How Long Sexless Marriages Last (And When To Walk Away)

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unhappy couple sitting on bed in pajamas upset about their sexless marriage

How big a deal is sex in a relationship? For some people, the idea of a totally sexless marriage means misery and the end of your relationship.

But the truth is that these types of relationships do happen and there are couples who are happily abstinent with one another. So when it comes to removing that kind of physical intimacy, just how long can a sexless marriage last?

How long do sexless marriages last?

Because most states allow for no fault divorce, and because of the sensitivity of the topic, there is little hard data available on how long sexless marriages typically last or how many end in divorce.

For some, sexless unions can last a lifetime, but for others, it may be intolerable after two weeks.

Couples don’t often like to discuss this openly because they're under the impression other couples are having sex all the time.

And they worry that infrequent sex or no sex mean you have a problem that will spell the demise of the marriage.

One study found there is generally a decline in frequency of intimacy after just the first year of marriage. The researchers noted that expected factors like illness and conflict played a role in the sex lives of the participants, but cohabitation and marriage themselves did not affect the level of sexual satisfaction in the study's participants.

While there is little reliable research, it is reported that in the U.S. alone, 20 to 50 percent of all marriages are eventually sexless.

How do you know if your sexual relationship is problematic?

Marital therapist Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, defines sexual problems simply: "If one person thinks there is a problem, that is the definition of a problem."

But if you can talk to your spouse about your feelings and sexual needs, that's what counts.

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Many couples, especially those who share compatibility and a deep emotional bond, find infrequent sex to be enough for them.

When they do have a physical encounter, they take their time and find it is fulfilling and lasting. It may be an energetic thing. They may be relating on a chakra level that maintains the connection, even if they are not actively having sex.

If one spouse needs more physical attention, it's important they discuss this openly and without embarrassment.

Just as they may be in different places on their spiritual path, they may have different physical needs.

People end relationships all the time when they don't have the patience or openness to find common ground.

Roger Nygard, the maker of the documentary "The Truth About Marriage," defines sexless marriage as "couples having sex less than once per month." He says the numbers probably rise to at least 40 percent when you add in couples only having sex out of duty, guilt, or religious obligation.

But there is also the belief that couples don’t want to admit that as they become more emotionally connected and spiritually intimate, sex simply becomes less important — and they're OK with that.

Sex isn't the only form of intimacy there is in a relationship, so they're not necessarily losing passion. Rather, just changing the form it takes. It depends on how you define it.

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In the early days of relationships, couples express themselves with a physical connection.

Nygard interviewed couples who said initially, they were having sex sometimes up to five times a day. Then after a few years, it came down to about once or twice per week.

"In the romanticized notion of marriage, people think sex should stay wild and crazy, even 10 or 20 years later. But that's not realistic," says Psychologist Ty Tashiro.

Even if you wanted to keep the original passionate intensity raging at full volume for an entire relationship, is that possible? Dr. Tashiro's answer is that if you did, you would be in trouble.

"The butterflies-in-your-stomach is a stress reaction — a pleasant one — but it would become toxic to your body over time to keep releasing that level of hormone. 'Pounding heart' is another way to say 'high blood pressure.'"

The ability for relationships to change over time and adapt a form of physical intimacy into more of an emotional or even spiritual connection is part of a natural decline.

If there are no children or the couple now has an empty nest, there can be a new level of passion that reflects trust, understanding, and intimacy. There may be sex, but more importantly, there is commitment.

Couples who find themselves with less stress may also experience a renaissance of sorts.

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So if a couple is in a sexless marriage during the stage of marriage that involves homemaking, children, and in today’s world with a great deal of uncertainty, they should hang in there, because there is great reward in their future.

You don't need to worry about not having sex as frequently as you used to as a couple. It doesn't have to mean you're losing one another or bound for a breakup or divorce.

One study evaluated how age and sex affected sexual frequency among middle-aged and older adults.

It turns out that it's all subjective — if you don't consider yourself to be "old," that's what determines your likelihood of having more interest and frequency in having sex.

The important thing is to discuss with your partner what you feel the problem is and have a frank conversation about how much sex you need to feel comfortable in your relationship.

This will allow you both the opportunity to address the need for intimacy with an honest and open mindset.

RELATED: I Stopped Being Intimate With My Husband And We're Closer Than Ever

How to know when to stay or walk away

Communication is at the core of any relationship, but even if a couple can communicate, they may not be able to reach a point where they see eye-to-eye on this particular topic.

"For many people, if there was a disclaimer before marriage warning that sex is likely to drop to less than once a month in five years, they might think twice before getting married," says Nygard.

But for many others, a lack of sex in marriage doesn't have to mean the end of your relationship.

The big question to ask is whether or not you are both OK with the frequency of sex in your marriage. Then, if one or both of you is not, are you willing to work together as a team to come up with a solution you can each feel good about?

Doing so may need to involve seeking professional help from a sex or couples therapist. But the good news is that in going through the process together, you could end up with a tough-as-nails marriage that stands the test of time — even if you don't end up rolling all over the bedroom as much as you contentedly snuggle together on the couch.

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Deborah Herman is an author and spiritual healer.