Not tonight Honey: Why a sexless marriage puts your relationship at risk and what you can do about it

06 May Not tonight Honey: Why a sexless marriage puts your relationship at risk and what you can do about it

I recently watched “the Lunchbox;” A bitter-sweet East Indian movie about romantic and family relationships taking place in an underprivileged neighborhood in Mumbai. It becomes clear, pretty early in the movie that Ila, a rather bored house-maker, and her husband, Rajeev, have been drifting apart for some time. Ila tries her best to draw her husband to her. She even suggests that their daughter might like to have a little sibling. But Rajeev seems disinterested. Soon after, Ila smells the perfume of another woman on her husband’s shirts. The sexless marriage ends up dissolving.

You may be asking yourself whether lack of sex in a marriage (or another form of romantic long-term relationship) necessarily causes separation or is it rather that, problems in the marriage create distance in the couple, which may result in lack of intimacy and sex? And, are there other reasons that might keep a couple from having regular sex?
What is a sexless marriage?
These are very good and important questions. But let’s start with a definition of a sexless marriage. According to expert opinion, a sexless marriage is one where the marital couple engages in sexual behavior once a month or less. True, there are times when sex once a month is great, such as when you have just had a baby, when you have two children 2 years and under or when someone is unwell. But if that pattern lasts a long time, it can result in complete avoidance of sexual intimacy, which, it turn, may cause problems in the marriage.
What seems to be the source of trouble?
Lack of sex and various sexual challenges are many times the reason why couples come to therapy. Many other times, sexual problems reveal themselves during the course of therapy and are a part of a pattern of distancing and disengagement of one or two partners. The answer to the question of whether lack of sex causes problems in the marriage or vice versa is that both are true and, in addition, other reasons, such as an illness in the family, might be at play and all may require an intervention.
Why is sex so important?
Why is sex so important for a healthy couple’s relationship? In marriages and long-term romantic relationships sexual intimacy is an expression of love, closeness and, of course, sexual desire. As human beings, sex is a form of our expression and a way to feel wanted and desirable. It is also a way to give to your loved one. A person can have many close friends and family members but, in committed relationships, the partner is the only person in the world who they have that unique aspect of a relationship. New research indicates that, when a person has an orgasm, the brain secrets Oxytocin, a hormone that has been nick-named The Love Hormone because it increases feelings of bonding and love. Sex, it seems, is the glue or cement of a couple’s relationship. Without it, the foundation is rather shaky.
In terms of research in the area of marital therapy, it has been well documented that when sex is good and regular in a marriage, it is not a big issue in the relationship. But when there are challenges in this area it can lead to a lot of distress, alienation and even to infidelity and marriage dissolution.
What are the most common sexual issues reported?
So what do most couples who have sexual challenges, complain about? In parenting couples, the most common complaints are, 1. Differences in desire and frequency preferences, 2. Loss of spontaneity and, 3. Boredom or lack of novelty. Sexual performance challenges may also be an issue of concern.
In terms of differences in level of desire and frequency, most, but not all parenting couples complain that the man is more interested in sex than the woman. This is hardly a surprise given the nature of maternal duties and responsibilities and maternal fatigue. When the kids are very young the demands on the primary care giver, who in most cases is the mother, are great. At the end of the day a mother might feel as though she needs some space and quiet more than anything else. True, men usually work at their job but the nature of most job-related responsibilities and demands do not include kids invading a person’s personal space. In addition, stress is a major libido-killer, especially for women. And so, although both men and women may struggle when level of stress is high, there are gender differences in response to stress. For example, for the stressed out man, sex may serve as a stress-buster whereas for the stressed out woman, sex may be undesirable as it may be perceived as one more demand. But even for men, very high levels of stress may result in reduced desire and/or poor sexual performance.
Another issue that may be at play is anger and resentment. Partners and especially women, often find it hard to be sexually interested if they are angry or resentful toward their partner. In many parenting couples, for example, the women perform most of the child-care duties and house chores, while the men are busy at work. But, research shows that even when mothers work full time, they tend to still perform the lion share of house chores and child care. This may result in feelings of resentment toward the husband. But men may also have feelings of resentment or disappointment when they expect their wife to be able to handle the kids and the house by themselves or almost by themselves and when they are being asked to participate in those task after having worked the whole day.
Other issues such as lack of spontaneity and boredom are very common in long-term romantic relationships and can be effectively dealt with in couples therapy.
What to do if you are in a sexless marriage?
The most important thing is to work to resolve the issue rather than accept things as they are. Discuss it with your partner in a non-blaming way. Decide to work on it together as a mutual goal. Depending on the source of the problem, books on the topic can help. You will find a couple of my favorite titles below. If you cannot seem to resolve the issue with the help of books seek couple counselling. Don’t delay; your marriage might be at stake!

A few helpful tips
(These tips help the most if the problem is mostly because of boredom)
1. As humans, in order to stay interested and engaged we need change. Just as most people will get bored if they eat the same thing over and over again, most people are likely to get bored with sex if they do it the same way over and over again. Change is crucial for maintaining passion in a couple’s relationship. It often takes just a little change to make a difference. For example, a different place, a different time of day, a different position, a different nighty or even a different perfume.
2. Set it up. Think about it during the hours before you intend to make it happen. Talk to your partner and hint at your intentions, pay compliments (but only genuine ones), wash up, make sure you look and smell good.
3. Make time for sex. Life can get quite hectic and couples often go to bed feeling exhausted. Sometime they don’t even go to bed together. While this may seem counter-productive in terms of spontanaety, if you don’t make time for sex it might simply not happen. If you don’t seem to be able to be spontaneous in terms of when you do it, be spontaneous in what you do and how you do it.
4. Read a book on sex together and try some of the tips or positions in it. A good choice for this activity would be reading The Sex Bible.
5. Watch a porn movie together. Talk about it or just try some things that you both agree to try. Avoid comparing your partner or yourself to the actors in the movie. It’s okay to get inspired by porn but reassure one another that you only want your partner in bed.
If you’ve tried different suggestions and have felt little improvement in your sex life or in your relationship in general, get some professional help.

Further Readings
Patricia Love and Jo Robinson (2012). Hot Monogamy: essential steps to more passionate, intimate lovemaking. Sounds True
David Schnarch (2003). Resurrecting Sex: solving sexual problems and revolutionizing your relationship. HarperCollins.
Michele Weiner-Davis (2004). The sex-starved marriage: boosting your marriage libido, a couples guide. Simon and Schuster.
Susan Crain Bakos. (2008). The Sex Bible. Quiver.