The stresses of modern-day living have led 1 in 5 couples down the road to a sexless marriage. Our writer explores the silent epidemic by talking to individuals in such unions, along with seeking insight from Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Melissa Risso, M.A Counseling Psychology; and Christian marriage counselors, Paul and Lori Byerly of The Marriage Bed.
A marriage without sex is a lot like a burger without the bun. What’s the point of calling it a ‘burger’ if it isn’t exactly complete? For the past few years, social scientists have been studying sexless marriages for clues about what can go wrong in relationships and factors leading to the issue. In an article last year from the National Post, author and marital therapist, Andrew G. Marshall stated that sexless marriages have become the latest epidemic many married couples are silently facing today.
For Lucy, 30, in suburban Arkansas, sex has always been a thrill. It gave her energy for the day, brightened her mood, and connected her in rather intimate ways with her husband of thirteen years, Jeremy, 32. As the couple got married fairly young, Lucy continues to study hard in college, but often tired between school and her day job, so she heads to bed early and is usually fast asleep before her husband joins her. Lucy shares how in many ways, things started going sour in their seventh year of marriage, a condition researchers call “the seven year itch”, a psychological term suggesting that happiness in a relationship declines around year seven.
“I just felt like it was the same old routine,” she says. “I just didn’t feel too happy about it. We would have date night, go out, have fun like old times, and get frisky, but it’s just not for me anymore. With school and everything going great for me right now professionally, I don’t find it to be a priority. We haven’t had sex for four years now.”
Extensive research and studies by experts estimate that a staggering 40 million Americans are having a sexless marriage, one where there is little to no sexual intimacy or activity occurring between the two spouses. The stats have jumped in recent years from a mere 2 percent reporting in 1994, to an astounding 15 percent to 20 percent in 2003; with studies showing that 10 percent or less of the married population below the age of 50 have not had sex in the past year, and 20 percent or less reported having sex a few times per year under the age of 40.
Licensed marriage and family therapist, Melissa Risso, M.A Counseling Psychology, of San Mateo, California comments that for some couples, a sexless marriage may look understandable from the surface, but there are many key indicators for common reasons of why two spouses might head in that direction, citing children; physical concerns like disabilities, aging; STDs, AIDS, or HIV; as were past sexual abuse or trauma; lack of confidence, including low self-esteem; medical side-effects; lack of sexual desire or attraction to spouse or each other; sexual orientation concerns; or, a lack of communication or trust.
Trust was a major factor for Jennifer, 29 of rural Indiana, whose husband of 10 years had an affair with more than one woman after their third year of marriage, and was caught a little over six months ago for watching pornography.
“I don’t want to have sex with someone who watches porn and has openly cheated on me,” she says assertively. “Sure, I have learned to forgive him as per my sessions in church counselling and maybe I can blame myself for being too busy to attend his needs, but I just don’t feel connected to him any longer. A lot of my friends and family ask why I’m still with [my husband] Scott, but that’s because of my vow and promise to the church. We need to stay married.”
With such a promise upheld, it doesn’t seem like one can find their way to happiness with such a thought as a sexless marriage and other factors leading to it, and which have sometimes been cited as grounds for divorce.
Can you have a happy marriage without the sex?
Risso shares how even though many couples are happy in their marriage without feeling the need to involve sex, she discloses that an estimated 1 in 5 couples today are considered sexless.
“The important piece to keep in mind is both partners need to communicate to one another as to what sex looks like within their marriage,” she says. Risso provides a list of questions couples should ask themselves and their partners:
- How will sex play a role in our marriage?
- What does sex mean to me and my marriage?
- Can we be happy without sex? If not, what does sex need to look like in our marriage (frequency, acts, etc.)?
- What are my sexual wants, needs, desires?
- What does it look like to be sexually happy in our marriage?
“Regardless of where couples stand, having an open discussion and communication around sex can help create the happiness couples may seek or want within their marriage,” Risso says. “Sex holds many different meanings to individuals and the only people that can determine whether or not a marriage is healthy with or without sex are the couples that are in that very marriage.”
Paul and Lori Byerly of The Marriage Bed, in Deer Park, Washington, are Christians teaching married couples that sex is good and important in a devout marriage. The two share how couples should take a look at the health of a relationship as a good early warning barometer to avoid becoming another statistic in the silent epidemic. The dynamic duo believe that if the relationship is already a mess like in the case of Jennifer and Scott, not wanting sex in a marriage is an understandable reaction.
“If the relationship is decent [though], I don’t see why not wanting sex could be anything other than an indication of a problem,” Paul says; as wife, Lori adds, “I would think it is a sign that there is some problem, personally or relational.”
Lori shares that even though sex is one of the several aspects of a marriage, when you start seeing all the other areas like communication, couple time, and overall touch and other intimate attributes starting to slide, sex is not far behind.
In the case of Scott, Paul shares how heavy internet porn can become a contributing factor in a sexless marriage. “Some men reach a point of preferring porn and masturbation to real sex, while others start finding it difficult to get an erection or climax without porn,” he says.
Is sex really that important to a marriage?
While Paul and Lori both share the same sentiment that there are women and a few men who will say yes, they both believe the other spouse would disagree.
“If neither wants sex, which is rare, they may be okay,” Paul says. “[But] it will not be the same as a marriage with sex, [though] it could be happy. If the one who wants sex can get past not having it, a similar relationship is possible. But getting past that is very difficult because it feels like a personal slight.”
“If you had a choice, would you?” Lori asks. “It feels amazingly good and it builds a unique kind of intimacy.”
While many studies have been conducted around the impact sex plays in a marriage, in likeness, Risso says though sex may not be applicable to all marriages. Most research has shown couples who reported to be having sex more frequently were indeed more happier. “Whether or not this can be applied to everyone is questionable,” she says. “But, studies do support the idea that sex does correlate to happiness in the marriage.”
Risso goes on to share that many in the field of human sexuality would state that sex within a marriage allows for a couple to create deeper intimacy by connecting on an emotional and sexual level. She expands further, stating how each couple needs to ask themselves about the importance of sex in their marriage as the two parties may each view sex very differently within the marriage, with certain factors contributing to the lack, like religion, cultural expectations, age, sex drive, or how a person was raised around the topic of sex.
Both Paul and Lori echo Risso’s thoughts and agree upon the importance of sex in a marriage. “Sex does good things for our bodies, minds, emotions and our relationship. A marriage without sex has a couple of strikes against it, and less ability to deal with problems,” Paul says.
Lori continues with that thought, sharing, “I think what I see most is that regular sex can soften your feelings toward each other. It builds a sense of being a couple.”
What happens when one wants sex, but the other doesn’t?
Paul discloses the ugly side and says, “Anger, resentment, and arguments are common. Growing distant can easily happen if the situation is not resolved. There is also a temptation to look elsewhere for sex, which will also hurt the marriage.”
Risso discloses how many couples come into her office seeking sex therapy due to this very concern and shares working with the couple as to how they can communicate and trust one another on the topic of sex is crucial. “Some couples have come to the conclusion that each partner needs to compromise on certain aspects when it comes to sex.”
She goes on to say how the dynamics can change due to one or more partners not agreeing upon sex in their marriage. “This sometimes can lead to couples questioning divorce and, or, whether they can be happy.”
Anthony and his wife, Margot, both 32 of Elko, Nevada, have been married for 12 years this April but don’t have the best marriage as per Anthony. “We never fight, which is nice, but we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye anymore. I work at a bank, she is a homemaker, and even though we get along on a lot of things, we’re not compatible in bed,” he reveals. “We got married really young and it just felt right at that moment. I felt like it was what I was supposed to do. I wanted to marry her because I thought it would enhance me in some way, but after all these years I feel empty inside.”
Though he is discreet about it, Anthony discloses he has been having an affair with a co-worker and someone who has fast become his best friend who he admits, has intense passion for. “She’s great and the more we spend time together, the more I realize how happy she makes me feel. We have connected through sex and to be honest, I didn’t realize the importance of sex in a relationship until I met her.”
At this point, Anthony is not sure how to approach his wife and express his concerns, particularly that of a divorce in order to give his new relationship a chance.
Through our discussion, Risso stresses communication, sharing how those that tend to be happier in their marriages are the people that talk it out with their partners regarding their sex lives, as well as other aspects of their marriage. “Relationships are found to have healthier lasting outcomes when both partners discuss needs and wants while respecting their partner’s perspective as well,” she says.
Paul and Lori think otherwise, with Paul saying, “If the one who wants [sex] is willing and able to keep going, the relationship might last. Usually it does continue a good while, but the couple grows apart until they are [more] like room mates, than husband and wife.”
Lori adds, “Unless the sex hungry spouse can learn to live peaceably with the situation—which is difficult—the lack of sex is likely going to cause friction in the relationship.”
Such was the situation for Joseph, 56, of Goshen, New York. Joseph had been married for 33 years and discloses how after having their fourth child (now 26) with wife, Natalie, 52, they stopped having sex entirely.
“It was hard on me,” he says. “I felt like we drifted apart. She was so busy raising the kids and the 90s were hard on me, job-wise. We just didn’t really feel like best friends anymore. I sometimes think maybe she wasn’t my best friend at all and that we had married in a haze of momentary bliss. But I think that’s important—you need to be able to confide wholeheartedly to your spouse and feel like you can talk to them about anything; they need to be your best friend. I couldn’t tease her, grope her, and have playful dates again. Sex became a task for us, so that all stopped happening with my wife. We got divorced after my youngest became 20, and they always say to me now, ‘Dad, you and mom should have gotten divorced earlier.’ I wish I expressed how I felt earlier in and out of the bedroom, because the lack of sex is a big deal and definitely takes a lot out of one’s self-esteem. I’m only realizing that now and I’m only now finding my happiness.”
Communication in and out of the bedroom is essential for a flourishing and healthy marriage. Paul and Lori say it is absolutely necessary, with Lori adding, “You have to communicate to be understood. That doesn’t happen naturally between people with a variety of differences.”
Risso says successful communication inside and outside of the bedroom is needed in order to deepen one’s understanding of their partner and explore more about him or herself, as it builds trust and intimacy. If it does not occur, this can ultimately have a negative effect on one’s relationship.
“Studies have shown that sexual communication is directly linked to sexual satisfaction,” Risso says. “It is the idea that if one is comfortable discussing sex with their partner, then he or she would be comfortable to do so during sex.”
If neither one is communicating in the bedroom, is there hope for sexual intimacy?
Risso sees great difficulty in trying to strictly create sexual intimacy. “Understanding your partner’s wants and needs allows for a deeper connection and satisfaction to take place. Creating an open dialogue around sex can deepen trust and intimacy, and ultimately show acceptance of your partner.”
Paul and Lori agree and come to a similar thought, with Paul sharing that it is difficult to impossible when creating sexual intimacy in the bedroom. “A few couples find non-verbal ways of communicating about sex, and a few manage to just stumble along, but most couples in this situation will see a decline in their sex life over time.”
He goes on to add that though some men and a very few women are okay with “just sex”, it rarely stays that way for both spouses.
“It’s funny,” Lori starts. “But, we don’t ask that question of any other area of our marriages. Yes, we need to communicate how to raise the kids, what purchases to make, where we will vacation—and if we don’t, we understand the following misunderstandings and general fussiness. Sex isn’t any different. You have to communicate to understand each other and grow together.”
Through communication, emotional intimacy is built, something Risso says is fundamental for connecting to your spouse on a sexual level. “Many couples have come into my office expressing the importance of having an emotional connection to their partners because it has allowed them to feel understood and respected—all important for building trust and connection.”
Paul says it’s imperative to work on the sex and relationship at the same time. “Look for new ways to connect and new ways to enjoy each other both sexually and non-sexually. The biggest thing is for both spouses to commit to growth in both areas.”
Lori follows up and encourages couples to be up front about wanting to rebuild intimacy. “As Paul said, to build the marriage on all fronts—do a little in each area of your marriage and give each other something to work with in creating intimacy.”
Sex is a basic human need and one that is not to be regarded as a taboo topic. In many ways, it is an acceptable fact that couples will be involved in sex in order to grow closer with one another and build a bond. In a study nearly two years ago, scientists discovered that love and sex, though very different can overlap, ultimately turning lust to love. However, partners believe that they will be fulfilled in every way within their marriage—and that includes sex. After all, consummating the union is an essential component of getting married. Rejection in any facet can lead to enormous resentment between the two spouses, especially if one feels cheated in a seemingly healthy relationship. Such resentment can lead to all sorts of underlying issues that could create a bottle-and-cap sort of effect, leading to divorce.
From the studies concluded with the participants, one can assume that many couples who get married so young end up having such high expectations when going into the union. They end up rushing their ideals and themselves, and choose someone for where they are currently—not where they are going. In many ways, when one begins to mature in the relationship, they wonder why the other hasn’t progressed with them, thus growing apart. The advice of Risso and the Byerlys clearly supports the belief of maintaining communication. Through communicating, you will be able to figure out where you want to go in a relationship.
Some people will live in sexless marriages for years and though they may not be complete or happy; maybe even be in denial, there is no doubt that the lack of sex will create some tension and resentment within the relationship, eventually threatening its very existence. As discussed with our panel, either one of the spouses will lose his or her sex drive, as the other continues to crave it. When this happens, the chances of divorce in the future may increase dramatically. Of course, it is difficult to decipher how many divorced couples broke up due to the lack of sex, even with other contributing factors leading up and adding into a trickle effect, but we can assume increased tensions between the couple, and overall bad feelings within the sexless relationship can bring about a separation.
From the research concluded, it seems the longer a couple goes without being intimate, both emotionally and sexually, the more doubt they will ultimately start to feel. In the cases with our participants (whose names have been changed), it seems the lack of communication will run through a cycle that will only increase the lack of trust, growing resentment and distancing, as well as emotional discomfort. By not talking about the problems a sexless couple might face, it will only damage the relationship in the long run and put a greater stress on the two involved. The unadulterated truth is that being intimate in both ways is the key to a happy and healthy relationship.
Dr. John M. Gottman of The Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington sums it up best by saying, “It’s all connected with really knowing one another, understanding one another and accepting one another and cherishing this person you love as irreplaceable.”
* * * * *