Sexless Marriages: How Common Are They, And How Do People Cope With Them?

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Nationally representative U.S. survey data reveal that approximately 1 in 7 adults today are living in a sexless marriage, meaning they report engaging in little to no sexual activity [1, 2]. Despite how common sexless marriages are, surprisingly little research exists on the topic. So why does sexual activity decline in so many couples in the first place and how does it affect the partners? Also, what are the factors that might lead people to stay in sexless marriages despite the fact that the experience tends to be highly distressing?

A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family offers some insight [3]. Researchers recruited 77 people online who were involved in either a married or long-term 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 (note that while all participants in this study were heterosexual, sexless marriages and relationships definitely exist among same-sex couples, too).

All of the participants were “involuntarily celibate,” meaning they wanted sex but weren’t having it. Participants were about evenly divided between men and women, and they ranged in age from 18-65, with most being 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.

The most commonly reported factors contributing to the sexual decline 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 (such as 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 sex stopped abruptly, and some reported that they never really had much of a sex life to begin with. As you can see, there isn’t just one path to a sexless marriage.

Participants expressed a range of reactions to involuntary celibacy; however, they were almost universally negative and frequently included feelings of frustration, depression, and rejection. Others reported concentration difficulties (e.g., difficulty thinking about anything other than sex) and low self-esteem. Most said that the lack of sex was a major problem in their lives, such as this 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.”

Given these negative reactions, some people ended up leaving these relationships; however, many stayed because there were still benefits to the relationship overall, not to mention high costs associated with breaking up. In fact, 47% of participants reported staying in a sexless marriage because they felt that, aside from the lack of sex, they 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., religious motivations). 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 they tried to focus their time and energy elsewhere, such as by cultivating friendships or throwing themselves into work, fitness, or hobbies. Moreover, many reported seeking alternative sexual outlets. For example, 79% reported masturbating, 13-14% tried cybersex or phone sex, and 26% admitted to having affairs. There were also some participants who sought professional help in the form of individual 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, further, that sexlessness can have several 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 different ways.

Again, it is important to note this study is limited in that it only focused on heterosexual persons; however, it is worth pointing out that in male-female sexless relationships, sometimes it is the male partner who wants more sex, while other times it is the female partner.

To learn more about how sex therapists treat partners with discrepant sexual desires, check out this article.

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[1] Donnelly, D. (1993). Sexually inactive marriages. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 171–179.

[2] Laumann, E., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago.

[3] Donnelly, D. A., & Burgess, E. O. (2008). The decision to remain in an involuntarily celibate relationship. Journal of Marriage and Family70, 519-535.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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