If someone were to describe a happy marriage, “sexless” would likely not be the first word that comes to mind. According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of adults list having a satisfying sexual relationship as important for a successful marriage. Yet, according to this 2017 study, 15.6% of married participants reported having no sex in the last year, while another 13.5% reported having no sex in the last five years.
Does that mean there are lots of unhappily married couples out there? Well, if you consider data analyzed from Google, then yes. A lot of search terms indicate that people are not having as much marital sex as they’d like.
For example, searches for “sexless marriage” are three and a half times more frequent than “unhappy marriage” and eight times more so than “loveless marriage.” Complaints about a spouse not wanting sex are 16 times more common than those about a married partner who’s not willing to talk.
But as that analysis also found, people lie and awful lot about their sex lives.
So instead of relying on Google, we reached out to several sex and relationship experts. They had some interesting insights.
The Definition Of A Sexless Marriage
First, it’s important to define what, exactly, a “sexless marriage” is. Ultimately, the definition “depends on the couple’s expectations and beliefs about what is normal sexual activity,” explains Megan Harrison, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of the CouplesCandy blog.
“Some couples may consider themselves to be in a sexless marriage if they have not had sex for several months or years, while others may feel that their relationship is sexless if they are not having sex as often as they would like,” Harrison continues.
Author and women’s wellness coach Sarah McDugal breaks down the definition further. While a common idea of “sexless” might be fewer than ten times a year, McDugal cites recent scientific research that suggests this is an inadequate definition.
“If sex is defined as the mutual enjoyment of a sexually intimate encounter, the definition of a sexless marriage is drastically altered,” McDugal explains. In research detailed in her book The Great Sex Rescue, she notes the data, “revealed that in some sub-cultures, like evangelical women, there is a 47-point orgasm gap where men always or nearly always experience orgasm. But women orgasm almost 50% less than their male partners.”
Just as there are many possible definitions of a sexless marriage, there are many reasons couples aren’t doing the deed.
Causes Of A Sexless Marriage
There are many reasons why sex might peter out in a marriage, explains Nicole Hind, an online relationship counselor. Partners’ libidos tend to ebb and flow—and not always in sync with one another. Aging and body changes can make sex painful and unpleasant. Other factors, like sexuality or ongoing trauma, might contribute to disinterest or displeasure in sex.
Other factors include emotional, mental, or physical abuse or sexual coercion. In these instances, the marriage isn’t healthy for far more reasons than sex alone, McDugal adds.
But otherwise, most of these issues can be addressed on their own. As Joseph Puglisi, CEO of DatingIconic.com, puts it, “If the sexlessness came out as a result of grief, stress, fear, or lack of attraction—that is, if it was an unconscious effort—the reasons could be reviewed and communicated.”
And while the patriarchal, sex-driven cultural norms we see every day might suggest it’s men who are suffering more in the sexual void, it may not be actually true. According to Dr. Jen Gunter, a California-based OBGYN, it’s often women who report feeling dissatisfied with their marriage’s sexual well-being.
A Healthy Marriage Doesn’t Need Require Sex
So, it’s clearly on everyone’s minds. But the real question is—is it unhealthy?
When it comes right down to it, Hind explains that “a healthy marriage is whatever both people in the marriage decide it is. The main issue isn’t whether or not there is sex; it is if both people are relatively comfortable. Sex doesn’t just mean penetrative sex. There are a lot of options available if both partners are willing to explore pleasure, intimacy, and connection without penetration.”
Non-penetrative forms of sexual intimacy include body massage, kissing, and gentle touch. But even relationships without these forms of connection can survive—with some work. “Couples in [this type of] sexless marriage may need to find other ways to express their love and affection for one another,” Harrison explains. “They may also need to communicate more openly about their needs and desires.”
“Being able to share conversation authentically, build a rich connection, and experience non-sexual affection is a wonderful thing in any marriage. And it’s often missing even if there is sex,” Hind adds. “Sex doesn’t automatically equal intimacy.”
How To Know When A Sexless Marriage Is Problematic
The answer to the million-dollar question, “Can a sexless marriage be healthy,” is yes and no. If you and your partner are content without sexual intimacy, then congratulations, you have a healthy, sexless marriage. Pay no mind to what the internet says about it—you just keep doing you.
But if one of you is notably unhappy (and so long as there are no abusive dynamics present), then the next step is to determine the cause of your dry spell. If it’s emotional or mental, consider therapy—either solo or couples’ counseling. If it’s stress with no end in sight, communicate with your partner as you tackle your responsibilities.
Sex devices can help with menopause, age, or hormone-related factors. Some are specifically designed for midlife women, like the Tabu. Others are designed for maximum pleasure for both men and women, like the Tenuto 2 from Mystery Vibe. Hormone therapy and other forms of sexual intimacy can also serve as viable solutions.
When it comes down to it, no two sex lives (or marriages) are exactly the same. The best kind of connections—sexual and emotional—involve give and take, push and pull, and an open willingness to find you and your partner’s perfect “happy and healthy.”