is, why desire ebbs and flows, and what the two of you can do to regain physical intimacy. Ready? Then let’s get started.
What is 'sexless' anyway?
The answer isn’t so simple. Some experts say couples who have sex nine times or fewer each year are sexless. Others argue that no outsider can deem a marriage sexless, since preferences in frequency are completely personal. “For me, it has less to do with numbers and more with a spouse’s perception of those numbers,” explains Kerner. “A couple may still find each other attractive and want to have sex, but life keeps getting in the way so they’re just in a dry spell. But in a sexless [marriage], there’s a real rift between you and your partner. You feel a million miles apart.” Cathy*, 51, knows that feeling all too well: she’s been in a sexless marriage for 14 years. “It’s less lonely to be alone than to lie next to a person who supposedly loves you but doesn’t want you to touch him,” she says. “Over the years, the gap between you becomes a canyon you can’t cross.” Another reason the numbers don’t always mean much? For some couples, “nine times or fewer” may not be a bad thing. “There are people who only have sex once a year on their anniversary, and they’re totally satisfied with that,” confirms Justin Lehmiller, sex educator at Harvard University. When it comes to intimacy, it’s very personal.
If the whole concept of “sexless” is too vague, there’s another term that may be more useful when evaluating physical connection: sexual desire discrepancy (SDD). Simply put, it means one partner doesn’t want to have sex as often as the other—and the larger the discrepancy, the more likely it is that one spouse will be unhappy. Many people, including experts, used to blame SDD on inherent differences in male and female libidos: it was assumed men need more sex and women want less. But research hasn’t borne that out, says Kristen Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky. “Our studies found that men and women are equally likely to have lower sexual desire,” she explains. Same-sex couples can also experience SDD. But beliefs in this sexual stereotype persist and can take a major emotional toll on a relationship. “For years, I thought I was a freak because I wanted sex more than my husband did,” admits Cathy. “I was raised to believe that all guys want is sex, so I started to wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I’d wear sexy outfits for my husband and get no response from him at all. Nothing I tried worked, so I started to blame myself. The damage it does to your self-esteem is almost impossible to describe.”
The comparison trap, unpacked
Another challenge? The assumption that other people’s sex lives are better than our own. We also compare our current situation to the sex we used to have. “When people reflect on their sex lives, they usually remember peak experiences when sex was spontaneous and new,” says Kerner. “But it isn’t fair to compare your current sex life to the one you had when you and your partner were infatuated with each other.” If you’re stuck in the comparison trap, it may help to view your current sex life from a qualityversus-quantity perspective. “There are plenty of couples who go through the motions and have ‘duty sex’,” explains Debby Herbenick, director of the Indiana University Center for Sexual Health Promotion. “They may have frequent sex, but they don’t enjoy it.” And that doesn’t make their relationship better than a sexless couple’s union. If you only make love eight times a year but it’s always intimate and satisfying, that might be preferable to emotionally-distant sex every week.
When desire goes MIA
It’s not unusual for even the most sexually in-sync couples to experience SDD. Over time, libido can dip for physical, mental or emotional reasons. “There’s a lot going on as we age,” says Lehmiller. “You can end up with a perfect storm of factors that might undermine you or your partner’s interest in sex.”
Here, seven of the common culprits putting the brakes on passion:
Health issues: Back pain, arthritis and depression can make sex challenging, according to Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. “It can be the disease itself that limits sexual activity or the medication required to treat it.” Men have a unique libido-lowering concern to deal with, too: erectile dysfunction that can put a serious dampener on relationships. “Some men may talk themselves out of desire if they’re worried they can’t perform,” confirms Herbenick.
Weight gain: Put on extra kilos? You may not have as much energy for sex or feel self-conscious about your shape. If your partner is the one who gained, that could have an impact too. Committing to get fit will help, both physically and mentally.
Tiredness: Fatigue is a symptom of many health conditions— and life in general. But spending more time in bed (asleep) could help your libido. “Sleep is extremely important for your sexual health because it’s related to both sexual function and your desire for sex,” says Lehmiller. So hit the hay early tonight.
Too much stress: Constant tension can make it hard to focus on sex and may even trigger hormonal changes that diminish libido. “When you’re stressed, the fight-or-flight response encoded in our bodies is mediated through the same tissues that mediate sexual responsiveness, dampening desire and telling your body you should be paying attention to something other than sex,” says holistic gynaecologist Eden Fromberg.
Boredom: This is a big issue in sexless marriages, according to Minkin. “Couples who have been together 10 or 15 years may not do new things. They don’t experiment with life in general.”
Anger or resentment: Emotional baggage—whether it’s in the form of old grudges, lingering hostility, jealousy or blame— can do a number on your libido. “Some people get upset at their spouse for very big things, like cheating and lying,” says Herbenick. “For others, it’s because ‘He treats me like a maid’.”
Medication: Commonly prescribed drugs can also have an impact on your sex life. Everything from antihistamines (they may dry up sinuses, but can also sap the moisture from other membranes) to blood pressure pills and pain meds—which can numb a range of sensations, including desire. Think it could be the cause? Chat to your GP before making any changes.
Feel more like roommates than lovers? Here’s how to discover your spark again.
1. GO BACK TO THE START
Sure, it won’t be the easiest conversation you’ve ever had, but it’s vital to discuss the causes—without blame. “It’s important not to put the burden on the partner who has lower desire,” says Mark. “Couples have to meet in the middle.” If a health issue is the culprit, see your doctor. Couples counselling or even sex therapy can also help a lot.
2. FLIP YOUR SCRIPT
Sometimes a change in perspective can make a difference. “If your partner says, ‘I’m horny and I need sex’, you might think ‘Ugh. He just wants to get off. That doesn’t
make me feel wanted’,” says Herbenick. “But what if you changed that to ‘He finds me really hot’ or ‘He really loves me’?” Try it and see.
3. PENCIL SEX IN AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK
Diaries out! “It sounds unromantic, but when couples schedule sex, they’re prepared,” says Lehmiller. “They know it’s going to happen. They can shut off work and other stresses earlier in the evening so they’re ready and relaxed.” Bonus: advanced scheduling can help build anticipation and even act as foreplay.
4. JUST DO IT
One advantage women have over men is they can choose to have sex even when they’re not really in the mood. That doesn’t sound like a positive but doing so may boost your desire, says Minkin. “If a woman’s attitude is ‘I’m going to start having sex with my husband because that’s going to increase our intimacy and improve our relationship’, that increased sexual contact can actually trigger her libido,” she explains.
5. SHARE YOUR FANTASIES
If you feel shy about giving your partner the details, Kerner recommends telling him you had a dream about him. “Say, ‘I had the sexiest daydream about you at work today. I don’t know what was going on in my unconscious, but wow, we were...’ and then fill in the blank with something a little surprising.” Simple.
6. TWEAK YOUR SEXUAL ROUTINE
Even small changes can turn up the heat. “You don’t have to put on a production,” says sex therapist Christine Milrod. “Something as minor as a foot rub can make a difference.” Take inspiration wherever you find it. “My friend discovered that sex scenes in the TV show Scandal got her interested in her husband again,” says Mark.
7. LEARN YOUR TURN-ONS
They may have changed over the years. Milrod suggests that each spouse make a list in private with three headings—What I find sexually exciting, What I might find exciting and What I absolutely refuse to try—then compare lists to identify activities you’re both willing to explore. 8
8. REDEFINE SEX
It doesn’t have to be vaginal or end in orgasm. And don’t discount the value of cuddling. Even intimate acts that don’t include touching—reading out loud, enjoying a dinner together—can help you gradually get back in sync.
9. DON’T GIVE UP
“If you’ve been married for a long time you might think sex is a no-brainer,” reveals Milrod. “But it’s actually the opposite. The longer you’re with your partner, the more effort it takes. So don’t get discouraged.” It’s all about persistence, support and communication—in and out of the bedroom. Now, that’s a recipe for relationship success.