Do “No-Sex” Marriages Work?

man holding his woman's chin, woman holding her man's tie

We’re constantly on the go, busy from dawn ’til dusk with tasks that fill our entire day, and really, at the end of it, who has time for sex? According to this NY Times interview with Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, married couples don’t have the energy to keep the spark in their sex life:

“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, which has tracked the social behaviors of Americans since 1972. But there are wide variations in that number. Married people under 30 have sex about 111 times a year. 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.”

Donnelly cites a number of factors to why marriages become sexless:

Some people become accustomed to their spouse, bored even, and sex slows. For others, it is the demands of raising a family, establishing a career, and mid-adulthood. And there are people who have very low sex drives, and may even be asexual. They may have some sex with their partners to begin with, but it becomes unimportant to them (and usually not so unimportant to their spouses). These folks may also be dealing with guilt, issues with the human body, or feel that sex is “dirty” or only for procreation. A small number of couples showed a mixed pattern, where they would have periods of “feast” and of “famine.”

So, here’s what I want to know. Do you think there is hope to rekindle the passion in a marriage that’s become sexless? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

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  1. 21
    Curly Girl

    Well, Jennifer, as I said, why just the sexless part of marriage and not all of the other challenges that you would or could experience over the decades with someone–infertility, death of a child, major illness, unemployment, parental dimentia, mental illness, emotional estrangement, etc.

    I think the reason it’s THAT issue and not one of the other issues above is because the idea of rekinding a dormant sexual connection is titillating and these others are real buzzkills. Very not erotic. In an odd way, the question just supports the idea that marriage is SUPPOSED to be this ongoing, highly charged sexual experience. But judging from the outside, it doesn’t seem to be after the honeymoon is over. The highly charged sexual experience really is the hook up. But you can’t build a relationship on hookups.

    So I agree with you. Let’s get realistic about what marriage offers. I’ve been saying that all along. But when I suggest that the reality of marriage is sobering and I urge caution, caution to the point of saying that marriage is not for everyone and maybe we should regard other forms of relationship with equal respect, I get push back from you (and others). Anyone who suggests that marriage might be flawed, judging by what is readily observable to all of us, and who suggests something other than submitting ourselves to years of “work” and awfulness gets attacked.

    I think my POV is first, very realistic, and second, very positive and open. I am suggesting that we change the way we view marriage. That we change our expectations. That we change what we teach people is “true” about male/female relationships and romance.

    I say dump the 1950s-influenced beliefs about marriage and the nuclear family. It doesn’t work, for the most part. Those beliefs would be: 1) that the erotic experience of “falling in love” is the best way to select a partner; 2) that your marriage should be some sexual nirvana; 3) that the woman’s main role is to “nurture” and the man’s to “provide”; 4) that any feeling toward another person is in and of itself sustainable and unchanging over years and years; 5) that erotic-based marriages and resultant families are insular, vacuum-sealed units of stability and the only relationships of “real” value.

  2. 22
    Curly Girl

    I would also add that hookups and love affairs have value, that friendships have value, that our work relationships have value, that children born outside of traditional marriage are just as valuable as any other child, that abstinence has value, that one’s relationship with something larger than oneself has value, that work can be a creative, joyous, life-affirming enterprise.

    Marriage and the LTR and the nuclear family do not trump any of these things, in my book.

  3. 23

    Curly Girl,

    I think this “No-sex” post makes a nice counterpoint to the several over the last few months about “settling”, “not chasing chemistry”, and that marriage is about “building something” for the future.

    Many of these folks who want to get married so they will have something “built” 40 yrs. from now, who don’t care, even expect, such a marriage will be sexless – like roommates – may not realize how much EARLIER this could happen. It’s one thing to think you might not be interested in sex when you’re in your 70’s-80’s, but in your 30’s? And there are some people who think they’d better get married soon, because no one will want them when they are older. Older, being over 40.

    This particular study seemed to focus on couples who were “too busy” for sex. Didn’t really go into other reasons like lack of interest to begin with. Or, the “bait and switch” – engaging in sex in order to get married – not really being all that sexually interested in the person, but sex being a means to an end…marriage.

    Nor did it address that “sexless marriages” are often NOT by mutual consent. The guy who was picked because he would be the best candidate for paying the bills and putting up the swingset, might end up being the guy who files for divorce, or becomes drawn into an affair due to his sexless marriage. Same could be said of the woman who “picked” him for the stability and found her life lacking without passion.

  4. 24

    Funny how few people actually tried to answer the question. Of course there’s hope, in many cases. All the underlying problems aside, in a significant number of such marriages, appearance improvement alone would help. There is research attributing some problems to weight gain, for example, and clearly many people put less effort into style after marriage, which can affect perceived fitness, among other things.

  5. 25
    Curly Girl

    Selena: Points all well taken.

  6. 26
    Curly Girl

    mic: Nobody is trying to answer the question because none of us are married. We’re dating, so we’re not having this problem. Do these marriages “work”? What does it mean to say it’s “working”?

  7. 27

    Never been married, but I know 10 married couples that are approximately my age and have shared details of their sex lives with me. One couple has sex once per week and they’re totally happy with it (they state quality over quantity), and one other couple a few more times than that. The others are way off the map, like once every 3-6 months. It’s pretty disturbing because these are close friends. Two of the couples are getting divorced. Interestingly, the one couple that has sex 2-3 times per week are both VERY physically attractive people.

    I’m sure it’s possible to rekindle a married sex life but the probability is really low. I’m going to say this now and get ready to get flamed, but ultimately sex doesn’t have to be the big factor in a successful marriage. I say prioritize the companionship/family/personal development aspects and supplement with sex from another source for both partners.

    On another note, I’d be interested to see data from the same couples about how often they thought about sex with other partners, masturbated, and even attempted to “cheat.” That would give you some insight of what the actual sex drives of the individuals are and where the conflict is.

    Lance´s last blog post…Away We Go

  8. 28

    @ CG

    Actually, I was married for 15 years, many of them sexless (he was traveling for business and cheating). At the time, our child was young, so I can also speak to some of the effects that child rearing has on a marriage (at least from one point of view). I see a lot of what happened in my marriage happening in my friends’ and neighbors’ relationships.

  9. 29

    @ Lance

    I sort of agree–ultimately I would choose companionship and general compatibility over sex in a relationship that extended into retirement years. But why not strive for both? There’s a lot of commentary here that makes it seem like companionship and a good sex life are mutually exclusive. In my opinion, they go hand in hand. The better your sex life, the better your friendship. The better your friendship, the better your sex life (assuming you can agree on frequency, etc.).

  10. 30

    I just can not fathom marrying someone I wasn’t passionate about or being content to be “glorified roomates” at any time in the relationship!

    Having said that, I believe you can rekindle, if you had passion to be begin with, if you practice the things you did when you were dating. I think most people let those little thoughtful things they did for each other when they were dating slip away, thats whats getting lost in the “I’m so busy” life.

  11. 31

    @CurlyGirl #21
    First, I apologize if I’ve ever made you feel attacked. Definitely not my intention.

    The reason you may sense push-back from me is not because I don’t feel that your point of view is valid, but because I don’t necessarily think this is the appropriate venue to express it the way you do. Whenever a question or issue comes up where someone implies that marriage is their goal or what they want, I don’t think its appropriate to question that or make people feel that they have to defend the fact that they want to get married.

    For what it’s worth, like you, I also believe marriage is a huge deal, huge commitment and not something to be taken likely. But I also believe that two people can come together and create any type of marriage they want, as long as they are both happy/satisfied. For example, if a couple has an open marriage- great for them! It’s not my preference but if they like it I love it. So while I’m tied to marriage, I’m not necessarily tied to specific rules or ideas about marriage that others may have.

    So for the stuff we agree on, great and for the stuff we don’t, I can agree to respectfully disagree 🙂

  12. 32
    Curly Girl

    Jennifer: I can tell from your response that you do not get what I am saying and that you still think I am attacking marriage. If you read my posts, that is not my point AT ALL.

    Also, this is a blog. Not an appropriate venue to express my views? What are you talking about?

  13. 34

    There’s also the body image element. With decline in physical attractiveness sometimes comes loss of confidence. That might lower willingness to initiate sex or to be naked around one’s partner.

  14. 35

    @ Kristyn

    Re: being content to be glorified roommates

    It sucks, but it’s possible to be stuck in a bad marriage with small children, no financial resources, and no prospects for escape (e.g. full time job, insurance, etc.). I think a lot of women are like I was, certainly not content, but not able to leave until there are realistic options to do so.

  15. 36

    @CurlyGirl #32- I beleive I get your point. I don’t think you are attacking marriage. I think you are saying it’s not the only viable alternative for life, right?

    As a long time reader, my understanding is that this is a blog geared towards people who are dating with the hope of attaining loving marriages or ltrs. That’s why I think the point that there are other valid relationship alternatives is a fine one, but maybe this isn’t going to be the most receptive audience for that. Of course receptive audience or no, you are free to express any view anywhere you wish.

    That’s all.

  16. 37

    The way I read CG’s posts she did not come across as attacking marriage, only as making the point that only those readers who are divorced (AND who experienced sexless marriages prior to divorce) are the only ones with any practical experience in that subject (by definition).

  17. 38

    Nobody is asking if the low sex couples *can* do the things to rekindle their sex lives or if they are willing to give something up to be able to do those things.

    Getting/keeping in shape, maintaining a wardrobe that flatters you, having interests that makes you interesting company, reading sex manuals, playing games, going on marital dates, and even just resting enough to have a better libido takes *time*.

    Are the couples willing to take lesser paying jobs and lower their standard of “living” in exchange for having the time to do those things?

    At least once a year my home town rag the Washington Post runs a story about double income upper middle class couples pinching pennies like college students to make ends meet. Both spouses earn impressive salaries, but they feel locked into impressive expenses also.

    If a couple has children there probably are some expenses (including time commitments ) that will not allow them to downshift their jobs and lifestyles.

  18. 39
    Curly Girl

    [email protected]: Thanks for sharing your views.

    Steve: You’re a D.C. guy!!! Just filling in the blanks….:)

  19. 40
    Curly Girl

    Jennifer: Another thought. You are the only one who has suggested that I should not be posting on this site, and certainly there are many guys on here who have written about things that are hardly geared toward “loving marriages and ltrs,” calling into question what you consider to be the proper use of this site.

    What is so threatening to you about my words?

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