This is the third in a series of post on Profiles in Marriage
The politics of coping with a sexless marriage are sometimes quite complicated. Take Tina and Bill* for example.
They have been married for 22 years. If you met them, you would say they are an attractive, vibrant, middle-aged couple. Bill is in IT and runs a large organization.
Tina runs a health and wellness franchise. They stay physically fit, take exotic vacations, and throw lavish dinner parties. In many ways, they are the “ideal” couple.
They have one son in college, and a daughter graduating High School this year. If you met them, you would say they are an attractive, vibrant, middle-aged couple.
Bill is in IT and runs a large organization. Tina runs a health and wellness franchise. They stay physically fit, take exotic vacations, and throw lavish parties.
And they have been coping with a sexless marriage for over 12 years.
Definitions vary, but highly respected sex therapist Barry McCarthy defines a sexless marriage is a long term relationship in which the partners have sex less than 10 times a year.
And a high percentage of married couples fit the criteria of being in a sexless marriage. Some say as high as 20 percent.
Others suggest that a sexless marriage has less to do with the frequency of sex and more to do with the extent to which desire, passion, and joy in sexuality is low or missing.
All agree that successfully coping with a sexless marriage has less to do with what one does sexually with each other, and more to do with what one feels for the other. Is there an intention to give each other pleasure? In this arena, both men and women have an equal reluctance or willingness to engage in healthy sex.
To look into sexless marriages, we have to look beyond sexual activity and examine the politics of desire and wanting to give your partner pleasure. A spouse can want their partner (“I need you, I want you!“). They can want their partner to want them (“Tell me that you love me!“). Or they can want both.
In this case, Tina did not “want” Bill, but she wanted Bill to desire her. In fact, she felt superior to Bill and felt outraged when he challenged her in any way. Tina had come from a family that was much wealthier than Bill’s. She felt that despite her husband’s current success, that she had “married beneath her.”
Early in their marriage, Bill did desire Tina. In fact, he idolized her. However, over the years, as Bill grew and matured, situations arose that called out for Tina to be responsive. There were business setbacks more than a decade ago. Bill expected Tina’s support at this time and her warm understanding.
Instead, Tina acted coldly, and disinterested. While not outwardly contemptuous, she made snippy comments that made it clear to Bill that his business troubles were not her concern. It was a cycle that continued from that point, forward. When Bill needed support and tenderness, Tina got more angry, resentful, and distant.
The message Bill got? “Real men don’t need their wife’s support.”
This was the start of Bill’s withdrawal, and their sexless marriage.
This might have been a message that Bill accepted in his younger years when his own sense of masculinity was fragile, but as he matured, he changed. His own training as a manager, and life experience, enabled him to see this for what it was: A statement of Tina’s fragility.
He no longer wanted to be a cardboard cut-out of a “successful man.”
He wanted to have a full range of emotions. But he never confronted Tina with his feelings. He was coping with a sexless marriage by withdrawing from her.
The sex that started out intense and full of heat, in their early marriage, it became cold and mechanical, as this cycle continued. Bill, for years, was able to have sexual intercourse with Tina, but began to “feel less” and distance himself as he did. He went through the “response cycle,” and had a physical release, but emotionally he felt nothing for his wife.
Tina got increasingly “insulted” by her husband’s approach. She was used to his ardor, and when it wasn’t there, she felt that something vital was missing.
At first, she thought it was normal aging. Then, she suspected another woman, but never confronted him. She had never been the one to initiate sex, but she made her needs for sex very clear to Bill. She even suggested sex toys and X-rated movies. Bill seemed disinterested.
For a few years, they were able to have sex at a particular time and day of the week. Then, one or the other would schedule something during that time. Then both did. Both could be animated at work, or at parties, but to each other, few words were exchanged that didn’t involve schedules or errands. Their manner of coping with a sexless marriage was to live on the shallow surface of their relationship.
They were the “walking dead” in their marriages.
Bill was not having a sexual affair, but he did, gradually become emotionally attached to another woman he knew from work. To Bill, Janet was warm and responsive to him. She was enormously sympathetic to his worries and fears. He grew to have a great fondness for her, just as his own marriage began to die on the vine.
This is not uncommon.
In a sexless marriage, the need for love and desire often grows up elsewhere in active, vibrant people.
The shake-up came when Tina investigated a job opportunity in Miami. It would have required her to move down South for at least 12-18 months to get the facility up and running.
She didn’t imagine that her husband would mind.
She was dead wrong.
A day later, Bill suggested divorce.
And right then and there, Tina’s defenses crumbled increasingly over the next 48 hours. At first, she was filled with rage. But when it was clear that Bill was not moved, she became tearful. She panicked. Then, she reached out to a science-based couples counselor for help, and their work began.
This couple demonstrates that sexless relationships are complex, and sometimes do not involve sexual “dysfunctions.” They often have very little to do with sex at all.
They are matters of the heart, not the groin. Tina’s therapeutic work focused not on her genitals, but on her capacity to understand how her own rigid gender expectations were cutting off passion, tenderness, and vulnerability. She had built a moat around herself.
Now it was time to lower the drawbridge.
She had emotionally abandoned her marriage decades ago, and before sex between them could return in earnest, she had to show up emotionally to her own marriage again. Bill suggesting divorce brought her deep vulnerability out in the open suddenly. Tina had many of her own disappointments, stemming from the modeling her parents laid down.
This is an important time when a therapist needs to be acutely aware of the unique opportunity to do key work-around changing the very structure of how the couple relates. It is also important to discuss the sense of disappointments both feel, in a safe and supportive environment.
While the couple might feel that things are “falling apart” during these important initial weeks, a skilled couples therapist sees it as an “opening up” rather than a “breaking down” process.
For Tina, this means revealing her own fragility, fears, and needs that she had kept hidden up until now.
And owning up to her unsupportive stance based on rigid gender stereotyping. Bill’s proposing divorce opened her up to consider this.
Bill also had to talk about how he, too, had retreated from the marriage by not confronting his wife.
The couples work aimed to help the pair to navigate:
For the first time in more than a dozen years, that they could both create the space, motivation, and willingness to change their sexless marriage into a passionate one.
Learn more about how to find a good couples therapist and sex therapist.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her online couples therapy and sex therapy practice for couples in Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and California. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues to work as a sex therapist.