The loss of sexual intimacy in a marriage is often part of the motivation for couples to seek and begin marriage counseling. It’s not uncommon for couples who have drifted from sexual intimacy to wonder if they can maintain a happy and connected relationship over time. I’ve found that couples who ignore the loss of sexual intimacy in their marriage run the risk of emotional distance, sexual affairs and maybe divorce. It’s also likely that the absence of sexual activity is a symptom of a more significant emotional challenge between two people. Having a therapist work to clarify the patterns of communication and the emotional meaning each person attributes to the situation can be extremely productive.
Talking about your sexual life and its problems
Many people find that talking about their sex life, even with their partner, can be awkward, uncomfortable, and embarrassing. But choosing not to communicate about sex between you and your spouse leads to a breakdown of communication and this sets the stage for a multitude of problems. Or, for couples who are verbally comfortable with one another, how to approach conversations about sex is often a focus of therapy. Leading with anger, blame, criticism, contempt, a harsh start-up, or even withdrawing from one’s partner damages the emotional relationship and diminishes the opportunity to connect in a safe, non-threatening way.
It’s crucial to explore what ‘sexless’ means to each couple. For some couples I’ve worked with, ‘sexless’ might span the course of years, for others months, and for others yet weeks. Every couple has an expectation or vision of a preferred sex life and when this becomes challenged sexual complaints often arise. The romantic comedy Annie Hall, written and directed by Woody Allen, witnesses a couple struggling with the sexual aspect of their relationship. During a visit to their respective therapists, the powerful meaning of perception is seen. View the classic scene here:
ALVY’S (Woody Allen) THERAPIST: How often do you sleep together?
ANNIE’S THERAPIST (Diane Keaton): Do you have sex often?
ALVY: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.
ANNIE: Constantly. I’d say three times a week.
This exchange clearly shows that sex is subjective and open to interpretation. Alvy thinks three times a week is ‘hardly ever’; Annie thinks it’s ‘constantly’.
Some questions to ask yourself:
‘What does sexless mean for my partner and I in our relationship?’ ‘What is my vision of a healthy sexual marriage, and, do I know how my partner thinks?’
Another area of importance is the role and effect of physical affection on the relationship, particularly in times of struggle. Maintaining a physical connection, despite the absence of sexual activity, such as cuddling, hugs, kissing, holding hands, a playful butt tap, or massage, releases positive bonding chemicals in your brain similar to sexual activity. In addition, researchers have found that non-sexual intimacy is a significant contributor to long-term marital happiness.
Some questions to ask yourself:
“Are my partner and I touching enough on a daily basis?” Sometimes partners will tell me that being touched can feel as though it’s simply a precursor to sexual activity. “Can our awareness simply remain on the emotional and mental connection during these moments rather than seeing affection as a means to getting to sexual activity?” Try not to overlook the moments of connection that are occurring by focusing on what’s not occurring!
At times there may be health issues affecting sexual intimacy and I will frequently ask about current health check-ups as part of the therapy.
Question: Are you and your spouse up-to- date on your annual check-ups, blood work, exams etc? Nutrition, sleep, stress management, physical and mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety, financial concerns, parenting challenges and many more can influence our sex drives and sense of identity. Yes, we all have a sexual self-identity!
Question: How do you feel about yourself, your energy, body image, sexual confidence, and ability to please yourself and your partner? Do you gain a sense of your sexuality from the feedback of your partner, or, do you have your own relationship to your sexuality? We each have a responsibility to maintain our physical, mental and emotional health as it relates to our sexual life. If you aren’t feeling sexy, or sensual within your own skin, cultivate and nurture yourself and explore what makes you feel attractive. Remember, this part of the work is about you, and not your partner!
As you can see, exploring the absence of sexual intimacy in a marriage is extraordinarily personal for each couple and is affected by communication, expectations, awareness of positive moments, emotional, mental and physical health, seeing the situation through our partner’s eyes, and taking care of ourselves at the same time. Each of these areas should be explored at length with a therapist before making decisions to leave a sexless marriage.