Written by: Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Are you in a sexless marriage? If you are, you're not alone. For an issue that's more common than anyone thinks, it's rarely talked about. And the reason many couples are reluctant to admit there's a lack of sex in relationship is that, as a society we're continually bombarded with the idea that a thriving sex life within a marriage is the holy grail of love. When our friends are having lots of great sex, we hear all about it – but if they're not getting any, not so much.
The truth is, a lack of sex in your relationship, particularly one that was once passionate, has a way of gnawing away at your self-esteem. That feeling of dissatisfaction sits with you like a relentless inner critic whispering: "You're not good enough to be wanted and desired by your partner." The void in your sex life becomes a mirror reflecting painful feelings of personal failure and inadequacy. It's no wonder this topic is rarely talked about.
How common is lack of sex in a relationship?
A study by Relate in the UK surveyed more than 2,000 people in relationships and showed over a quarter of these relationships were sexless. In my busy couples therapy practice I routinely meet couples who haven't had sex in years, some even decades. If I had to put a number on it, I would estimate about more than half of the clients I see in my practice are in sexless relationships. However, if this is you, don't despair. A sexless relationship isn't a lifetime sentence. Just like any other valuable aspect of your life, what's important is that you address your uncomfortable feelings and start talking to each other about it.
What is a sexless relationship?
Although there isn't a universally accepted scientific criteria for what constitutes a "sexless" relationship, I tend to define it as a couple that has not had sex for at least one month and these circumstances have become the norm for at least six consecutive months. Many experts also consider less than 10 times a year to be a sexless marriage.
Research tells us that a satisfying sexual relationship is very important to a successful marriage. Rather than fixating on a number or judging yourself for having a "sexless relationship at 30, 40 or 50", or obsessing over how many times a week you or your partner want it, it's better to exercise some self-reflection. In fact, the most important question to ask yourself is 'Am I getting my needs met?' The answer to this will vary from person to person. For some individuals, the sweet spot is once a week. For others, they are happy with once a month because it fits in with all their other commitments. For others, they need it 3 times a week.
However, many of us are looking for more than just frequency – we are craving a deeper emotional connection, better quality sex, or more affection. So, in the end, the essence of a fulfilling sex life is deeply personal and unique to each couple. What's important is that you are honest with yourself first about what you want and need, and then start communicating about it.
What causes a sexless relationship?
There are many reasons why you might find yourself in a sexless relationship, and most of them have nothing to do with sex. A mistake I frequently see couples making is they do nothing and tell me they hope that their sex life will "just get better", but don't talk about or address any of the deeper issues at play. This usually results in one partner getting into a pattern of attacking the other partner for "not wanting it" and blaming them for being the problem in the relationship.
Consequently, in my couples therapy practice, I've seen individuals accuse their partner by saying things like "You're trying to control me by withholding sex", or comparing to previous relationships, e.g. "We never had a problem with sex, it always just happened, and we didn't need to talk about it." I am often told by one partner they feel unloved and unwanted, yet their partner still expects them to be available for sex.
And here we have it: Many couples, when talking about their lack of sex in a relationship, mistakenly focus on a desire discrepancy being the problem. However, the lack of desire is the symptom, not the cause. If you were to compare your dissatisfaction in the relationship to an iceberg, a lack of sex is the visible tip of the iceberg. The monstrous bulk of the iceberg that's submerged underwater represents the deeper, emotional issues at play in your relationship.
If we zoom out and look at what is happening between you, across the whole landscape of your relationship, we will likely see the existence of unresolved conflict, contempt, maybe some sarcasm, resentment, trust issues, feelings of being taken for granted or not appreciated, and a lack of emotional safety. All these unspoken feelings will directly impact the presence or absence of desire and sex in your relationship. If your goal is to breathe life, vibrance, connection and eroticism back into your relationship, start by addressing these core issues.
I say this knowing that most couples need help learning to talk safely with each other about these deep topics of emotional wounding and hurt feelings. When partners dealing with a lack of sex in a relationship come to me, they are often unable to talk about their hurt feelings in a way that their partner can actually hear. And, equally, the listener often falls into defensiveness as a response. In my couples therapy practice, I teach a method of safe communication that makes these types of difficult conversations possible – and therefore it makes healing possible. Another key aspect is that I encourage each partner to own their 50% contribution to any existing frustration or dynamic in the relationship. What can you own? What are you contributing?
How are men and women different?
Some of the misunderstandings related to lack of sex in a relationship can be related to gender differences. I observe this most frequently in my work with heterosexual couples. Men frequently tell me: "I need sex to feel close." For them, physical sex serves as a gateway to emotional connection. It's not just about the act itself but the feeling of desire, attractiveness, and affirmation that comes with it. These men often use sex to express their love and affection, believing that it strengthens their emotional bond.
Many women, whether in heterosexual or queer relationships, frequently tell me they need affection, warmth, and emotional safety to feel close. For them, it is the emotional connection that serves as the gateway to feeling close enough to get sexual. They need to feel cherished, heard, and emotionally close to their partner first. For these women, sex is a way to express the love, openness, and vulnerability that they are already feeling, and they seek a deep emotional connection first before physical intimacy.
A misunderstanding arises when these differing perspectives are not acknowledged and discussed openly within the relationship. Many of the men I have worked with interpret a lack of sex as a lack of love or attraction, whilst many women perceive a lack of emotional connection as a barrier to sexual intimacy. This disconnect can create a cycle of unfulfilled needs, leading to further emotional distance and, eventually, a sexless relationship.
It's important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how any individual, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, prioritises sex and the meaning they apply to it. What is necessary is that you both recognise and validate each other's needs. Open and honest communication is the key to creating a relationship where both of you get your emotional and physical needs met.
It's OK to be OK with no sex... if you both are
For some people, sex just holds a lower priority. This is the beautiful diversity of human life. For example, individuals who identify on the spectrum of asexuality may experience emotional or romantic attraction but have little to no sexual attraction. Being in a sexless marriage is a healthy choice for them and they get their intimacy and connection needs met in multiple other ways such as cuddling, holding hands, having deep conversations, shared goals, humour, and laughter.
Sometimes you may find yourself in a sexless relationship but decide to stay because the benefits outweigh the positives. This is also perfectly OK, and you get to make this your empowered choice. Perhaps you decide to prioritise other aspects of your relationship such as companionship, emotional and intellectual connection, shared goals, financial security, or co-parenting. For these reasons, you may decide that a sexless marriage doesn't diminish the value and depth of your connection.
But for many couples, a marriage will struggle without sex
One of the most common effects of a lack of sex in a relationship is the loss of intimacy. When sex is absent, it can create a sense of disconnection and alienation between partners, making it harder for them to feel close to one another. The lack of physical intimacy can also lead to negative emotions such as loneliness, anger, sadness, and depression.
Without sexual activity, couples may find it difficult to communicate with each other on an intimate level. This can lead to decreased communication, making it hard for them to discuss their feelings and express their needs. A lack of sex can also lead to poor self-esteem, as individuals may feel worthless or not good enough. For many, the absence of sex can also make it difficult to feel satisfied and fulfilled in a relationship. Without sex, couples may struggle to meet their needs and feel content. This can lead to relationship conflict and even breakups, as partners may feel disconnected and unsatisfied.
What to do if you want to re-ignite your sex life
Great sex doesn't just happen on its own; it needs attention, care, and commitment, just like other parts of your relationship. It can't survive on scraps of attention. If it's important to you, you need to prioritise it, just like other important areas of your life. To address the lack of sex in your relationship, start by focusing on three important areas: how you talk to each other, feeling safe with each other emotionally, and showing appreciation.
1. Learn how to communicate
Couples who have a satisfying sex life talk openly about their desires and needs in and out of the bedroom. If you and your partner struggle to discuss your sex life, or if you stopped talking about it years ago, it's time to consider couples therapy. Couples therapy can help you learn how to communicate and here you will also get support to address the deeper issues in your relationship that might be affecting your sex life.
2. Learn how to be emotionally safe for your partner
Feeling emotionally safe with your partner is essential for sexual intimacy to flourish. It's about knowing that you can be vulnerable without fear of judgment or rejection. If you have unresolved conflicts, built-up resentments, or lots of arguing and criticising in your relationship, it will directly impact your desire levels and sexual connection. By learning to talk safely with each other and listen in a non-defensive way, you can work through all your issues and repair old resentments. This will, in turn, remove reactivity from your relationship and return you to emotional safety. Emotional safety is the golden key to having a great and long-lasting sexual relationship.
3. Appreciate your partner daily
Appreciation is at the heart of a healthy relationship. When partners regularly, and vocally appreciate each other, they strengthen their emotional bond. This emotional intimacy forms the foundation for a satisfying sexual connection. Feeling loved, valued, liked, and cherished by your partner fosters trust and a deeper sense of connection, which leads to more fulfilling sexual experiences.
Getting the help you need
If you're struggling to address the lack of sex in relationship and need support, I can help. Book a free 15-minute clarity call with me now.
Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Shan is a relationship coach and couples therapist who takes professional couples from the brink of divorce to peaceful, reconnected, and unafraid of conflict in 90 days or less. Shan teaches couples a simple communication skill that takes them from the ‘Power Struggle’ to the ‘Peaceful’ stage of their relationship. Testimonials from her clients across the globe range from, “We put our wedding rings back on,” to “Things are a million times better between us.”