Are Sexless Marriages More Common Than We Think?

Jennifer (name changed) didn’t have sex with her ex-husband on their wedding night. “I chalked it up to fatigue,” she says. But should it have been a red flag? Well, maybe.

It’s not that it didn’t happen that one night that was the problem; it’s that it was the first of many sexless married nights. As an engaged couple, Jennifer and her fiancé were doing it about three times a week, but once they said their vows, it quickly dwindled to about once a month—sometimes less.

“It’s common for spouses to have different amounts of sexual desire. If you’re the spouse who’s unsatisfied, it’s important to communicate with your partner, compassionately.”

Some experts call marriages that average 10 rolls in the hay per year or less “sexless,” but other experts take the word more literally, like Susan Yager-Berkowitz, who coauthored (with her husband) Why Men Stop Having Sex: The Phenomenon of Sexless Relationships and What You Can Do About It.

“If a couple is content with intimacy less than once a month, and happily married, I doubt they would refer to themselves as having a sexless marriage… and neither would we.”

Dean Mason, who runs the website, FixYourSexlessMarriage.com, agrees, “Each person defines what his or her sex threshold is.”

But even if there’s no perfect definition for a “sexless” marriage, everyone seems to agree that they’re common. Newsweek estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of couples are in one, and sexless marriage is the topic of myriad new books—like Yager-Berkowitz’s—and plenty of articles and columns. Back in 2003, Newsweek‘s cover blared, “We’re Not In the Mood,” and the story didn’t go away. In 2009, The New York Times reported that about 15 percent of married couples had not done the deed in the past six months to a year.

It’s not a given that a couple’s bedroom activity will fizzle over time—we all know a randy couple who’ve been married for decades—but any number of factors could start the tailspin. Psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, lists these as the most common causes of sexless marriages: one partner had their feelings hurt or got turned down too many times, one got too busy or neglectful, or one or both partners has a communication problem of some sort.

As for how much sex a healthy couple should be having, that varies—and is up to the couple to figure out. Tessina’s best advice is at least once a week, saying that “intimacy keeps you glued together. It’s what you need in order to nurture your connection to your spouse. You’ll be a lot happier with each other and feel more cared about if you’re regularly having sex.”

Couples shouldn’t feel like they have to stick to once a week during stressful or tumultuous times. And of course, there can always be an off-week—or longer. As Steinhart notes, “Sex and sexual expression change along with the longevity of a relationship, ebbing and flowing during a lifetime.” But the good news, she says, is that the ebb is “natural—and you can get back to the flow easily.”

But when a couple has had a long period—say, several months—without sex, it’s important to address the problem, so months don’t become years, Tessina says. “Some couples won’t have sex for two years and then come in to my practice and ask for help. We can get to the bottom of the problem at that point, but it’s more challenging. If they haven’t had sex for a couple of months, that’s when they really should be asking questions. That’s a good time to come in and have therapy. Otherwise, anger and frustration builds, and it takes longer to fix it that way.”

After a period of sexual inactivity, you and your partner can get back on the proverbial horse. The experts say that scheduling sex can work.

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