Do you have a sexless marriage? If you do, you're not alone. Sexless marriages may in fact be increasing in frequency. If there is no longer sexual intimacy in your marriage, it's important to understand what has happened and make a plan to address the causes. Don't allow problems in the bedroom steal the intimacy in body, mind, and spirit that you envisioned on your wedding day.
The 2014 Relationships in America survey found that one in five married people in America between age 18 and 60 have not had sex in the last month, 12% haven't been sexually active in the last three months, and 6% have not had sex in more than a year. The General Social Survey (GSS) has found a gradual trend toward lowered sexual activity among married people. Since 1989, when the questions were first asked, the proportion of married people under age 60 who report having sex less than once a month has increased 68%. Not surprisingly, couples in sexless marriages have higher levels of marital dissatisfaction and are more likely to divorce.
So, what leads to a marriage beginning or becoming sexless? Any of the following factors can be responsible, alone or in combination:
Beliefs about Sex. Attitudes about sexuality are shaped by the messages others have conveyed to us. Beliefs such as "You shouldn't enjoy sex," "You're responsible for your spouse's sexual satisfaction," or "You should always be ready to perform" can create discomfort about sex, resulting in avoidance.
Previous Sexual Experiences. Traumatic or disturbing sexual experiences from childhood, adolescence, or earlier in adulthood can create a learned negative response to sex. Even if the person's current relationship has been free of harmful sexual incidents, sights, sounds, and sensations associated with sex may produce automatic fear or disgust based on past sexual encounters.
Biological Factors. The biological propensity to want sex can vary tremendously, from the one extreme of constant, intense desire for sex to the opposite extreme of asexuality-- the complete lack of desire. Low sexual drive in one or both partners can lead to a marriage without sex. Diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease can affect sexual desire and capacity for arousal. Chronic pain or pain during intercourse also have a dampening effect, as do hormonal changes and some medications.
Relational Factors. The status of the relationship has a tremendous effect on how gratifying sex is and how often it occurs. Relationships are particularly sensitive to any breach of trust, whether that occur through infidelity, dishonesty, or any of the many ways that confidence can be betrayed. There may be unresolved conflicts or habitual behavior by one partner that produces negative reactions in the other partner (excessive drinking or fits of rage would be examples). Some couples have drifted apart over the years, pursuing separate interests. Or the partners may lack communication skills and thus don't know how to work through problems, including problems in their sexual relationship.
Life Stresses. One or both partners may be under considerable stress--a new job, a failing business, an ill parent, a troubled child. Even a welcome event, such as a promotion or the birth of a child, can bring with it significant demands. Sex can be a casualty of chronic stress.
Psychological Factors. Emotional problems like depression or anxiety can reduce interest in sex and lead to withdrawal from one's mate. Many of the factors discussed in the above sections can produce psychological reactions that exacerbate sexual difficulties. For example, not being able to perform because of a medical condition can evoke feelings of failure and lack of confidence. Such feelings then can prompt avoidance of sexual situations.
Pornography. Porn presents a distorted and unrealistic image of how we should relate to one another sexually. As they retreat more and more into fantasy, porn viewers often develop difficulties with their real-life sexual relationships and may withdraw from these completely.
Paul wrote to husbands and wives in the Corinthian church:
"Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (I Cor. 7:5, NIV).
Generally, God designed us to be one flesh in marriage. Think of Paul's words as an invitation for your marriage to fulfill its potential for intimacy and union with each other. An active sex life within marriage can also help partners resist sexual temptation. If your marriage is currently sexless, reflect on which of the above factors has led you and your spouse to the current state of affairs. Discuss the issue with each other and make a plan to address the problems you identify. You can face and conquer problems that you are willing to acknowledge. Choose to draw closer rather than letting any issue draw you further apart. Be quick to ask for help from a Christian counselor. Don't allow your marriage to be damaged by lack of sexual intimacy.
Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.