The odds are pretty high that when you and your partner got together, you had sex on the reg, if not more often than you might now. But intense schedules and stress have a funny way of torching your libido. So, it’s not unusual to suddenly wonder whether you might be in a sexless marriage because things have cooled off in the bedroom lately.
FWIW, you’re not the only one going through this. “This is very common,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?. Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, agrees. “I don’t know of any couple who doesn’t encounter a discrepancy in desire or a decline in frequency at some point in time,” she says.
It makes sense when you really think about it, O’Reilly says. “Sexual desire fluctuates over the course of your lifetime and over the course of a relationship,” she explains. “In long-term relationships, if we wait for desire to occur spontaneously, you may never have sex.”
Arousal can be a complicated thing, O’Reilly says. It’s something that has to happen both mentally and physically. That can be a hard thing to pull off when you’re constantly frazzled from work and mentally wiped at the end of a long day.
But, a short-term dry-spell doesn’t necessarily equal a dead bedroom. There’s a big difference between having an off-week in what you consider your normally active sex life and actually being in a sexless marriage. If you worry you might be slipping into totally sexless territory, it’s worth looking into. Ahead, what it actually means to be in a sexless marriage and how to shake things up so you can get it on.
What does a sexless marriage look like, exactly?
There’s actually no set definition of a sexless marriage, O’Reilly says. It can be anything from only having sex a few times a year to no sex whatsoever. Some experts suggest “six months without sex constitutes a sexless marriage,” she says, though for some people, only having sex once a month is worrisome.
It all boils down to how often you think you should be having sex, and how you feel about your lack of it. “Perception may be as important as the raw data itself,” O’Reilly says. “If you believe that sex is essential to a happy relationship, but also believe your marriage is sexless, you’re more likely to consider breaking up.”
For the record: Being in a sexless marriage doesn’t necessarily mean you and your partner are unhappy with each other. “A sexless marriage can look like any marriage—some may be healthy in every other way, some may be tense and strife-ridden. It depends,” Durvasula says.
How do sexless marriages happen?
Every couple is different but Durvsula says there are usually two major ways a sexless marriage can happen. “In some cases, an event may occur which pulls the plug on sex,” she says—think: loss and financial stresses. “In others, it is just a slow creep. It keeps getting put off and then one day the person looks up and realizes it has been a long time since they’ve had sex.”
The last one tends to be the most common, O’Reilly says. “Most couples start having sex less and less frequently over the course of months and then years,” she adds. Some couples who end up in this situation start out having sex regularly but then things like kids, deadlines, travel, mental health issues, and life in general, can mess with desire—and it can just continue from there, Durvasula says.
And sleep, believe it or not, is a biggie too:
How can you rebuild things if you’re in a sexless marriage?
Just because you’re not having sex now doesn’t mean you can’t in the future. But it requires a little effort on everyone’s part.
First, try to figure out how you got to this place. “Talk about it,” Durvasula says. “The two of you may be on the same page as to how you got there, or you may not, but the only way to know is to communicate about it.” Tell your partner that while you’re not sure how you both got to this place, it’s important to you that you both sit down together, figure it out, and come up with possible solutions. “And if you can’t communicate about it, then you have bigger problems than just sex.” Durvasula adds.
“These are not just one-time conversations and they can be challenging,” O’Reilly says. It may be helpful to have the support of a therapist or counselor to guide you through it, if you’re both up for it, she adds.
Once you can pinpoint what’s behind your sexless marriage, Durvasula recommends trying to address those factors. If it’s stress-induced, try to figure out what you can both do to dial things back, whether that’s talking to your boss about managing your load or picking up an activity that’s just for you during which you can unwind. If there’s a mental health issue at play, do what you can do seek care or be supportive of your partner seeking care.
At some point, O’Reilly says it’s important to figure out how often you’re likely to be having sex, in a perfect world kind of scenario. Do you want to have sex once per month? Once a week? Do you want to change things about the way you have sex? These are all crucial things to go over, she says.
Then, ramp up intimacy slowly. “It doesn’t have to be zero to 60,” Durvasula says. “It may be that a couple needs to build up intimacy gradually—touching, cuddling, holding, kissing, building physical intimacy back into life.” Eventually, actual sex should follow, she says.
If after you’ve given it your best shot, your sexless marriage is still bothering you and you feel like you need help, Durvasula recommends bringing in a mental health professional. “A professional may not always be needed if communication can facilitate intimacy, but if that doesn’t appear to be moving the needle, then talking to a professional or professionals may be required,” she says.
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