A sexless marriage

Tina and Bill* are a married couple in a committed relationship. They have been married 22 years, and have not had sex in the past year. In fact, they have been in a sexless marriage for over 12 years. They have one son in college, and another finishing 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 dinner parties. In many ways, they are the "ideal" couple.

What is a "sexless marriage?"

Definitions vary, but highly respected sex therapist Barry McCarthy, states that a sexless marriage are long term relationships that have sex less than 10 times a year. And a high percent of married couples fit that 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 sexual desire, passion and joy in the couples sexuality is low or missing. All agree that 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.

The politics of wanting and being wanted

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 outrage 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 marriage

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 just withdrew from her.

The sexual demon dance

The sex that started out intense and full of heat, in their early marriage, 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.

They were the "walking dead" in their marriages. 

An emotional affair

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 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.

Business opportunity and marital shake-up

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 couples counselor for help, and the 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.

Understanding sexless marriage

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 relate. It is also important to discuss the sense of disappointments both feel, in a safe and supportive environment.

"Opening up" vs "breaking down"

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 considering 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:

  • What they still meant to each other
  • What they wanted individually and as a couple, should they decide to stay together, and, Only then, can they do the necessary work to revitalize their intimacy and sex life. And the threat of divorce made way, paradoxically, for hope.

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.

Originally published August 15, 2013.

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Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. "He went through the “response cycle,” and had a physical release, but emotionally he felt nothing for his wife"

    This is basically impossible. If he felt nothing for his wife and was unaroused sexually as a man he
    cannot have penetrative intercourse, it is physically impossible. If he was going through "the response cycle"
    He must have been sexually aroused. And erection medications also do nothing if the man isn't aroused.

    1. Sorry, Sam, but your information may be correct for yourself, but not true for all. In fact, a shocking part of sexual trauma is being “scared stiff.” Many men, particularly those with “premature erections” get erections but aren’t actually aroused. Like you, they assume they “must be.” Please speak for yourself about your own arousal patterns, but don’t generalize using words like “impossible.” Because in fact, it is.

  2. My marriage has been sexless from the beginning- 25 years. Since I started having sex as a teen I found that I could perform sexually with women I dated once or twice. But as relationships got more serious I would suddenly be unable to ejaculate followed by a loss of erection. It didn’t bother me much when I was single I would simply move on to another partner when the dysfunctions would start. This went on for 20 years until I got married and with my wife I was unable to perform right from the start. She suggested therapy and we went to a sex therapist who spent months on my inhibited ejaculation giving us all these strange exercises to try and get me to have an orgasm with my wife. No luck so we just accepted the fact that we would have a sexless marriage. A few years later I went to a psychiatrist who was also unable to help but did give me a theory as to what was causing my inability to perform sexually. He said he thought I was suffering from an Avoidant Attachment Disorder caused by childhood abuse. This in turn caused me to suffer from intimacy anxiety and that in turn shut me down sexually. He also told me that cases like mine were almost impossible to fix. What do you think?

    1. Delayed ejaculation is a challenging issue to deal with. It’s present in less than 3% of the population, and therefore sex therapists don’t see the condition very often. The common clinical wisdom is that it often happens to men who are high achievers and demand a lot from themselves on a daily basis. They consider sex to be equally “demanding” and want to do their very best at it. They often have no trouble ejaculating with masturbation.

      It’s best considered an “arousal” phase disorder rather than an “orgasm” disorder, because often these men have little sexual arousal, despite having an erection. It might be considered a “premature erection” because high levels of desire that are often needed to cause an erection aren’t needed in these men. The men often have no medical condition that can be found. When it is found, it is often anomalous anatomic, neuropathic, endocrine, and medication-related. When a drug cause is found, SSRI’s are often a culprit. Drugs used for gaining or maintaining an erection is also going to delay orgasm. Although not approved by regulatory agencies for the treatment of RE, the anti-serotonergic agent cyproheptadine and the dopamine agonist amantadine have been used with moderate success in this population. But beware: there are strong psychological and relationship dynamics in RE.

      It is important for the sex therapist to take a detailed masturbation history in RE men. Very often there is an unusual pattern of self-stimulation that can be found that is incompatible with heterosexual intercourse. Their own self-stimulation is often noteworthy in the speed, pressure, duration, location and intensity necessary to produce an orgasm, and these aren’t clearly communicated to their partners. Self-stimulation then, is often preferred over partner sex for this reason.

      The orgasmic threshold is conditionable. You’ve accidentally conditioned it by moving on after the “newness” began to cause problems. Frequent pornography use, combined with idiosyncratic masturbatory habits can also interfere with having sex with an “in-person” experience. Fantasy sex and actual sex seldom line up.

      I don’t know whether your sex therapy integrated masturbation as a sort of “dress rehearsal” to partner sex, but that’s now a common approach. That, plus masturbatory retraining.

      But the thing to keep in mind is that RE is really low arousal. Determining your sexual arousal patterns, and learning how to communicate these to your partner, is an important component. If you have a childhood trauma history, people just may not feel “safe.” Exposing yourself emotionally may be too great a risk. Developing the capacity to open up and be more intimate emotionally with your partner is going to play a role in any effective treatment with child abuse survivors.

      Then there are relationship dynamics for which there are predictable patterns that worsen the sexual dance, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice to say, just like with women who have trouble reaching orgasm and have male partners who feel like “they’ve been working on the railroad all the live-long day,” this is often the case with female partners whose genitals (rather than hands or mouth) are recruited into service.

      If your earlier psychiatrist was right, it was likely to be in the avoidance of conflict, which causes many Avoidant men to simply “swallow” their anger toward their partners. Rather than deal with their relationship issue directly, the anger shows up as a powerful “anti-aphrodisiac” that fights against the desire to “please” their partner as well. When they get a “premature erection,” they mistake it for genuine sexual arousal, which it is not.

      No arousal, no high arousal. No high arousal, no orgasm.

      I hope this helps.

  3. Our story is quite different than that described. Although some consider 10 times per year a “sexless marriage” (yeah, right) I’ve been married to my wife for 24 years, and we have not had sex of any kind, or intimate contact of any kind in 23 years.
    Even in year-one, we had sex less than 10 times because she always “had a headache” or “must get up early in the morning” or “I’m on my period” or “just not in the mood.” It was excuse after excuse. I was a virgin when we got married, so I didn’t know any better. I felt guilty for wanting more. I loved my wife and wanted to do good by her. I chastized myself daily for wanting more. I told myself that my thoughts were just perverted. …that I should be better than that. Better than all the men women said are just obsessed with sex. I just internalized the lack of intimacy as being my failure. I was obviously not attractive enough, alpha enough, or rich enough, or that she was full of regret and resentment for marrying someone like me. As if I had deceived and disappointed her.
    She unexpectedly became pregnant on our 1’st anniversary. We have never had an intimate moment since. Our child has since flown the nest. Last month on our anniversary, I said to my wife, “wow, it was 24 years ago today that we last made love.” She rolled her eyes and responded, “Pffft! That’s pretty random, what did you do, mark it on a calendar?” I then asked why it’s been so long. She said, it’s because she is asexual. She then said I was a great husband for not pressuring her all these years. I cannot even describe what I experienced in that moment. For more than two decades, I thought my wife was disgusted by me; angry with me. She’s been so cold and distant. All this time, I’ve perpetually chastised myself for being such a failure. I’ve been so lonely, for so long. Now this revelation creates a cognitive dissonance. I realize now I’m “damaged goods.” I’m too old to start over. I’m 50 years old and sexually inexperienced. My opportunity for years of fulfilling intimacy have passed me by. I guess that too is my fault. I deserve this for my ignorance.

    1. Your story is a touching one and the lesson I get is quite different than the one you walked away with.

      I hear the story of two people forever silenced by sex. It’s also a love story of a guy who blamed himself rather than his wife.

      If anything, at the youthful age of fifty, it’s time to ask your wife for physical intimacy and to reach out to you to provide the touch that she’s been withholding. Time to let her know the pain you’ve been silently suffering for more than two decades.

      “Too old to start over” doesn’t really speak to the fears you have about leaving a woman you’ve been faithful to. Or the love.

      You’ve paid a steep price and now it is fitting to ask her to move out of her own comfort zone, just as you have by talking so intimately to her.

      You may not be too old to leave her. You may have little interest in doing so. But you may still have many, many years of tender physical contact remaining between the two of you. And even asexual wife can be devoted sexual friends.

      I just wish you could grab some courage and change your life.

  4. I’m one of those guys that doesn’t care to fix our marriage. Married 49 years and I will admit I’m the one who ruined our marriage and why should I care. I hate sex, intimacy, togetherness, porn, all gays and cheating. Sex is smelly, messy, makes me want to throw up, waste of sleep time and waste of energy, boring. So why have sex disgusting thought. So 49 years ago I just told the wife to not talk, touch me, leave me alone and its still that way. She lives in the house, she can have it and I have my small place away from her. She never under stood my feelings but that’s her problem. IT sounds terrible of me to feel the way I do, but I figure that’s life I really like my life. It’s quiet and peaceful, I have my old clunky $100 Toyota and my place I call home. Were still married but I hadn’t seen her since the last time at the tax person.

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