Many couples fall into periods of sexlessness over the course of a marriage. In fact, psychologist and sex therapist Shannon Chavez told HuffPost that it’s “more common than not” for couples to experience a dry spell. And yet sexless marriages are still treated as a taboo subject.
Over time, spouses may start feeling more like roommates than sexual partners. And it can become a cycle in which not having sex breeds more sexlessness and makes the thought of doing it more awkward or intimidating.
If you’re stuck in a sexual rut or think you might be headed toward a sexless marriage, know that you’re not alone. We asked sex therapists to share the common causes behind sexless marriages so you know what to look out for in your own relationship.
In relationships, communication is key, certainly when it comes to more intimate matters, like sex. Talking about your fantasies, your desires and your insecurities requires vulnerability, which can be uncomfortable for some people. But don’t let that stop you from having these important talks: The more you open up, the easier these conversations will become.
“Couples who are not talking about sex end up drifting apart and losing touch with what they want and need in their sexual relationship,” Chavez said. “They are not engaging and growing with the changes in their sexuality and may be out of touch with one another and their own sexual interests.”
When you’re stressed, sex may be the last thing on your mind. You’re busy worrying about crippling student loan debt or taking care of the kids — not getting busy. Chronic stress can lead to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol in the body, which can mess with your sex drive.
“Whether it’s about children, work or finances, stress can play a huge role in reducing sex drives, reducing desire to have sex, reducing the energy we have to have sex and reducing the time we have available to have sex,” said Jesse Kahn, sex therapist and director at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective.
It’s normal for a couple’s sex drive to fluctuate over the course of a relationship, meaning you and your partner may not always be (or ever be) on the exact same page sexually. But if you can talk openly about your different levels of desire and reach a compromise that works for you, mismatched libidos shouldn’t pose a major issue.
However, if left unaddressed, tensions may arise and give way to periods of sexlessness. Often, the higher libido partner feels rejected when their advances are denied and he or she may eventually stop initiating. The lower libido partner can feel put-upon by all of the requests or feel inadequate because they think they can’t meet their partner’s needs.
“Sometimes [mismatched sex drives] are managed and it’s working for everyone. And sometimes it’s not being managed,” Kahn said. “When the issue goes unmanaged — and I don’t mean ‘solved,’ not all issues need to be or can be solved — we start to avoid the conversation entirely and then avoid the activity as well.”
Physical health conditions can impact a person’s sex drive or ability to have sex, but so, too, can mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, past sexual trauma and others. Certain medications can also cause sexual dysfunction.
“These concerns can impact desire and need for connection,” Chavez said. “Others include low self-esteem and body image issues. If you are dealing with these concerns, it can dampen desire and your willingness to be sexual with a partner.”
“Relationship issues can lead to anger, resentment, disappointment, hurt or betrayal and lead to lack of desire,” Chavez said. “Some of these issues never get resolved or when they do, lead to feeling shut out or more hurt.”
Criticism is one of the biggest predictors of divorce, according to relationship researcher John Gottman. Note that criticism is different than offering advice to your spouse or airing a grievance in a measured, constructive way. Hurtful remarks can feel like an attack and cause a rift in the bedroom too, sex therapist Stephen Snyder said.
“Relationships thrive on acceptance,” said Snyder, author of “Love Worth Making.” “Sexual relationships especially, since your sexual self is relatively immature and easily hurt. Criticizing your partner, or feeling criticized by them, is kryptonite for your sexual relationship. Avoid these things at all costs.”
Sometimes sex is an awesome, orgasm-filled bodily adventure; sometimes it’s just kind of meh. Expecting every sexual experience to blow your mind is setting yourself up for disappointment, which can deter you from even trying.
“Unrealistic expectations around sex can build pressure and a performance focus on sex,” Chavez said. “It becomes less about connection and intimate time together and more about performance goals around sex. This leads to low desire and sexual avoidance.”
Fears about not being able to perform (getting or maintaining an erection, giving or having an orgasm) can cause so much anxiety leading up to sex that it becomes easier for some couples to just throw in the towel altogether. The misguided thinking is this: If I don’t try, then I can’t fail.
“While thinking and talking about sexual anxiety and sexual functioning issues can be difficult and filled with a lot of shame, there are a lot of ways to navigate both and continue to have sex,” Kahn said. “Silence feeds shame and shame feeds anxiety.”
According to Landes, a “fear of rocking the boat” can sometimes lead to a dead bedroom. One partner may want to suggest shaking things up to break out of the rut (BDSM, anyone?). But they don’t say anything because they’re worried about how their spouse will react.
“Sometimes in long-term relationships, people get into ruts and won’t suggest or try new things because they’re afraid the other person won’t like it, will get upset or distance themselves,” Landes said. “Fear of taking risks sucks the energy out of a sexual partnership.”
Early in the relationship, the sex is new so it feels hot and exciting. Over time, though, couples can grow accustomed to the same routine, which may lead to a sexual malaise. But know that your sexuality (and your partner’s) is constantly evolving, and there are always new things to try and discover, Kahn said.
“When we stop being curious, stop allowing for growth and start assuming, sex can become mundane,” Kahn said. “Try refocusing on eroticism and ask yourself what turns you on, what makes you feel pleasure, and what makes you feel desired. Exploring ways to increase curiosity, excitement and playfulness in your sexual lives can modify a rigid repertoire.”