How Do You Know When To Walk Away From A Sexless Marriage?

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unhappy couple in bed

Ahh, the passion, the lust, the pheromones...the downright steaminess of sex in the youth of a relationship. The only thing better would be to have this forever.

But oh, how things can change. Sexual interest can suddenly seem like a chasm in the bedroom. Lack of physical intimacy can leave you not only frustrated, but wondering if and when to walk away from a sexless marriage. You swore you would never become one of those married couples sleeping back-to-back, let alone in pajamas. At the very least you would sleep intertwined, like those mattress-commercial couples who look more like the cover of a romance novel.

Sure, in the back of your mind you knew there would be dry spells. Children, jobs, fatigue — we’re all realists, right? But surely your sex life couldn’t dry up altogether. So what do you do? Walk away? Fake it forever?

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How to know when to walk away from a sexless marriage

Before you start contemplating when to walk away from a sexless marriage, chew on this insightful cliche: When the sex is there, it’s only a small percentage of what matters in your marriage. When it’s not there, it’s everything.

Perhaps you don’t have unfiltered conversations about your sex life with your besties the way Carrie Bradshaw did. So perhaps you’re unsure about how little sex is too little.

Perhaps you just know that you’re not getting enough. Or that you and your spouse are on entirely different pages when it comes to your libidos.

The truth is there is no hard and fast definition for “sexless marriage.” But a couple generalized, handy definitions involve having sex 10 or fewer times a year or no sex for 6 to 12 months. It’s estimated that 15 to 25% of married couples fit that profile. Compare that to the weekly tryst that some experts believe to be in the best interest of a happy marriage.

Frequency, however, is only part of the equation. For couples who are mutually content with low or no frequency, it’s not even relevant. What is relevant is how the topic of sex is approached and how advances and invitations are either accepted or rejected. Repeated rejection can be defeating not only to the rejected spouse, but to the marriage itself.

Using sex as manipulation or a weapon — for example, by intentionally withholding it — can be flat-out destructive to a marriage. It can even be considered grounds for divorce.

Why is it that something so common — both in the bedroom and in the sex therapist’s office — is so misunderstood? Instead of giving up and focusing on when to leave a sexless marriage, focus on your marriage and how to inspire sex back into it.

How to fix a lack of sex in your marriage

If you can salvage enough emotional intimacy, love, and compassion to explore your marriage from the inside out, the results may surprise you. They may also revitalize your sex life to a level of satisfaction you have never before enjoyed.

But where to start?

The heart of a healthy marriage is healthy communication. Everything else, including trust, emanates from it. The powerful nuanced communication lies in your non-verbal expressions. It’s your choices, contributions, body language, timing, patience, sweetness, deference, understanding, trustworthiness, friendship, touch.

Every one of these expressions can easily become a prelude to sex. And the omission of them can easily become a preclusion to sex.

If you and your spouse can cut the no-sex tension with a knife, it’s time to get honest. Compassionately, fearlessly honest. The place to talk about your sex life (or lack thereof) isn’t in the bedroom. And the time to talk about it isn’t when one of you is wanting sex and the other is feeling the pressure to perform.

There are so many potential reasons for lack of libido and/or unsatisfying or non-existent sex. Here are some to consider:

  • Health issues and/or physical limitations
  • Hormonal changes
  • Menopause
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Pain or discomfort during sex (especially for women)
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Worry
  • Negative body image
  • Obesity
  • Exhaustion
  • Sleep problems (insomnia, sleep-deprivation, snoring/apnea)
  • Children
  • Being overworked
  • Regular arguing and unresolved conflict
  • Feeling taken for granted or unappreciated
  • Differences in arousal styles and preferences
  • One partner feeling expected to do things s/he isn’t comfortable doing
  • Former experience of being sexually violated
  • Emotional, verbal, or physical abuse in the marriage
  • Boredom with one’s partner
  • Boredom with the couple’s sex routine
  • Sex lasting too long or not long enough
  • Infidelity (physical or emotional)
  • Unrealistic expectations between spouses
  • Unilateral completion/satisfaction

As you read the list, can you feel the hindrance that each influence can have on the desire for physical intimacy? Many can be so emotionally diminishing that the thought of being sexually vulnerable can feel demeaning, even violating. Can you also feel the potential for healthy communication and loving resolve to reawaken your mutual desire for physical intimacy? 

Not having a satisfying sex life can lead to a cascade of consequences, including a desire for the frustrated partner to stray. But cheating on a spouse in order to “get one’s needs met” is a recipe for disaster. You think you’re not getting enough sex in your marriage now? Go have an affair and see what your chances are after.

Yes, being rejected sexually can destroy trust, self-esteem, and emotional intimacy. But these can be restored, even elevated, with a commitment to resolving the underlying issues. And that’s really what your choice comes down to: Work on your marriage, or let the distance between you drive you apart for good.

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If you find yourself pondering when to leave a sexless marriage, you probably also ponder the chances that a hands-off marriage leads to divorce.

While we can now send robots to Mars, we can’t statistically give a firm answer to that query. But experts have pieced together enough relevant research to make the impact of a sexless marriage abundantly clear.

If 15 to 25% of couples meet the criteria for a sexless marriage and approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce, well, what do you think? Sprinkle that statistical sundae with the top reasons couples divorce (spoiler alert: lack of affection and physical intimacy made the list), and the impact is great.

So, if you’re still thinking about when to walk away from a sexless marriage, here are 5 substantiating reasons:

1. Your partner refuses to work on the issue with you. No discussion, no compromise, no counseling, no change.

2. There are underlying issues (not about the sex) too big to resolve. If this is the case, it may be revealed in the form of constant arguing, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and/or withdrawal.

3. Your intimacy styles/needs/wants are so different and incompatible that having a mutually gratifying sex life isn’t possible.

4. Your partner (and/or you) continues to go outside your marriage for sexual gratification. Surviving infidelity is a full-on, two-party commitment, and it can’t happen if only one person is on board.

5. There is abuse (physical, emotional, sexual).

It's not all hopeless if you find yourself in this situation. There are several things you can do to make it better. 

Here are 5 ways to get over the dry spell and rediscover a healthy sex life:

1. Realize that intimacy is an outward expression of the quality and health of your relationship.

And lack of intimacy is really a cry for help in fundamental areas of your relationship. 

2. Acknowledge the absence of intimacy in your relationship in a loving, non-blaming way.

“I love you so much, and I miss our physical connection. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to repair our relationship and restore that intimacy.”

3. Make an appointment with a sex therapist.

No, not the Dr. Ruth kind. The kind that connects the dots between what’s happening in your marriage as a whole and what’s happening (or not) in the bedroom. It’s not about the sex, it’s about communication. 

4. Take sex off the table for a while. Trying to fix physical intimacy issues by forcing physical intimacy is like walking on a broken foot to prove you’re going to be OK.

Take the pressure of sexual performance off the reluctant partner and focus on issues in your marriage. The shift from sex to (true) intimacy can change everything for the better.

5. Rethink what affection, intimacy, and sex mean to you both. Age, hormones, physical changes, and a host of other factors can build up to a shift in desire and its expression.

What matters is that you and your partner are connecting and caring about one another’s needs, pleasures, and feelings. If you start from a place of genuine care for your partner, you will find the space for creative solutions opening up. 

Sexual frustration is no fun. But sexual satisfaction can’t be forced. And it can be faked only so long and so well. If you throw in the towel and walk away on the grounds of the lack of sex itself, you will miss the whole meaning of marriage.

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Dr. Karen Finn is a divorce and life coach. Her writing on marriage and divorce has appeared on MSN, Yahoo!, and eHarmony, among others. You can learn more about Karen and her work on her website.