Data from nationally representative U.S. surveys suggests that about 1 in 7 adults are living in sexless marriages, or relationships in which the spouses report having little to no sexual activity with one another [1, 2]. Despite how common sexless marriages are, there is next to no research on this topic. For example, why does sexual activity disappear in these couples in the first place and how does it affect the partners? Also, why do so many people remain in these relationships if they find the lack of sex to be distressing? A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family provides some insight into these provocative questions .
In this study, researchers recruited an online sample of 77 persons who were involved in either a married or long-term heterosexual relationship in which they desired sexual contact with their partner, but were unable to maintain a consistent sex life for a period of at least six months. In other words, all of the participants were “involuntarily celibate” (i.e., they wanted sex but were not having it). Participants were about evenly divided between men and women, and they ranged in age from 18-65, with most in their late 30s to early 40s. All participants completed a survey in which they were asked about the circumstances surrounding their lack of sexual activity and the effects it has had on them and their relationship.
Participants reported that the most common factors contributing to the sexual decline in their relationship were their partner’s lack of desire for sex (for some this meant a lack of desire for sex in general, while for others it meant a lack of interest in sex specifically with one’s spouse), relationship problems, sexual dysfunctions (e.g., erectile difficulties), physical appearance concerns, addictions and illnesses, and/or infidelity. Most participants reported that their sex lives slowed down gradually as a result of one or more of these factors; however, some reported that the sex stopped abruptly one day, and some reported that they never really had much of a sex life to begin with. As you can see, there is not just one path to a sexless marriage.
People can have very different reactions to involuntary celibacy, but they are almost universally negative, ranging from feelings of frustration, depression, and rejection, to concentration difficulties (e.g., difficulty thinking about anything other than sex), to low self-esteem. Most report that the lack of sex is a major problem in their lives. For example, consider the following quote provided by one male participant:
“It has a deleterious effect on my overall life. I dwell on sexual thoughts and fantasies. I am depressed. My professional life is impacted. This detracts from the time I should spend on work related activities.”
When reactions are so strongly negative, it should not be surprising that some people end up leaving their relationship; however, a large number of people stay because there may still be benefits to the relationship overall, not to mention high costs associated with breaking up. In fact, 47% of the participants in this study reported staying in their sexless marriage because they felt that, aside from the lack of sex, they already had the ideal partner. In addition, many stayed because they felt that there was too much too lose by leaving (e.g., they had significant investments in the relationship, such as children) or because they felt socially compelled to stay (e.g., for religious reasons). A smaller number stayed because they felt as though they did not have any better options or because they were afraid of leaving. In the words of one female participant:
“Maybe this is as good as it gets — and I am afraid to give up what I have.’’
So how do people who decide to stay in a sexless marriage cope with it? Just over half (51%) said that they tried to focus their time and energy elsewhere, such as cultivating friendships or throwing oneself into work, fitness, or a hobby. In addition, many reported seeking alternative sexual outlets. For example, 79% of participants reported masturbating, 13-14% tried cybersex or phone sex, and 26% reported having affairs. Finally, some participants reported seeking professional help (e.g., therapy or couples counseling), while others reported “giving up” or resigning themselves to a life without sex.
These results tell us that sexless marriages can come about in a number of ways and that involuntary celibacy can have important consequences for the relationship. Although sexless marriages can be quite distressing, people remain in them for a variety of reasons and cope with the lack of sex in many different ways. Also, it is important to note that heterosexuals are not the only ones with sexless marriages—gay and lesbian couples can have them too. And in heterosexual marriages, sometimes it is the male partner who is desiring more sex, while sometimes it is the female partner.
Is it possible for a sexless marriage to reverse course? Absolutely. However, it is not easy, and there are no guarantees because both partners have to be interested in and motivated to change. Also, because there are so many different factors that can lead to involuntary celibacy, it necessarily means that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution. To learn more about how sex therapists treat partners with discrepant sexual desires, check out this article.
 Donnelly, D. (1993). Sexually inactive marriages. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 171–179.
 Laumann, E., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago.
 Donnelly, D. A., & Burgess, E. O. (2008). The decision to remain in an involuntarily celibate relationship. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 519-535.
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