What Counts As A Sexless Marriage

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unhappy woman sitting with her head cradled in her hand

Jennifer (not her real name) didn't have sex with her ex-husband on their wedding night. "I chalked it up to fatigue," she says.

But should the lack of sex have been a red flag? Well, maybe.

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 having sex about three times a week, but once they said their vows, it quickly dwindled to about once a month, sometimes less.

What is considered a sexless marriage?

Some experts say a marriage in which a couple has sex less than once a month, or an average of 10 times or less per year, is considered sexless, while others take the term more literally.

Susan Yager-Berkowitz, co-author of the book "Why Men Stop Having Sex: Men, the Phenomenon of Sexless Relationships, and What You Can Do About It," explains, "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" (S. Yager-Berkowitz, personal communication).

Dean Mason, who used to run his own website about fixing one's sexless marriage, agrees, stating that "each person defines what his or her sex threshold is" (D. Mason, personal communication).

On his firm’s website, Illinois attorney Van A. Larson, P.C., states: “A sexless marriage is not one in which the couple is merely not being consistently intimate, but rather one in which repeated sexual advances are ignored and the couple experiences a long period without any intimate activity at all.”[1] (More on that below.)

RELATED: The 12 'Golden Rules' Of Marriage That Couples Who Actually Stay Together Seem To Follow

Are sexless marriages 'normal'?

Even if there's no perfect definition for a sexless marriage, experts agree that they are common — far more common than you might believe.

The New York Times states, "Married men and women, on average, have sex with their spouse 58 times a year, a little more than once a week, according to data collected from the General Social Survey ... And it’s estimated that about 15 percent of married couples have not had sex with their spouse in the last six months to one year, according to Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, who has studied sexless marriage."[2]

So it's no wonder sexless marriage is now the topic of a myriad of books, articles and columns.

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What causes a sexless marriage?

It's not a given that every couple's bedroom activity will fizzle out over time. There are certainly couples who’ve been married for decades and still have sex on a regular basis, but any number of factors could start the tailspin into sexless marriage status.

Psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD (T. Tessina, personal communication), lists the most common causes of sexless marriages as follows:

  • One partner had their feelings hurt or was rejected by the other too many times
  • One or both got too busy or neglectful
  • Communication problems
  • Sexual dysfunction or pain
  • Other medical reasons, such as a chronic illness
  • Past trauma
  • Having just given birth
  • Side effects from medication

Judith Steinhart, a clinical sexologist in New York City, gets even more specific in a 2014 TEDxTalk.[3]

"Problems in a marriage [like] lack of trust, anxiety, financial issues, misunderstandings, pressure from children, all can impact a couple's sexual patterns," she says.

The question, of course, is whether refraining from sex causes other problems, or if it's that the other problems get in the way of having sex?

"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.

RELATED: 7 People In Sexless Marriages Reveal Why They Stopped Having Sex

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."

Husbands and wives 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."

When a couple has gone a long period — say, several months — without sex, it's important to address the problem, so months don't become years, Tessina says.

"Some couples won't have sex for two years and then come into my practice and ask for help. We can get to the bottom of the problem at that point, but it's more challenging. If they haven't had sex for a couple of months, that's when they really should be asking questions. That's a good time to come in and have therapy. Otherwise, anger and frustration build, and it takes longer to fix it that way," Tessina notes.

After a period of sexual inactivity, you and your partner can get back on the proverbial horse.

Experts also say that scheduling sex can help.

"I know this doesn't sound romantic," says Mason. "But with kids, work and chores, it may be the only way."

Take inspiration from the Obamas and call it date night.[4] Think back to when you and your spouse were dating and try to recapture some of those spontaneous, getting-to-know-you moments.

"Remember how you connected back then and repeat that," says Tessina. "It could be a few words, a gesture, a kind of look or touch."

Do new things together, go on a trip or try some thrilling activities to keep things fresh.

"Break away from your routine as much as possible," says Mason.

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Will a sexless marriage lead to divorce?

This is a question only you and your partner can determine, based on your unique desires for frequency of sexual intimacy.

Going back to the legal definition offered above, it's worth noting that 14 states and the District of Columbia still allow fault divorce, and whether or not sexless marriage can be considered grounds for divorce is somewhat open to interpretation by the courts.

Kurtz & Blum, PLLC, a family law firm located in Raleigh, NC, notes, "Although a sexless marriage is not listed in the law as a ground of fault for absolute divorce or divorce from bed and board, it can be strong evidence for a court to find constructive abandonment. Constructive abandonment differs from actual abandonment in that the spouse who has committed abandonment need not actually have physically left the marital home."[5]

But if both of you are happy with your sex life and are otherwise fulfilled by your life together in all of the other important aspects of your marriage, divorce seems like a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Researchers have been hard-pressed to find an accurate measurement of the percentage of sexless marriages that end in divorce.[6]

It is common for spouses to have different levels of sexual desire,[7] especially at different times and transitions throughout the course of life. It's normal to go through periods of time when one or both of you may be resistant to being intimate, and giving that partner their space may be exactly what they need.

This isn't meant to downplay the importance of intimacy in a married couple's life in the long run.

Sex plays a key role in reinforcing your bond and feelings of being connected with one another, both emotionally and physically. In many cases, marital satisfaction hinges on a healthy sex life,[8] and a lack of one can create a rift between partners, ultimately compounding other problems in their marriage.

If you're the spouse who's unsatisfied because of your partner's lower libido, it's important to communicate with your partner compassionately.

"Say, 'We haven't had sex in a while, and I miss you,'" recommends Tessina. "Don't complain about it — that's not going to get you laid. Go for the sweetness."

Choose the time of day that works for both of you; maybe set the scene with some candlelight, romantic music, or whatever helps you both get into the mood.

"Try to make it as easy and simple as possible to get together, and it gets easier to do," says Tessina. "In a long-term marriage, you have to pay attention to keep the sex going. It won't keep going by itself."

The experts agree that a marriage without sex isn't necessarily wrong, but it can be more vulnerable than one with regular sex. Luckily, it doesn't always take much to keep up a routine, though it does take some effort.

Steinhart suggests getting back into the groove by reading erotic stories or watching sexy movies together and opening a dialogue about each other's sexual desires.

What gets each couple — and each person — back on track will vary, so explore a variety of ways to loosen up your current attitudes about sex, shake up your routine a bit and begin to talk about sex openly with your partner.

"The focus needs to be on giving and receiving pleasure," says Steinhart. "And letting the [sexual] feelings in."

If you're the one who doesn't want to have sex, closely examine what's going on in your life and your relationship and ask yourself why.

It could be a physical condition you should see a doctor about, or it could be negative feelings about something that happened in your relationship — and that could be something you can get past if you work through it together.

"Be honest with your partner," says Mason. "Remember that it's important to your relationship to keep your partner sexually satisfied."

"There are deals you can work out," says Tessina. "Maybe you can hold your partner while they masturbate."

Before going so far as to file papers, it also doesn't hurt to try seeing a sex or couples therapist together.

RELATED: How To Be Genuinely OK With Less Sex In Your Relationship

Is a sexless marriage ever okay?

Yes, says Steinhart, as long as both partners honestly feel happy and satisfied with their relationship without sexual intimacy.

"If a couple is OK with their pattern, whether it's infrequent or not at all, there isn't a problem," she stresses. "Some would say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

That's why it's important to keep an open dialogue with your spouse, to continue to connect on other levels, and to make sure both of you are truly content with the status of the relationship.

Steinhart adds, "It's not a lack of sex that's the issue, it's a discordant level of desire."

RELATED: How To Know If Your Marriage Isn't Just Sexless — It's Loveless

Elena Mauer is the coauthor of two books: The Good Girl's Guide to Living in Sin and Have Sex Like You Just Met ... No Matter How Long You've Been Together.