Sex

What to do when you're in a sexless marriage

Coping with a sexless marriage? It's more common than you may have thought. This is what you need to think about in order to move forward.

By: Ingrid Pyne

Katie Harlow* used to lie in bed wondering what on earth was wrong with her.

Her husband – a fit, healthy, high-flying alpha male – was never in the mood for sex. While friends bemoaned their husbands’ insatiable sexual demands, Katie went for weeks, months and then a year without making love to her husband.

“I felt totally rejected, bewildered, frustrated, angry, but mostly just sad,” she tells The Weekly. “And so alone. Was I the only woman in Australia whose husband didn’t want to have 
sex with her?”

Since splitting from her husband and feeling free to confide their bedroom blues, however, countless female friends have shared a similar tale. “I’ve started to think perhaps our sex life wasn’t that unusual,” Katie says.

Interestingly, Katie may be on to something...

Sexless marriages: a rising trend?

It’s difficult to say exactly how many of Australia’s married couples are too exhausted, cranky, overworked, resentful, stressed or depressed to get it on, but experts estimate that 15-20 per cent 
of couples have sex fewer than 10 times 
a year, which is how they define a sexless marriage.

The traditional tendency is to blame the woman, but sex therapists 
say the age-old story of the sexually indifferent wife with a permanent headache and the libidinous male 
who is always up for it is a myth.

“I see as many women who complain about their partners not wanting sex as much as they do, as I see men,” says Sydney relationship counsellor and 
sex therapist Matty Silver.

Research shows that there ends up being less sex in relationships when the partner with the low libido is the male.

How many Australians are coping with a sexless marriage?

In a groundbreaking study 
into Australian sexuality, 14.6 per cent 
of women in heterosexual relationships reported that they hadn’t had sex at all 
in the preceding four weeks and only 
0.7 per cent of them were OK with this.

The vast majority (68.3 per cent) said they wanted sex more often than they got it and 84 per cent said their ideal frequency would be two or more times a week, according to The Australian Study of Health and Relationships.

Based on both her own clinical observations and conversations with colleagues, Matty believes that the number of sex-starved women in Australia is “grossly under-reported 
and under-discussed”.

In a culture 
where virility is linked inextricably to masculinity and desirability to femininity, it is hardly surprising that men and women in this predicament choose not to broadcast their bedroom woes.

Books such as He’s Just Not Up For It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex And What You Can Do About It, 
by Bob Berkowitz and Susan Yager-Berkowitz, and The Sex-Starved Wife: What To Do When He’s Lost Desire, 
by Michele Weiner Davis, have started 
to shed light on what has been, until now, a social taboo.

“I’d say that low desire in men is America’s best kept secret,” says Michele Weiner Davis. Some local therapists believe it is Australia’s, too.

Why could this be happening?

Conventional wisdom holds that the only reasons men ever turn down sex is if their “plumbing” isn’t working, their partners have let themselves go, or if they are having an affair.

Yet therapists say that a man’s sex drive can fluctuate for the same reasons a woman’s can: emotional disconnection, underlying resentment, unresolved relationship problems, stress, depression, sexual tedium, a heavy workload, exhaustion, or a sense that their partner 
is too critical of them.

Tobacco and alcohol can wreak havoc on libidos, 
as can medication for depression (of particular concern when Australia is 
the second highest prescriber of anti-depressants among the 34 OECD nations – 8.9 per cent of us are on 
some form of daily anti-depressant).

Health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, hormonal fluctuations or diabetes can also affect sexual function and if men suddenly experience erectile problems, premature or delayed ejaculation, they can become too embarrassed to have sex and acquire 'performance anxiety'.

Why communication is NOT happening

Sex therapists say men are typically reluctant to discuss the reasons for their drop in libido, leaving their partners baffled. The more pressure women put on them to discuss the issue, the more they withdraw.

Katie says she still has “no idea” what made her ex-husband stop desiring her.

“I brought it up regularly with him. 
I would just ask him what was going on and he would get really angry,” she says. “He just did not want to talk about it. I think he saw it as a slight 
to his ego.”

Sex therapist Bettina Arndt recognises that there is a “significant” body of high-drive, sexually frustrated women out there, but insists their numbers are dwarfed by the army of sex-starved men across Australia. However, she acknowledges that the misery is likely to be more acute for women who are sexually rejected.

“It is the very fact that women are 
so rarely on the other side of the fence that makes this experience particularly painful. They never expect not to be wanted,” she says.

“Since many of them are surrounded by friends whose partners are driving them mad by wanting sex, these women end up feeling there is something wrong with them.”

While many second-guess their desirability – “Are my boobs too small?”, “Have I put on too much weight?”, “Does he find other women sexier?”, “Am I doing something to put him off when we do have sex?” – Katie says her imagination ran wildly in other directions. Was her husband gay? Just not interested in sex? Should she take 
a lover?

“It’s very dangerous,” she says. “I would have had 
an affair if I had had the opportunity. And 
I wouldn’t even have felt bad about it.”

Research shows that there ends up being less sex in relationships when the partner with the low libido is the male. The person with the lower desire in 
a relationship controls the frequency 
of sex and men have to be up for it – literally – whereas women can just go along for the ride.

Bettina adds that in our culture, men are expected to be the sexual initiators and have a high degree of resilience to rejection. Yet when the woman initiates and gets rebuffed, she soon throws in the towel.

“If you are a guy, it’s expected that women will put up a little bit of resistance,” agrees Katie. “But as a woman, you have grown up thinking that guys are always wanting to have sex and that you control that to a degree.

When, all of a sudden, nobody is tapping you on the shoulder and the excuses you would expect to give are being given to you instead, it’s very hard to take.”

Relationship counsellors, sex therapists and psychologists can’t – and won’t – tell you how much sex you should be having. Some couples are happily sexless, while others are delirious doing it daily.

However, marriage pros agree that if either partner in a couple is unhappy with the frequency of sex in their relationship, the consequences can be catastrophic. Mismatched libidos can drive a wedge between partners, affect moods, undermine trust, raise resentment, cause hurt, destroy emotional intimacy, annihilate self-esteem and so on.

The (possibly negative) ramifications of a sexless marriage

While many second-guess their desirability – “Are my boobs too small?”, “Have I put on too much weight?”, “Does he find other women sexier?”, “Am I doing something to put him off when we do have sex?” – Katie says her imagination ran wildly in other directions. Was her husband gay? Just not interested in sex? Should she take 
a lover?

“It’s very dangerous,” she says. “I would have had 
an affair if I had had the opportunity. And 
I wouldn’t even have felt bad about it.”

Research shows that there ends up being less sex in relationships when the partner with the low libido is the male. The person with the lower desire in 
a relationship controls the frequency 
of sex and men have to be up for it – literally – whereas women can just go along for the ride.

Bettina adds that in our culture, men are expected to be the sexual initiators and have a high degree of resilience to rejection. Yet when the woman initiates and gets rebuffed, she soon throws in the towel.

“If you are a guy, it’s expected that women will put up a little bit of resistance,” agrees Katie. “But as a woman, you have grown up thinking that guys are always wanting to have sex and that you control that to a degree.

When, all of a sudden, nobody is tapping you on the shoulder and the excuses you would expect to give are being given to you instead, it’s very hard to take.”

Relationship counsellors, sex therapists and psychologists can’t – and won’t – tell you how much sex you should be having. Some couples are happily sexless, while others are delirious doing it daily.

However, marriage pros agree that if either partner in a couple is unhappy with the frequency of sex in their relationship, the consequences can be catastrophic. Mismatched libidos can drive a wedge between partners, affect moods, undermine trust, raise resentment, cause hurt, destroy emotional intimacy, annihilate self-esteem and so on.

*Some names have been changed for anonymity.

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