Reasons for a sexless marriage – and how it affects mental health

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

couple sitting back to back

Sex is a vital part of life. In a relationship, it is one of the greatest ways we can share intimacy and show our love.

Yet it is thought that around 15 out of every 100 married couples have had no sex with their partner in the past six months to one year. This is according to Georgia State University’s associate professor of sociology Denise A. Donnelly who has studied sexless marriages.

This is important because it can drastically affect our emotional and mental well-being. “There is a feedback relationship in most couples between happiness and having sex,” explains Professor Donnelly. “Happy couples have more sex, and the more sex a couple has, the happier they report being.”

Of course, sex is just one form of intimacy. Some couples are happy without sex or at least without much sex.

However, sexless marriages are more likely to end in divorce. The percentage of sexless marriages ending in divorce is unknown – but it is highly likely that as the divorce rate in America is about 50 percent, it would be even more than this.

“Sexual problems have much more impact on marriages than people think they do,” says Barry McCarthy, a certified sex therapist and professor of psychology at American University in Washington DC. “Sex energizes the marital bond.”

What is a sexless relationship?

Why do people cheat on their partners - Tikvah Lake Recovery

A sexless relationship is defined as one in which there has been no sexual activity for a year or more. Often it is also considered that a low-sex marriage – sexual activity 10 times a year or less – has similar causes and issues. 

But how frequently is “normal” sexual activity? According to data from the General Social Survey which has tracked the social behaviors of Americans for 50 years, married men and women have sex on average 58 times a year.

When age is brought in, there are considerable variations in that figure though. For instance, married people under 30 have sex about twice as often every year.

“The ideal level of sexual activity is what both partners are happy with,” says Professor Donnelly. “But when one or both are unhappy, then you can have marital problems.

“It may be that lack of sex is a signal that all intimacy in a marriage is over – and that both would be happier in other situations.”

Why do sexless relationships happen?

Most couples will not have sex as frequently as when they first met and were younger. However, sex will still play an important part in most relationships, no matter how long a couple has been together.

So what are some reasons for sexless and low-sex relationships?

Starting a family

Even if the will is there, during pregnancy it can be physically problematic. But there are also immense hormonal changes. Some women never regain the body confidence they had before falling pregnant too.

Life changes in every way when a baby is born. In terms of finding the time, suitable moments and having the energy levels, things get more difficult as soon as a family is started.

Stress

Stressed young man at home

Sometimes connected to starting a family, stress can be a factor. With children, there are more worries, and more financial pressures and there is always much more to do.

Or it can just be modern life that’s behind someone being stressed. For some people, sex is an ideal way to relieve some of that stress.

But for others, they are just not in the mood and neither do they feel as if they have the energy. As well, the stress hormone cortisol can play a significant part in decreasing someone’s libido.

Specific stressful life issues can also cause people to go off sex. This could be financial worries, job concerns or a bereavement.

As well, of course, if one partner cheats on the other or is even suspected of cheating, it can abruptly stop a couple’s sex life.

Physical health issues

General physical health can often have a significant impact on someone’s desire for sexual activity. Health problems, worries, disability, and ageing can also lead to less or no sex.

Many illnesses can negatively affect sex drive. This includes diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and coronary artery disease.

For women, perimenopause and menopause can decrease sex drive. Low sex drive could also be due to menstrual cycles, using hormonal contraceptives, and having a hysterectomy.

For men, erectile dysfunction (ED) can be a factor. This is not just physically but also because it can drastically lower self-confidence and cause depression, although emotional issues can also play a part in causing ED.

Drink and drugs

Lots of medications have side effects that lead to loss of libido or that leave us feeling less energized. As well, drinking excessively and taking recreational drugs can also cause problems in our sex life.

Lack of open communication

If a relationship has lots of arguments, conflict, or mind games it can lead to the loss of open communication. A couple in a healthy relationship should always feel they can talk to each other and feel that they are listened to carefully. If this is not the case, it can lead to major resentment.

Mental health

woman-lying-in-bed-having-deep-thoughts

Depression and anxiety as well as some other mental health problems, including bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder, can leave someone with no sex drive at all. Someone who has been sexually abused may have long-lasting issues with sex caused by the abuse.

Many addictions can affect a person’s sex life. Pornography addiction is an obvious one, but also workaholism or in fact any addiction that takes most of someone’s time and energy.

Sexless relationships and mental health

The end of a relationship can be something that’s full of different emotions and can lead to mental health problems. But so too can staying in a sexless or low-sex marriage.

Michele Weiner Davis, relationship expert and author of The Sex Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido says: “It’s when one partner is desperately yearning for more touch, physical closeness, more sex, and the other partner is thinking: ‘What is the big deal? Why are you so hassled?’

“When this major disconnect happens, intimacy at all levels tends to drop. It’s really about feeling wanted, feeling loved, feeling appreciated, and feeling connected.”

When someone’s emotional and physical needs are not being met it can cause great frustration, resentment and anger. Clearly, none of these emotional states are healthy for the person experiencing them or for the relationship.

It can lead one partner to have the inner belief that they are not attractive. They face rejection on a regular basis. It can actually make them feel more alone than if they were on their own – and so all of this lowers self-esteem.

Sexless relationships and addictions

If someone is feeling all these emotions such as frustration, resentment, anger, and loneliness, they are more likely to turn to drink and/or drugs. That might turn into an addiction.

Or they might develop a behavioral addiction as a form of escaping their inner pain and negative feelings. This includes work, gambling, using food, and exercise.

A partner who is feeling rejected, as well as not having physical needs met, is more likely to have sex outside the relationship. Sex is another behavior that can become a behavioral addiction.

It could be that they develop an online sex addiction or pay for sex with prostitutes. This can often lead to overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame, as well as cause or increase financial worries.

Shame can also be a factor in one of the partner’s emotional states if sexually they have problems such as vaginal dryness or erectile dysfunction. If they know that lack of sex is an issue, the partner with a physical issue – or maybe they simply have a much lower libido – can feel shame around it.

They can also feel stressed, anxious, and depressed that they are not satisfying their partner. This can fuel a vicious cycle as stress, anxiety and depression can be reasons behind low libido.

Can a sexless relationship be saved?

couple having counseling together

“Yes, but only if you communicate with the one person who can truly help you turn it around: your partner,” says self-help author, coach, and speaker Tony Robbins.

Experts suggest going back to how you were as a couple at the start of the relationship. So spend time listening and talking to each other, buying gifts, sharing happy memories of things you’ve done as a couple, eating together, date nights… Basically, get intimate again on all levels.

“Sex and intimacy aren’t the same things – but they are inextricably linked,” explains Robbins. “Sex is tied to intimacy, which is tied to how much you’re willing to give of yourself. If you’re not willing to share your truth and be empathetic to your partner’s truth, you’ll never be able to fix your sexless marriage.”

But if you are, a sexless marriage can be saved. There are many things that can be tried to rekindle the passion and honest open communication can solve all relationship issues.

Our friendly experienced team has helped people with all emotional issues and every type of mental health problem. Get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help you or someone you care about.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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