How I Overcame My Lonely, Sexless Marriage With Raw Honesty

If you’re struggling through a sexless marriage, you are not alone. I spoke with experts and real people and found ways to repair a sexless relationship.
Watercolor Illustration Of A Couple Standing On Opposite Sides Of A Field Looking At Eachother With a Bright Sky Background Signifying A Sexless Relationship

According to The Social Organization of Sexuality, a sexless marriage occurs when couples aren’t engaging in sexual activity or are having minimal sexual encounters.

Key Takeaways:

  • The passage of time, stress, grief, illness or disability (in one or both partners), guilt, or conflict are some of the factors that can contribute to a sexless marriage.
  • If you’re in a sexless marriage right now, be honest with yourself — and your partner — about how you want your relationship to exist and don’t get caught up in what you “should” be doing.

Struggling with loneliness or having a mental health crisis?

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); Deaf or hard of hearing dial 711 before the number or connect via online chat

Complete Mental Health Resource List

“Can’t you try to have sex even if you’re not in the mood?”

This is the solution Gina, an extremely busy mother of two children under three, a homemaker, and a full-time career woman suggests when I tell her how badly I feel about rejecting my lovely husband yet again.

It’s not a problem she understands; despite her busy lifestyle and the fact that she has been married for longer than I have — five years to my three — she initiates sex with her husband at least once a week.

But we are different: I have been sexually active for almost 15 years with close to 15 partners; she has only ever had sex with one person, her husband.

And I have never had to try

When my husband and I started dating over five years ago, we didn’t try.

Sex was effortless, an indulgence that lasted three years until I discovered a large polyp in my uterus that led to painful cramps and heavy bleeding. I had to undergo surgery to remove it.

Sex was regular and uncomplicated, once upon a time.

After the surgery, however, whenever we tried to have sex like we used to, it was painful and my body didn’t want it.

I suddenly mutated from a woman with a strong appetite for sex to actively avoiding it at all costs.

For the next two years, I felt like my body — and my mind — recoiled every time my husband tried to touch me.

What started as a purely physical issue seemed to morph into a psychological one with multiple layers of past and present trauma — and the realities of not living my truth — that led me down a rabbit hole of self-discovery.

It has been painful to watch my husband, whom I dearly love, suffer pain and loneliness due to my lack of desire.

There have been many times I’ve wondered if it might not be better for us to separate so that he can be with someone with an equal desire for sex like I once had.

But I know this is not a problem that I alone am facing.

I am but one of millions of people in the same boat and by writing this article, I hope to share ways to change the status quo not only for myself but for you too.

What Is A Sexless Marriage And Is Sexual Loneliness Normal In Long-Term Relationships?

watercolor illustration of male and female bodies sharing intimacy, symbolizing sex in marriage as a natural form of connection

For most people, sex and marriage, or sex and long-term relationships, are synonymous. At least publicly.

But in private, it’s a totally different story.

Giselle, a 27-year-old financial analyst has been with her current boyfriend for nearly 5 years. While she admires the many wonderful traits that make him “the whole package,” she confesses that:

“From the very beginning, sex with him was lackluster; passionate but not mindblowing and it was always at my initiative.

While I am happy to be the dominant one, I don’t feel desired by him and this is despite us trying many things. We’ve been to sex therapy and tried to talk things through but I think that my sex drive emasculates him even though he doesn’t admit it and won’t.”

Magda is a 39-year old, married to a man 24 years older than her. Given the age gap, she expected to eventually end up in a sexless marriage.

What she didn’t expect was to experience sexual loneliness within six months of getting married:

“I tried talking to him about the fact that we have no sex life but he is not willing to talk about it and every time I bring it up, he shuts down. I have asked him to speak to his doctor about it, and he won’t.

His response to me is that he is old, but he admits that people older than him have a healthy and vibrant sex life.

I know we have different opinions on sex, but I would be willing to have any kind of sexual contact with my husband. As of now, I rely a lot on masturbation and the use of sex toys, but it doesn’t satisfy the need that I have for physical contact with my husband.“

So clearly this is a problem. But just how big is it, and how much does it contribute to loneliness?

What Exactly Is A Sexless Marriage Or Relationship?

Since the 1990s, there has been a decline in sexual frequency among American adults that an article in The Atlantic famously called a ‘sex recession.’

This trend also affects married couples according to research conducted by Professor of Psychology at San Diego University, Dr. Jean M. Twenge who found that while couples did have more sex than single people, the frequency of sex has gone down across the board.

According to a 2009 New York Times article, it’s been estimated that as many as 15% of married couples have not had sex within the last six to 12 months.

New York City sex and relationship therapist Stephen Snyder MD, author of “Love Worth Making — How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex In a Long-Lasting Relationship” and host of the podcast “Relationship Doctor”, tells me that a sexless relationship is one where there is “no sex, or very little sex, for many months.

Dr. Rachel Becker-Warner, a Psychologist in the Program of Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota, defines it more quantitatively as “any partnership where sexual intimacy occurs 10 times or less within a year period.”

Sexless relationships are a thing, and so for the purposes of this discussion, a sexless marriage or relationship is one where — per Dr. Rachel Becker-Warner — “sexual intimacy occurs ten times or less within a year’s time.”

This scenario is much more common than you think.

Everyday new posts go live to Reddit’s DeadBedrooms and its hundreds of thousands of members group to help each other cope with relationships seriously lacking in sexual intimacy like this one:

“I expected that as a married couple we would both crave intimacy with one another. I expected that we were both interested in exploring each other’s bodies. I think her body is fascinating.

I expected that we would try out different things and talk about how they felt, and what was best. I expected that sex would be an important thing, more important than most other things. I expected that one of the major reasons that people got married was so that they could express their love for one another through sex…

What did I know? I was only 19.

Now, decades later, I am older and wiser. I know that she doesn’t crave it except once a month. I know that my penis is about as interesting to her as my elbow. That sex was not really a reason to get married, for her. That talking about sex is almost impossible for her. It has been really difficult to accept that my expectations were unrealistic and wrong.” 

When A Temporary ‘Glitch’ Reveals Something More

Before my surgery, my husband and I were very sexually compatible. We had sex at least three times a week.

After my surgery, two months, then four months went by.

The first few times we tried to have sex, I felt pain.

We stopped, thinking this was a temporary glitch. But after six months, my husband asked me: “Do I not turn you on anymore?”

I blamed it on what I felt when I woke up from surgery. The sharp pain in my vagina shocked me by how familiar it felt. I felt like I had been penetrated, violated, raped.


Let me be clear, I have never thought of myself as a rape survivor. All my sexual experiences were consensual, or so I thought.

If any of them weren’t then I must have erased them from my consciousness because I can’t remember. But my body’s reaction seemed to be saying something different and I felt very disturbed by it.

So when my gynecologist told me I was fine and that I just needed to “start having sex,” my heart sank because I didn’t feel fine.

Women,” says board-certified OB-GYN Dr. Jaime Seeman (who sits on the medical review board at Women’s Health Interactive), “have a strong emotional connection with their sexuality and sexual organs so that it is difficult to separate the two.

“This includes past experiences, good or bad. Previous trauma can impact a woman’s ability to enjoy sexual experiences until she has dealt emotionally with those events.”

According to Dr. Snyder, a relationship expert that I spoke with, “trauma from your past can make you not want to have sex — sometimes years or decades later, when you least expect it.”

I told my husband, ‘this will pass,’ because I hoped it would.

Maybe my body just needed some time to recover, to forget this trauma or the memory of one prior to it?

But three months later when my doctor confirmed that I had healed and I lay in bed with my husband, saying no to his advances yet again, I knew something was wrong.

But here’s what really scared me: I did secretly desire sex — just not with him.

A Sexless Marriage Could Be Natural Evolution And Not Necessarily Bad — Or Lonely

A year passed and my body had healed.

Sex was no longer painful but we had it very rarely, once a month at best because I just didn’t want sex. I wasn’t…excited about it, like I used to be.

I caught myself wanting to shift the blame from my body to something else.

So I thought: What if this was the result of us being in a long-term relationship where the need for frequent sex was no longer as important as it once was?

There is some fascinating research that supports the idea that a chemical reaction that occurs naturally with the passage of time alters our relationship to sex and could contribute to a sexless marriage.

Dr. Helen Fisher is a Biological Anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to

In “Lust, Attraction, and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction,” she outlines how each stage from lust, to attraction, to attachment relies on different combinations of neurochemicals:

  • The sex drive, or lust, is associated primarily with estrogens and androgens to motivate individuals to seek sexual union
  • Attraction is associated primarily with neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin to facilitate mate choice
  • Attachment is associated primarily with vasopressin and oxytocin to motivate individuals to engage in positive social behaviors

Fischer explains that over time, attachment becomes more and more powerful, with less emphasis on the other stages which can, and often does, lead to less sex.

It can also contribute to loneliness after the “honeymoon period” ends.

Along those same lines, Dr. Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, explains in an article about passion in a long-term relationship: “If we spent our days in the throes of all-consuming love fires, we’d never get anything accomplished.

So it seems that a cooling of desire tends to happen naturally for biological reasons.

I was relieved to discover this information because it justified my lack of desire.

But it didn’t explain my husband’s continued desire and his romantic loneliness. I also knew it was an excuse for something I didn’t want to confront.

Seeking closeness with me and following the “Just Do It” mantra that so many therapists advocate, my husband would try to gently encourage me to have sex.

Each time he did, I grew increasingly resentful and irritated. Why can’t he just stop making me feel bad for not wanting sex?

I hated knowing that I was holding him sexually hostage, that each of my rejections were hurting him, and that I had turned him into an involuntary celibate.

What About Involuntary Celibacy?

There is a difference between sex from time to time and no sex at all.

In the latter case, sociologists Denise Donnelly and Elizabeth Burgess explain why full-on sexless marriages don’t always fall apart in a 2008 study.

Using social exchange theory — essentially a subjective cost-benefit analysis — they looked specifically at the case of “involuntary celibacy” in which partners remain sexless for 6 months or more.

(“Sexless” in this case is defined as not having any physically pleasurable sexual activity because of situational circumstances, and not the active choice of becoming celibate.)

The trends that emerged are that the more couples invest in their marriage, the greater the likelihood they’ll stay in it.

Factors such as the passage of time, stressors in the relationship, shared grief, illness or disability in one or both partners, and guilt or conflict, can be sources that contribute to involuntary celibacy, and eventually, to a sexless marriage.

In another article on the impact of time on romantic love, one of the world’s leading experts in the study of emotions, Professor Ben-Ze’ev suggests that one-sided sex really is about politics and, as a result of the study, he also reveals the existence of pity sex, charity sex, and even peace-inducing sex!

So contrary to our popular obsession with sex, not having it does not necessarily mean that your relationship is in a bad place or that both partners are lonely.

But of course, there is a reason why not having sex is regarded as a problem.

Internationally recognized sex therapist and best selling author Esther Perel explains that:

While there are a lot of ways to be happily committed, and not all of them include sex, if one partner really misses sex and can’t engage the other, a pernicious downward spiral is set in motion.”

“For these chronically disappointed partners, the absence of sexual intimacy creates an emotional desert. Sooner or later things come to a head. They rebel and find sex elsewhere: online, or in flings, tricks, or affairs. Or they leave, even if that means waiting till the kids grow up. Or they stay but grow so bitter and resentful that you wish they’d leave.”

I spoke to one such person.

Jonathan is waiting until his kids grow up so that he can leave a psychologically cruel wife.

Used to wild sex 21 years ago before their marriage, he confesses that even leading up to their wedding, their sex life which was present but lackluster, only got worse.

“We had sex MAYBE 5 times a year from that point, mostly when she wanted another kid. She turned me down, literally, 99% of the time.”

Jonathan has not cheated yet but has come close several times. In the meantime, he tries to get relief through flirting with other women and masturbation.

I was keenly aware that if I wanted to stay with my husband, I had to do SOMETHING.

If you are not having sex with your partner and it has been a while — weeks, months, years — you are not alone.

A lack of sex does not mean that your relationship is necessarily doomed. It could simply be an evolution of your relationship and where you are in your life.

Remember that in addition to chemistry and biology, sex is also driven by politics, and not simply by pleasure or love.

But if you or your partner yearns for sex and is not receiving it, do not ignore the issue unless you want more trouble down the road.

The Many Reasons Women Lose Interest In Sex

water color illustration of three different women, symbolizing the diversity of women that may potentially lose interest in sex

Many people assume women stop wanting sex and leave men hanging, but it happens the other way around a lot, especially in middle age and beyond,” says internationally recognized dating and relationship expert, coach, and author, Dr. Christie Hartman, who also sits on our medical review board.

From his 25 years of practice, New York-based marriage and family therapist Damon L. Jacobs echoes this sentiment: “Desire for carnal sex is something that women want just as much as men. It is a human need.”

Yet, because much of the research on the loss of sexual desire focuses on men – compounded by the fact that women do not report problems unless directly asked – and that healthcare providers lack adequate training, and that few perceived treatment options exist for women, an overwhelming number of reasons could be used to explain why women may lose interest in sex.

Potential Reasons Why Women Could Have A Low Sex Drive

Nearly one-third of women aged 18 to 59 suffer from a very real loss of interest in sex.

“For women,” says board-certified OB-GYN Dr. Jaime Seeman, “female sexual dysfunction encompasses a number of conditions like loss of sexual desire, impaired arousal, inability to achieve orgasm or sexual pain. This can really affect a woman’s quality of life and her relationships.”

Most female sexual dysfunction falls under these 4 categories:

Among the four categories of sexual dysfunction conditions, loss of sexual desire, also known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder or HSDD, is the most common form of sexual dysfunction among women of all ages.

Some of the symptoms of HSDD include:

  • A lack of interest in sexual activity
  • Non-existent sexual thoughts or fantasies
  • No interest in initiating sex
  • Difficulty obtaining pleasure from sex or genital stimulation

Dr. Jaime Seeman explains that this lack of desire is usually multifactorial:

“There may be dysfunction in the relationship, they may have a chronic disease, depression, certain medications (depression meds, OCPs, and steroids) or they may have a true gynecologic disorder.”

Here are some of the causes of low libido in women:

  • Physical causes like: painful sex, disease, lifestyle (smoking/drugs/drinking), fatigue, disability, surgeries or other medical procedures
  • Hormonal causes like: perimenopause, pregnancy, hormonal birth control, breastfeeding, menopause
  • Psychological causes like: depression, anxiety, stress, poor body image, previous negative experiences
  • Relationship issues like: loss of connection, trust issues, poor communication

For a long time, I tried to convince myself that I had HSDD.

There were so many causes for low libido in women I could attribute it to that it felt like an easy way out.

Thinking that maybe if we took a break from our lifestyle pattern, we could break our sexless pattern, my husband and I went on a road trip.

But nothing happened until the last night when he confessed: “You not wanting sex makes me feel unwanted and undesirable.”

I felt awful. I felt guilty. I felt scared.

So we tried: we got naked under the sheets and we touched ourselves.

It was the first time we had done that in six months, and it wasn’t sexy or hot. It was awkward and weird. And it made me anxious about the future and us: how long could we continue like this?

“A VERY important part of treatment,” stresses Dr. Jaime Seeman, “is communication, especially with your partner. Relationship dysfunction and lack of communication about the problem will inhibit successful treatment.”

When Loss of Desire Is Fueling Your Sexless Marriage Or Sexual Loneliness

I had gotten used to not having sex by now and thought that my desire for sex had disappeared forever.

But the truth was that every once in awhile I did still desire sex.

But…I found myself desiring it with others — strangers, nobodies. I was feeling sexually lonely and craving intimacy with someone else.

I had to wonder: as a woman who always loved the chase when I was single, had I just grown bored of sex with my husband because it was no longer new?

This was not a thought I seriously entertained prior to my surgery, when my husband and I had sex whenever we wanted to. But back then we were still in our honeymoon phase.

Since, a year and a half had passed and with it a surgery, remembrances of potential past physical trauma, and the psychological and emotional toll of being sexless.

…But also an increase in fantasies about being with others.

As much as I tried to push it away, the thought gnawed at me, what if what I needed was someone new?

Hana confesses to me that after a decade of being with the father of her child, that’s what happened to her:

“I see sexual intercourse as a chore. After a busy day working, taking care of my kid and the house, at night I just want time for myself.

What is weird though is that I do feel desire sometimes but not for the father of my child, my partner. I desire others. My partner is not the main character in my fantasies. And it’s horribly unfair but that is how I feel.”

Relationship Expert Damon L. Jacobs explains to me that this is inevitable:

It is not about if we have desire, it is about when we have desire.

For most individuals and not limited to gender, experiencing intimate and erotic connection with a new person is not only a pleasurable experience but a high an adrenaline high.

A new person with new smells, new touches, new sensations is a new story you are telling with another person, a new fantasy you may be playing out, a new opportunity to grow.

All of that encompasses why there can be a sense of chase, yearning, and desire for others even when there is a very satisfying and sustainable sexual connection between two people.”

Lucie, a passionate actress who has had many relationships, both long-term serious and short-term fun, tells me how her desire for her partner would inevitably fade.

“After a while in a relationship, I feel comfortable, loved and taken care of. Sex is sweet and soft but it’s definitely less frequent and less exciting. I have fantasies where I think about past or imaginary partners during sex or when I’m alone and touching myself.

These fantasies often are what help me reach climax.

I’ve discussed this with my boyfriend, who said it’s fine and that a lot of people do that, so I’ve decided not to feel too guilty about it but sometimes I do wonder if it’s because I need something else, or something more.”

As I grappled with all the implications of desiring newness and yearning for the chase, I found myself wondering if I should even be married.

This is a terrifying question because I love my husband and yet, here I was, contemplating a separation or divorce.

When I came upon Esther Perel’s Ted Talk on the “Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship” and her book, “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence”, I felt like I have finally found someone who gets it.

In “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence,” Perel states: “Can we have both love and desire in the same relationship over time? How? What exactly would that relationship be?”

There is an almost infinite number of reasons why women could lose interest in sex.

It is important that you give this change due attention by trying to understand what is the real, honest, reason why you have lost your desire.

Notwithstanding the very real pain and changes caused by physical and mental trauma, it seems that for a lot of women — and men — the real issue is desire and how to sustain it.

Sex Therapists Share Tips On What You Can Do About Your Sexless Relationship

watercolor illustration of a man holding a woman intimately but signifying a sexless relationship

A sexless marriage can feel lonely for both partners. I spoke with doctors and therapists to learn more about the best steps for moving forward and repairing your sexual relationship with your spouse.

First, Always Consult Your Doctor Or OB-GYN

Regardless of where you may be in your journey, Dr. Jaime Seeman suggests that you talk to your OB-GYN or another female sexual health specialist to have an evaluation that includes your history alongside a physical examination.

Be sure to ask if you can get access to a sexual mental health therapist and if treatments like sexual devices or medications, such as hormone therapy, are available or necessary.

Make a list of your key medical information, including any conditions for which you’re being treated, and the names of all medications, vitamins, or supplements you’re taking.

Consider questions to ask your doctor and write them down.

Here are some basic questions to ask your doctor about your low sexual desire:

  • What could be causing my problem?
  • Will my level of desire ever get back to what it once was?
  • What lifestyle changes can I make to improve my situation?
  • What treatments are available?
  • What books or other reading materials can you recommend?

After going through all of these steps, my gynecologist was insistent I just had to get on with it, “just do it.”

Then, Build Intimacy With Yourself

When I spoke to Ruhi, a writer in her late thirties about the best sex she has ever had, she tells me her formula:

“To be honest, it is really hard for me to say what my best sex has been. I have luckily had a lot of ‘best sex’ with different partners because a lot of it comes down to the way I have sex which is to be myself, to know what I want and how my orgasms work and asking for and doing what I want.”

That’s similar to what Intimacy Coach Lee Noto told me:

“We are sometimes under the impression that the other person must meet my needs or that this other person is responsible for my needs to be met.

But when I put myself in that situation, I got to first know what my needs are. I have to spend time with myself and build intimacy with myself to understand my needs and then I have to find an effective way to communicate them so that my partner can have any chance at helping satisfy my needs.”

In starting a conversation with another person, Noto advises asking oneself the following question: “Am I approaching this from a place of self-expression and love or from a place of …?

After having clarified that, she suggests checking in with your partner first to make sure they have the mental capacity and resources to have this important conversation.

If they don’t, put a mutually convenient date on the calendar, don’t let it float in the ether.

Taking this advice to heart, my husband and I picked a date over a weekend to talk.

But we needed some guidance on what to talk about.

Next, You Need To Reconnect With Yourself: A Sexless Marriage Survivor Tells Us How

Sex and Intimacy Coach Irene Fehr shared with me how she, like me, found herself with zero libido and not wanting to make love to the man she loved:

“My relationship became sexless a year and a half into our relationship, which is also the time when we got married. It was sexless our entire marriage. I was 26-29. 

Looking back I can say that our sexless marriage was not about sex. Sex was simply a trigger and one that could have been easily worked out had we been able to talk about it and seek help.”

More of her personal journey can be found here.

What made the marriage sexless and eventually led to divorce, she says, was:

“…the inability to address the challenges around sex — to look deeply at each other, name our fears, needs, and desires and stick around in the messiness when sex became boring, or uncomfortable, or painful, as in my case.

We could not truly listen and be there with each other during the most vulnerable and uncomfortable times — and that eroded both connection and trust.”

Irene couldn’t share her deepest and truest fears or desires with her husband for fear of rejection, hurting him, or simply because she did not know she could even though they loved each other.

To couples experiencing a similar situation, she is emphatic: sexual energy and connection in a long-term relationship have to be created.

She shares just how to do that in this video on “How to Make Love & Sex Work in a Long-term Relationship.”

Screenshot Of A Youtube Video About Sex In Long-Term Relationships

Here are a few questions to ask oneself and your partner when faced with a reduction in sex or a sexless marriage:

  • What does sex mean to you and your partner? 

Understanding what sex means to both of you will tell you if you’re on the same page with your partner — or not.

For some, sex is a recreational activity; for others, it’s a once-in-a-while pleasurable experience of rubbing genitals and sexual release; for others, it’s the utmost expression of physical love and connection without which they cannot have a meaningful romantic relationship.

If sex is a major part of your dream for a fulfilling and nourishing romantic relationship, can you live without it? And if sex is not important to you, can you happily be with a partner for whom it is?

  • Was sex good before?

I mean really good. Was the sex so good that it was worth wanting? Did it meet your needs and fulfill your desires? Did it nourish you? Did you feel free to express yourself fully? And did your partner meet you in the same way?

Or, was it just ok? Did you feel that there could be more  —  but you were afraid to express that? Were there things you were afraid to do, say or try? Did it feel like you had to withhold a part of you? And vice versa for your partner.

Sex is supposed to be pleasurable, safe, and connecting for it to be worth wanting. In fact, our desire for sex hinges on it. If sex is not worth wanting, we will not want more of it.

While not everyone can meet you in doing everything you want in sex because of true and genuine differences in compatibility, understanding that and healing the hurt that came from a lack of communication can enable partners to find solutions that work for both of them from a kind and loving place — including fixing bad sex, which is rarely the issue.

  • Is one of you physically unable to participate sexually? Has the body changed significantly to make sex painful? Is depression affecting your sexuality?

In and of themselves, these impairments do not make a sexless marriage. It’s the emotional windfall from the change that does.

All in all, there are many reasons why couples diverge around sex. But none of them in themselves necessarily create a sexless relationship or the end of one. It is the unresolved hurts —  those moments where one or both partners feel unseen, unacknowledged, and unfelt in their pain or needs  —  that calcify into patterns that keep couples apart and distant, killing sex in the process.

  • What has been left unrepaired?

When hurt feelings are left unrepaired and partners feel further and further away from each other, the desire to come closer through sex naturally disappears. Lack of sex follows a lack of connection, intimacy, and most crucially, a lack of trust that they can be heard and supported by their partner.

This lonely cycle is hard to break, but not impossible. Couples who are willing to get vulnerable and make honest admissions of the ways that one or both avoided dealing with the situation not only repair the relationship but strengthen it.

A sexless marriage is an opportunity to confront each other honestly and vulnerably to heal areas of yourselves and your relationship. It may look like staying together and strengthening your closeness and bond, or it may be leaving your partner to seek what you need and allowing them the freedom to find their fulfillment. There are no right answers to this challenge — only answers that honor and work for you and your partner.

For more on this topic check out When Sex Is Not the Issue in a Sexless Marriage

Finally, You Need To Invite Desire Or ‘The Forbidden’

In “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence”, renowned sex therapist Esther Perel explains that to keep desire alive, couples need to understand the essential paradox of intimacy and sex, namely that separation is a precondition for connection.

“We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone, and yet creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone.

I suggest that our ability to tolerate our separateness and the fundamental insecurity it engenders is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship.”

Perel proposes several ways of doing this:

  • Play with the threat of what she calls “the third,” a metaphor for “the forbidden.”

The third forces each person in a couple to recognize that their partner has their own sexuality replete with fantasies and desires that are not necessarily about them, that their partner is a separate entity and as such, cannot be taken for granted.

While some couples embrace and acknowledge the third, others choose to ignore it — at their own peril.

  • Create anticipation by planning for sex
  • Understand the place of fantasy in desire
  • Introduce uncertainty and let our partner be a mystery to us once again

Perel is emphatic that desire can survive even in instances when it seems impossible, like after having children.

For couples who are grappling for answers to finding desire, to recovering after infidelity and more, Perel’s website is replete with resources to help you.

Here is a video of Perel’s talk on Rethinking Infidelity:

Her podcast “Where Should We Begin,” takes listeners into therapy sessions alongside real couples who have been gracious enough to let us in.

I encourage all couples to read and utilize her material.

When Nothing Works, Be Honest With Yourself: Do You Really Want To Be Married?

Relationship Expert Damon L. Jacobs tells me he wishes people asked themselves the following questions before getting married:

Am I getting married because society tells me I should or because I truly want to be married?

Would I be more satisfied and fulfilled focusing on other things in my life, like work and/or the high of the chase?

He is quick to point out that it doesn’t have to be a choice.

“If two people decide to be legally married but decide that their spiritual, mental, and physical wellness is the priority and that they both have the right to fulfill their needs if those include other people like playing basketball or going to a swingers party so that they can come home to be the kind of family member they want to be, it can work as long as people are making these negotiations with integrity and honesty they can find a way to find an agreement for them. 

It doesn’t have to mean all or nothing. It’s not, ‘my way or your way.”

Essentially, he wants us to be clear about what we truly want. That we do not take our vows from a place of “should.”

“Can we really say that we will feel lust and commitment for only one person for 80 years? And if not, can there be integrity and honesty about that?“

Jacobs is emphatic that there is nothing wrong with preferring not to commit as long as no one is lying about it.

I didn’t want to lie anymore.

Loss of desire can be a really confusing and disorienting experience, but there are many resources for you to explore.

If you are losing desire for your partner, bring in an element of separation by following Esther Perel’s advice. Share honest truths with your partner by going through Fehr’s questions and guidelines. If all else fails, or this work is too burdensome, consult a good therapist.

What My Husband And I Decided To Do About Our Lonely, Sexless Marriage

illustration of a couple standing together closely overlooking a sunset over a city, coming together on a decision to address their sexless marriage

So my husband and I went through much of this material, asking each other questions.

It was hard, painful, and raw.

I cried. He cried.

In talking, we bore ourselves to each other, more naked than we have ever been with anyone.

I learned how hurt he was by me not taking his desires seriously.

He learned that my body couldn’t get aroused because I stopped myself from fantasizing about others out of a sense of guilt, once I healed from my surgery.

We talked for five hours.

At the end of it, we were exhausted, emotionally and mentally. We laid in bed together with no clothes on and no expectations.

We allowed ourselves to fall into an embrace.

It felt like we have traveled far from each other, that we are at a precipice. I could lose him. He could lose me. We could be apart if that is what we choose.

The thought is hard and painful so we held onto each other as though for dear life.

But as we caressed each other, I felt desire waking in me again. I no longer see him the way I used to, out of habit.

His promises to change — to take my fantasies seriously, to be more adventurous, to take care of his appearance, to embody the things I want — make me see him differently.

But this is a two-way street: I promise to take his fantasies seriously, to take better care of myself, and to learn how to communicate what I need in order to feel the most pleasure.

This was something I never did before because I expected him — very unfairly — to simply know.

Now, we both realize that we have to put in the effort to make this successful — there is no other way.

His touch felt different because I felt different.

And just like that, without any more resistance, everything happens. We are in flow. I am relieved.

I am so relieved.

Before taking this issue seriously, I thought my marriage was doomed.

But after going through the tunnel and coming out on the other end, I feel so much lighter, freer, and optimistic about the future with my husband.

What I’ve shared with you is tested material that has helped me find the right answer for me.

I hope it can help you too in finding the right answer for you, whatever that may be.

For Giselle, the financial analyst in the five-year relationship where she didn’t feel desired because of her partner’s lack of interest in sex, this is her answer:

“We are in an open relationship now (well, I am because he has no interest in going out with anyone else).

While I’m happy that this provides a solution temporarily, I don’t know if it is the solution to our relationship because the novelty of me sleeping with other people that excites him may wear off.”

For Lucie, the passionate actress who has had many relationships and yearns for novelty, she explains that committing sexually to one person kills her desire and so she moves from relationship to relationship:

“I can’t help thinking that desire is extremely linked to the mystery of the person, to the excitement of being touched for the first time. Unknown hands on your body, a different mouth that kisses you, a different feel, touch, and smell.

When you get used to someone, nothing is a surprise: you know their body and their moves by heart so how can you be aroused? You’ve conquered them, and you take it all for granted.

You’ve also seen them sick, looking like shit, at their most vulnerable, at their angriest, or at their meanest…You’ve seen their flaws and how human they are.

For me to desire someone really badly, I need to not know them at all. Or just barely.”

For others, pseudo-involuntary celibacy is the answer.

Gustavo has been married for 36 years to a woman he knows cheats on him regularly.

Bitter after being unable to stop her cheating throughout the years, he tells me they still have sex but that he never initiates it.

“It feels more like a duty or a chore so it lacks the passion it once had. I’ve thought about leaving but I’m too old to start again. If I came into a windfall I’d give her a huge amount so she could find whatever or whoever she is looking for.”

And you, what is your answer?

Radical openness and honest communication with your partner is critical in repairing a sexless marriage.

What works for you and your partner may be totally different than what worked for my husband and me, but the key is talking, listening, and trying.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The efforts must always continue, as with any endeavor in life that is meaningful to you.

Closing Thoughts

To all the women and men who are struggling through a sexless relationship, you are not alone.

There are resources that can help you with whatever issue you are going through but they might challenge you to do things differently: reach out, communicate, be open, be vulnerable.

In the meantime, explore yourself, and ask yourself all the questions you have been putting off or are afraid to ask — and answer them.

When you are ready, set a date to have the most important conversation you’ll ever have with your partner.

If you are open, raw, and honest, in the end, the right answer will come out of it.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types we might experience during our lives.

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