A sexless marriage doesn't have to signal the end of your relationship - here's how to move forward

There are a number of steps you can take to make sex a healthy part of your relationship again

sexless marriage
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While admitting you’re in a sexless marriage or relationship might feel taboo, it’s actually incredibly common and it doesn’t have to signal the end. Figuring out whether you’re just experiencing a temporary sex drought or are in a sexless partnership is often the first step to getting help.

The good news is, once you figure out what is causing the lack of sex and intimacy in your relationship, there are a number of steps you can take to make sex a healthy part of your relationship again. 

It could be as simple as having an honest conversation with your partner, using one of the best vibrators together to help spice things up again, or removing a major stress factor that’s been distracting you from having sex. There is always a way back to a healthy sexual relationship. 

What defines a marriage as 'sexless'?

Definitions of a sexless marriage can vary but the director of education at Satisfyer, Megwyn White, says a sexless marriage can be described as one with sex less than 10 times a year. 

“According to that description, about 20% of marriages would fall into the sexless category,” Megwyn adds. Stephanie Taylor, founder and MD at Uberkinky, says, “It’s not cut and dry, because everyone has a completely different sex drive and all relationships are unique in what they consider to be a ‘normal’ amount of sex.”

Before you determine whether you are in a sexless relationship, think about how much sex you have had in the past together, and whether that has changed recently. Some couples will have sex every day, while others may be more comfortable with having sex just once or twice a month. 

And it doesn’t just have to be about penetration. “Sex includes general physical affection,” says Stephanie. “Surprise kisses, naked cuddles in bed, bum squeezes – if you and your partner are still very much flirty and physical, but you’ve found that sex isn’t as much of a focus for either of you, then I would say it’s not a worry. However, if you’re at a point where you’re becoming uncomfortable with physical affection or being naked around each other, and you’re also questioning the amount you’re having sex, then it’s time to address it."

sexless marriage depicted by couple with newspapers

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The potential causes of a sexless marriage

There are many factors that can cause a sexless marriage, says Megwyn. “Desire discrepancy is totally normal in a marriage, with most couples experience a dramatic drop after only two years.” 

Some of the most common reasons for a sexless marriage include:

  • Adultery
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Illness
  • Disability
  • Trauma
  • Chronic disagreements
  • Feelings of neglect
  • Misunderstanding
  • Financial challenges
  • Pressures from children
  • Exhaustion and stress

“With these challenges, there are often underlying needs of feeling seen and heard not being addressed,” says Megwyn. It can often turn into a vicious cycle and lead to sexual anxiety. “Conversations about a lack of sex can be really difficult, and often fraught with emotion,” says Stephanie. “This can mean that those conversations end in upset and without resolve, or that they don’t even happen at all. That’s usually what starts a cycle that can lead to an ongoing issue.”

While a sexless marriage could be a sign you're unhappy in your relationship, it doesn't mean your marriage is automatically bad. "Many marriages will go through ‘dry spell’ patches of less intimacy,” says Megwyn. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that your marriage is ‘bad, but it does mean that you’ll need to find ways to address the underlying needs that are not being met.” 

"Usually, this can be resolved relatively quickly, either by the root cause being treated (for example, work stress easing) or by having a simple conversation where both partners voice their feelings and work together to re-ignite the spark," Stephanie adds. 

To prevent things from going beyond repair it’s important to speak up fast. “If a couple goes for a very long time without having sex it can be very difficult to rekindle their sex life,” says Megwyn. “This is why maintenance sex every now and then can be so beneficial.”

How to move forward in a sexless marriage 

A sexless marriage doesn’t have to end in divorce. The first step to moving forward together is having an open and honest conversation at the right time. 

“If you find that you can’t approach the conversation, then have a look at why that is. Are you uncomfortable sharing your feelings with your partner? If so, why? It doesn’t mean that your marriage is over, but it could mean that you need to work on your emotional connection," Stephanie says.

Stephanie points out how important it is to think about how to approach this conversation. “Have the conversation when you’re both in a good place to talk, not first thing in the morning or just as you’re falling asleep, and not when either one of you is in a bad mood,” says Stephanie.  “Prepare yourself by thinking about how you’re feeling, and write it down. Remember that it’s probably going to be emotional for both of you, so try to stay rational and level-headed.”

Megwyn recommends these steps to move forward from a sexless marriage:

  • Be direct and honest
    “Direct is good, but also be sensitive to their emotions.”
  • Don't blame anyone
    “Never blame or shame them when expressing your needs.”
  • Never assume the problem
    “Don’t assume that they're not interested in having sex with you. This is a common mistake and often can lead to one partner making the other “the problem”.”
  • Listen to each other
    “Focus on active listening and engage your partner in possible solutions.”
  • Remember happy memories
    “Use past experiences to help invite happy memories about your sex life, while inviting ideas on how you might be able to connect.”
  • Use eye contact
    “It can help soften the blow if you are making a request that they find challenging or triggering.”
  • Stay open in your body language
    “Don’t cross your arms and, if you can, touch your partner as they speak to you. This will get the oxytocin flowing, which helps to relax the body and mind, and helps support empathy between partners.”
  • Focus on small steps
    “You don’t need to conquer the issue by having sex. You may make a compromise by starting with a cuddling date, or explore reading sex stories together.”

Can a marriage last without intimacy?

A sexless marriage doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage has no future, but it’s not always easy. You should consider if you are still being intimate in other ways, too. Intimacy doesn’t always equal sex, but I haven’t seen many healthy marriages that have no intimacy at all,” says Stephanie. “If you’re not able to do simple things, like snuggle up together on the sofa, or hold hands while you’re out walking, or stay in bed for an extra five minutes of kisses and cuddles in the morning, then it’s time to re-evaluate why you are together.”

“Intimacy is usually what differentiates a relationship from a friendship – and if you’re living like housemates, instead of romantic partners, then at some point someone is probably going to realize that their physical needs are not being met.”

What if you or your partner isn’t interested in sex any more?

Making sure your sex drive matches your partner’s can be tricky. “Being sexually compatible is pretty important for a healthy relationship. However, this doesn’t mean that you both have to want the exact same thing all the time,” says Stephanie.

“If you find that you want to have sex a lot more than your partner does, you can try to find a compromise that you’re both comfortable with.” This could include watching porn - try porn for women if you want something more female-friendly - together or focusing on how to orgasm solo with your partner simply watching.

“Some people simply experience Responsive Desire rather than Spontaneous Desire, which means that they need someone else to initiate physical affection before they feel arousal,” says Stephanie. “If this is the case, you may just need to be comfortable with one of you being the person who always initiates.”

You could look at new ways to seduce your partner that you've never thought of before, such as playing out one of their sexual fantasies by using a sex app to find a third party. Or, more simply paying particular attention to the unexpected erogenous zones that turn them on. 

If you find it difficult to talk to your partner about your sex drive, sex therapy could help break down that barrier. 

"It can help break down your specific needs and desires and support you and your partner in feeling truly seen and heard,” says Megwyn. “A sex therapist can also give you fun contexts to explore that you might not be able to find on your own. Then help you rediscover new ways to connect that you have never explored.”

However, both partners need to be willing to see a sex therapist; it should not be one forcing the other to go. “Just like all therapy, it will only have a positive impact if you’re both willing to talk, listen, and take action," Stephanie says. 

And, if you can't find a solution, it may be time to end the relationship. “If you find yourself constantly frustrated with the amount your partner wants to have sex, and can’t find a compromise, you may simply be incompatible,” says Stephanie. “At that point, you need to ask yourself if you’re happy staying in a relationship that is not sexually satisfying.”

Faye M Smith

Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.