Couples who feel trapped in a sexless marriage may not realize just how common this situation really is. According to Laurie Watson, a certified sex therapist and bestselling author of the book “Wanting Sex Again,” nearly 50 percent of all couples who head to counseling do so because of a sexless marriage. The problem is not a lack of sex per se – it’s the vicious cycle of bitterness and resentment that can occur as a result. If this vicious cycle is left to persist, it can eventually lead to separation, divorce and the end of a marriage.
What’s particularly troublesome is that most couples wait an average of six years before going to counseling. By that time, the problems of a sexless marriage are much harder to fix. Both members of the couple are already creating narratives and generating “scripts” – basically, shorthand explanations for each other’s behavior that may – or may not – be accurate. For example, one common script for men is that “she won’t climax because she’s frigid.”
Reasons for a Sexless Marriage
There are many potential reasons for a sexless marriage, and only a few of them are actually related to physical problems. The most common explanation, in fact, is that sex has become part of a power struggle between the two members of a couple, in which sex is consciously or subconsciously withheld from the other partner. This can often lead to more problems. A woman might say that she needs more signs of an emotional commitment before having sex, while a man might say that he needs to have sex to open up emotionally. But neither side is willing to give in first.
You can see the problem here – and it’s one that I see often in my sex therapy practice in Los Angeles. Two partners, who might still be very much in love with each other, have simply reached an impasse in which sex has become a real obstacle to moving their relationship forward.
Reviving Sexless Relationships
The good news is that there is a way out of this impasse. I often counsels couples to start an early conversation about where the relationship is going wrong. This can be harder than it sounds. I sometimes advise couple to think like a journalist in order to frame the problem properly. Just as journalists think in terms of “who, what, why, when, where and how” – so should married couples. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
When you start to think in this way, you can start to uncover subtle differences in the way that you and your partner think about sexuality and have a much better idea of what makes the other person respond sexually. One classic example is the difference in arousal times for both men and women. While a man might reach arousal within just a few minutes, it can take much longer for a woman. Trying to initiate sex too soon might not be the best strategy if there is a large gap in these arousal times.
One way that I encourage couples to resolve this problem is by thinking in terms of what many sex therapists refer to as a “pursuer-distancer model.” According to this model, there is one person who is the sexual pursuer but the emotional distancer, while the other person is the emotional pursue but the sexual distancer. In most cases, it is the man who plays the first role while the woman plays the second role. More than likely, if your marriage is under stress, it because you and your partner are mirror images of each other in this model.
Failing to understand this dynamic in the bedroom can lead to painful conversations that can eventually turn toxic. On the other hand, being able to understand this dynamic at work can reinvigorate and recharge an otherwise sexless marriage.
The important thing to keep in mind – and something that I continually tell my own Los Angeles sex therapy clients – is that sex is extremely important to a marriage. In many ways, it is the “glue” that keeps us connected. Sex can be extremely nurturing, so a marriage that loses the sexual spark is one that is going to feel much less emotionally fulfilling. If you feel the sex being drained from your own marriage, it is never too soon to consider ways to get your sex life back in sync.
Dr. Nazanin Moali is a psychologist who works with couples who have been stuck in sexless relationships for decades. Dr. Moali offers sex therapy in her offices in Hermosa Beach and Torrance, in addition to her confidential video counseling practice. She hosts a weekly podcast series called “The Sexology Podcast.”