Jennifer (name changed) didn't have sex with her ex-husband on their wedding night. "I chalked it up to fatigue," she says. But should it have been a red flag? Well, maybe. Read: 12 Relationship Red Flags
It's not that it didn't happen that one night that was the problem; it's that it was the first of many sexless married nights. As an engaged couple, Jennifer and her fiancé were doing it about three times a week, but once they said their vows, it quickly dwindled to about once a month—sometimes less.
Some experts call marriages that average 10 rolls in the hay per year or less "sexless," but other experts take the word more literally, like Susan Yager-Berkowitz, who coauthored (with her husband) Why Men Stop Having Sex: The Phenomenon of Sexless Relationships and What You Can Do About It.
"If a couple is content with intimacy less than once a month, and happily married, I doubt they would refer to themselves as having a sexless marriage… and neither would we."
But even if there's no perfect definition for a "sexless" marriage, everyone seems to agree that they're common. Newsweek estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of couples are in one, and sexless marriage is the topic of myriad new books—like Yager-Berkowitz's—and plenty of articles and columns. Back in 2003, Newsweek's cover blared, "We're Not In the Mood," and the story hasn't gone away. This June, The New York Times reported that about 15 percent of married couples had not done the deed in the past six months to a year.
It's not a given that a couple's bedroom activity will fizzle over time—we all know a randy couple who've been married for decades—but any number of factors could start the tailspin. Psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, lists these as the most common causes of sexless marriages: one partner had their feelings hurt or got turned down too many times, one got too busy or neglectful, or one or both partners has a communication problem of some sort.
Judith Steinhart, a clinical sexologist in New York City, is yet more specific: "Problems in a marriage [like] lack of trust, anxiety, financial issues, misunderstandings, pressure from children, all can impact a couple's sexual patterns." The question, of course, is whether refraining from sex causes other problems, or if the other problems stop the sex in the first place?
"It's a cycle," says Mason. In other words, one can exacerbate the other—and before you know it, no one can remember what came first.Read: UK Dating Site Caters To Sexless Relationships
As for how much sex a healthy couple should be having, that varies—and is up to the couple to figure out. Tessina's best advice is at least once a week, saying that "intimacy keeps you glued together. It's what you need in order to nurture your connection to your spouse. You'll be a lot happier with each other and feel more cared about if you're regularly having sex."Read: How Often Do Your Neighbors Have Sex?
Couples shouldn't feel like they have to stick to once a week during stressful or tumultuous times. And of course, there can always be an off-week—or longer. As Steinhart notes, "Sex and sexual expression change along with the longevity of a relationship, ebbing and flowing during a lifetime." But the good news, she says, is that the ebb is "natural—and you can get back to the flow easily."
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