Sexless marriages are often shrouded in secrecy and shame, but many long-term couples will experience a sexual dry spell at some point in their relationship.
Shannon Chavez, a psychologist and sex therapist in Beverly Hills, told HuffPost that it is “more common than not” for couples to encounter a period of sexlessness.
“Couples rarely communicate about these changes and instead make assumptions about what a partner should intuit without having to be vulnerable by sharing inner thoughts and feelings,” she said. “We have to be open to ebbs and flows in sexual desire and normalize it so dry spells aren’t so taboo.”
Many factors can affect a person’s libido ― stress, certain medications, having kids and health issues, to name a few. And yes, there are couples in which both partners are perfectly happy with little to no sexual activity. But for people who do value physical intimacy, the feelings of loneliness and rejection that often accompany a sexless relationship can be painful.
“Being sexless can cause distress and make you feel disconnected from your partner and hungry for touch and affection,” Chavez told HuffPost. “Sex is an important part of overall health and wellbeing.”
“We have to be open to ebbs and flows in sexual desire and normalize it so dry spells aren’t so taboo.”
We asked real couples who have gone through a sexless period in their own relationships to open up about what caused the disconnect, how it made them feel and how they got back on track. Read on to find out what they had to say.
Note: Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The last names of some respondents have been withheld to protect their privacy.
Neil, 47, married 15 years
It was after a difficult pregnancy that required a premature C-section that our sex life tanked. We had a very colicky baby, my wife did not feel sexy, we were both worn out and working full-time jobs. Given the small amount of downtime we had, sex was the last thing on her mind. It still crossed mine.
We ignored it too long and didn’t discuss it. I would make some attempts at sex that were rejected. I would snipe about the lack of sex. I would ignore her when I felt ignored. When we arranged a rare date night, the pressure to perform would consume her. The pattern went on for years until I felt like she was using it as an excuse to avoid the topic completely. We would talk and she would say very little or get silent. She would agree there was a lack of intimacy and she would admit she was likely the reason. She visited her doctor, thinking maybe it was physical.
Nothing changed and the pattern continued for a few more years. One night when my attempts were rebuffed, I decided this was my breaking point. I told her I could not sleep in the same bed as someone who rejected me, and we argued yet again. We tried to discuss the issue, but I blamed her and she felt guilty. She would just go silent and I would stew.
“One night when my attempts were rebuffed, I decided this was my breaking point. I told her I could not sleep in the same bed as someone who rejected me and we argued yet again.”
A longtime married friend of my wife’s suggested we try scheduling sex. When she proposed this to me, I rejected it. There’s nothing sexy about that; this stuff should be a spontaneous and passionate thing that just happens. But that was the problem: It wasn’t happening. Begrudgingly, I decided to try. We picked a night a few days away. Things felt different that evening. Instead of the usual excuses and complaints about being tired, she seemed to be in a good mood. That piqued my curiosity, and we had an enjoyable evening. When we put the kid down, we retired upstairs and hung out. You could feel some anticipation.
We kissed and had a small chat and things began to get physical. This was the kind of sex I had been seeking, both of us lost in the moment and enjoying it. Afterwards we talked about how we both enjoyed it and we should plan that again. We climbed in bed again the next evening with the intention of trying ― until we were interrupted by our kid. She went to tend to him and I was laying there and realized the moment had passed and it was not going to happen tonight. I started to feel frustrated. Usually this is where she returns, rolls over and we just ignore each other and I lay there angry.
But this time she came back and said, “Hey, I really wanted to try and was getting worked up before that interruption. I’m annoyed and now I’m tired. Maybe tomorrow? Otherwise, for sure this weekend. OK?”
That’s what I’d been dying to hear from her. We cuddled and a few days later she kept her word. In the afterglow, we agreed this had been a good start. We really liked how we were communicating and not arguing about the subject. We got a good routine going for a few weeks until one evening when we had things planned and she wasn’t feeling it. I was ready to go and she was not. Normally, this ended in frustration, but now we could communicate. I had two choices here: flip the switch off and accept the no, or keep pressuring her. Pressuring her would lead to some lame sex. She would not be into it. I decided to just cuddle and show her I can accept this, but I did remind her that I still wanted her. “I know, I’ll be ready in a few days, I totally want to. Just not tonight,” she said. That’s really the best thing she could say at that moment. You’re not rejecting me. You’re just asking me to wait. Because what I had been learning was that waiting until she was ready for it was leading to fun sex.
For months we kept this going. It stopped us from arguing about sex and instead we talked and teased about sex. I realized I was getting a steady diet of it and she was into it again. The anticipation is palpable sometimes, other times the anticipation feels forced. We have both rescheduled for one reason or another ― but having it out there has eliminated a lot of the issues and changed sex from a difficult topic to one where we are learning from each other. ― Neil
Susan, 56, married 25 years
As I was spoon-fed feminist values growing up, I couldn’t admit, much less accept, my desire to have a man take care of me. It’s a bit paradoxical given my husband’s ability to handle money with competence and ease, but I couldn’t imagine merging our finances. We were 11 years into our marriage and in the midst of a three-year financial rough patch when I actually said to him: “I’m not sure if can stay with you. I want my husband to be financially solid so I can relax.”
Tim was already suffering the fact that our intimate life was dead in the water —now this? I’d become bored with sex and was just plain disinterested. Every now and then I’d give him mercy sex, which made him feel even worse, so he’d check out emotionally. His motivation to take care of me was at an all-time low. Neither of us could see any way through this painful impasse.
We were at the brink of divorce when we both realized that breaking up our family was not an option. I made a commitment to reviving our sex life, and he became more emotionally engaged, but I still held on to my reservations about our financial wellbeing. I put him on notice, saying, “I don’t want you to think I’m completely committed to the marriage. I’m not. I need to know you can take care of me financially.”
“Every now and then I’d give him mercy sex, which made him feel even worse, so he’d check out emotionally.”
A few years later, we went through a financial disaster and, like a lot of people, were forced to downsize. Through this difficult transition, I came to realize that I had complete faith in Tim’s ability to manage our finances. We had to hit bottom for me to recognize that if anybody could put us on solid financial ground, it was my darling husband — with me by his side. That’s when it dawned on me that we are finally both mature enough to have committed 100 percent to having each other’s back. I realized what it means for a couple to be a team: whatever weaknesses he might have could be filled in with my strengths. And whatever weaknesses I have can be filled in with his strengths. I let go of expecting him to do it all and took responsibility for doing my share in order to make us successful as a couple. ― Susan Bratton, author of the eBook Relationship Magic
Mark, 27, in a relationship for 8 years
My partner and I have been having sex issues since 2013, about six months after I got out of the Army. We went from having sex every other day to suddenly once in eight months. After the eight-month dry spell, we would have sex about once every season, sometimes twice. The last three years were bad for both of us because we had both started school again.
Now before I get any further, I will say that it isn’t all her fault. Like any couple, we had fights and I had done some stupid stuff earlier in our relationship that still bothered and hurt her. I noticed that during this time we slowly started to drift away from each other, not enjoying each other’s company, getting annoyed and feeling resentment. I started to have a much harder time reading her wants and needs, and my self-confidence plummeted because of it. I started to resent her because of the no-sex issue and, at its worst, it started to affect my feelings toward her.
We tried to talk it out, and slowly, over the years, I discovered the reasons why we stopped having sex. It just wasn’t enjoyable for her anymore; it hurt during and after for a while, it felt like a chore, she was just honestly never in the mood (due to her birth control), she was exhausted and stressed from her master’s program. She always said she had an orgasm, sometimes multiple, during our few sessions, but it just wasn’t really worth it to her.
During this time, my self-confidence and ego were at their lowest. For the longest time, I thought I was less of a man because I couldn’t make our sex sessions enjoyable for her. After a while I started to think she just wasn’t physically attracted to me anymore or was cheating on me. Then I just stopped being sexually attracted to her. After the years of constant rejection to my physical advances, something just switched in my mind and she stopped being seen as a sexual partner; she became a friend. I stopped trying and just didn’t care anymore. I loved her too much to end things, but I had no idea how to be sexually satisfied (cheating was out of the question). So I was just stuck in this love/hate/resentment mindset, and I hated it.
“During this time, my self-confidence and ego were at their lowest. For the longest time, I thought I was less of a man because I couldn’t make our sex sessions enjoyable for her.”
Finally, things changed about two months after we got a new person living above us. One night this person was having loud sex, which made her mad. She tried to see if I was mad, but I think she saw this jealous look on my face. The next morning, she opened up to me about her fears of me leaving her, how she wants to want to have sex but she just can’t right now because of stress and her birth control, she’s afraid that I’ll cheat on her, how she feels bad we don’t have sex, which then makes her feel like she has to have sex with me, which then just stresses her out even more and how it would just cycle.
Luckily, that night I had been surfing the dead bedrooms subreddit, reading people’s stories and advice. So I tried to apply what I read to the very moment. I explained that I would never leave or cheat on her. I told her I understood the stress and birth control issue and that I would never want her to have sex with me out of fear. But I was also honest in my feelings and how I lost sexual attraction to her. We ended up talking for a while, and to be honest, it was probably one of the turning points in our relationship. I started initiating again. Though we still didn’t have sex, the rejection was met by understanding from both of us, so nobody was hurt.
Our sex life isn’t better, in fact, we haven’t had sex since before that talk, but our relationship has gotten much better. We understand each other, communicate better, laugh together again, she’s physically affectionate again and we even kiss more than we used to. So as of right now we aren’t on track, but we’re on our way to being back on track, and I honestly think things will get better soon. ― Mark