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How to fix a sexless marriage (if it needs fixing)

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

View from behind of a couple sitting on a couch facing opposite directions

When Jen and Rick* got married in 2015, their sex life was already dwindling. Jen hoped that after the wedding, they’d find their way back to the level of intimacy they’d enjoyed in early dating—but starting a family had the opposite effect. Sex became less and less frequent, then stopped altogether three years ago.

“We’re in this place now where our son is five years old and sleeping in his own space, but I don’t know how to undo the damage that’s been done to our relationship,” Jen says. “We don’t talk about not having sex. We just ignore it. Therapy has been our last chance.”

If this feeling of despair sounds familiar, Tammy Nelson, PhD, is here to give you hope. A certified sex therapist and director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute, Nelson says that rebuilding intimacy in a sexless relationship is not only possible, but can be fun.

What counts as a sexless relationship?

There’s no single definition of a sexless marriage or relationship. In some studies, 15% of married adults reported not having sex in the last year, and another study shows that around 5% of heterosexual married couples have had sex only once or twice in the past year.1, 2

Nelson says a specific number is beside the point. “I caution against jumping on any one definition because it doesn’t account for what we define as sex,” she explains. “It also doesn’t necessarily mean people are unhappy with the amount of sex they’re having, even if it’s a low number.” At its root, a sexless relationship means that the amount or quality of sex you’re having doesn’t meet the needs of one or both partners.

There are two core aspects of a relationship, Nelson says: eroticism and companionship. The companionship side includes how you live together, your compatibility in managing a home, and so on. The eroticism side covers romance, intimacy, and desire. “If you’re just roommates, you might love your partner but not feel in love with them,” says Nelson. If you’re putting more energy into companionship than romance, this imbalance may result in less sex.

What causes a sexless relationship?

A relationship doesn’t usually lose intimacy overnight. Sometimes underlying issues take years to bubble to the surface, and at other times life gets in the way. “If there’s a problem in your relationship,” Nelson says, “it can be hard to climb over that resentment in the middle of the bed.”

She explains that there are three main types of reasons why you and your partner might be struggling: relational, recreational, and procreational. Outside factors can also play a role.

Relational: These may include financial differences, infidelity, technology use, or other factors that cause one person to pull back from the other. “We are like antiviral systems, and we are going to protect ourselves from what we think might hurt us,” Nelson says. This results in what she calls “diluted intimacy,” where we let certain parts of the relationship in and distance ourselves from the parts we think might cause pain.

Recreational: Sometimes the sex itself doesn’t meet one or both partners’ needs. For example, a study published in 2018 found that men have more orgasms than women in heterosexual relationships.3  Some experts call this the “orgasm gap.”4 When the woman isn’t satisfied, she’s more likely to disengage. “If you haven’t had an orgasm in 20 years, what’s the point?” Nelson asks. “You’re going to get bored. If you’d rather watch a show than have sex, it may not be meeting your needs.”

Procreational: Soon after Jen and Rick became parents, they started sleeping in separate rooms. Still, they would try to sneak into their refinished basement to fool around or have a date night that ended in the back of their SUV. “It was fun for a while,” Jen says. “But as the baby got bigger and sleep became less and less, I went into some kind of survival mode and didn’t even think about sex.” This is common: Couples often see a decline in sex and sexual satisfaction when they transition to parenthood.5

Hormonal shifts are most often associated with childbirth, but they can happen to either partner at different stages in life. One or both of you might be nearing menopause, Nelson notes, or partners with a penis might experience erectile or orgasmic dysfunction. Our fluctuating hormones can change how we feel about our bodies, which may also lead to a decrease in sex.

Outside factors: The world around us affects our sex lives too. Experts say that stress resulting from work, friendships, or news events can lead us to feel checked out or depressed, and it can have physical repercussions.6

Pinpointing the reason for a sexless relationship isn’t always easy, and there may be multiple issues at play. Working with a couples therapist to understand the dynamics of your partnership can help you figure out why intimacy has declined. To find a therapist near you, visit our directory.

Mental health risks

Jen describes the past three years of her marriage as lonely. “I sometimes feel unwanted, even though I was the one who pulled away in the beginning,” she says. “I feel like he should want me enough to make the first move, and because he’s not, I feel worse about myself.”

Jen acknowledges that her hesitation has also impacted Rick’s self-esteem and made him feel less desirable, which in turn has allowed resentment to build on both sides. “It’s been hard for him to understand that this has little to do with him and more to do with me,” says Jen. “But he’s still really defensive about it.”

Feelings of sexual rejection can lead to a sense of isolation and depression that overshadows the relationship. Nelson says this is partly because humans need touch and connection, but also because sex is good for us, especially as we age.

The importance of being on the same page

Not every sexless relationship is in trouble, Nelson says. If the absence of sex works for both partners—for example, if one or both are asexual—then there’s no need to worry.

Opening up the relationship is another potential solution for sexlessness, especially if there’s an imbalance in libido. One in five Americans reports having participated in an open relationship or consensual nonmonogamy at some point in their lives.7 Experts say this trend is growing as stigma starts to fade around nontraditional relationship structures.8

In opening or closing any relationship, Nelson says, it’s important for both partners to agree on boundaries. The arrangement should be revisited often to ensure everyone’s needs are still being met.

Finding your way back

Jen says that without the help of a couples therapist, she wouldn’t know where to begin in rebuilding intimacy with Rick. In 30 years of working with couples, Nelson says, she’s seen this come up often. She recommends a few ways to start.

“First, I would never tell a couple who hasn’t had sex in a few years to just go do it,” says Nelson. “Instead I encourage couples to spend one hour a week on their romantic relationship. Every other hour can be for the companion side.” In that hour, couples can have an intimate conversation or touch each other in ways they normally wouldn’t.

Intimate conversations can help move things along, says Nelson: “Communication doesn’t just mean you talk and I listen, then I talk and you listen. It’s going below the surface to really hear one another.” Her new card deck, Date Night, offers guidance and conversation topics to help couples get started.

Touch is another fantastic way to build intimacy. Touch exercises can make for a fun date night, or you might consider looking for a certified sex therapist who works with sensate focus, a technique designed to build intimacy through touch without focusing on arousal.9

Finding a spark with couples therapy

In the end, Rick was the one who approached Jen about trying couples therapy. “It’s not that I was opposed to it,” Jen says. “I just didn’t know if it would help.”

When she and Rick started out, their therapist gave them assignments, “like sit next to one another, hold hands, and look into each other’s eyes,” Jen says. “It felt goofy at first.” But soon the exercises grew more intimate, and before long they started to feel a spark.

She and Rick haven’t had sex again yet, but Jen is hopeful. “I’m feeling valued and heard by him in a way that hasn’t been there even before we got married,” she says. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”

*Names have been changed.

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.

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