Sexual intimacy is an expected part of a modern day relationship—it is often seen as an expression of love and desire. Most couples are typically very sexual at the beginning of their relationship, but it isn’t unusual for activity to slow down over time. Factors such as aging, relationship complacency, and hectic lifestyles contribute to the decline in sexual activity, but overall, healthy relationships do not tend to go more than six months without sexual intimacy. A steady decline or sudden end of sexual activity may be an indicator of deeper issues; if not addressed, it may be the beginning of a sexless relationship.
Sex-avoidant or sexless couples are on the rise. Recent studies have shown an increase in the number of young couples experiencing less than average sexual intimacy in their relationships. A “sexless” relationship is defined as couples having intercourse fewer than 10 times a year. It is estimated that nearly 20 million Americans in a relationship are completely sexually inactive.
There are various reasons why couples experience pauses of sexual activity in their relationship. The most common reasons for the temporary lull are due to general life stressors such as raising a family, demanding careers, or other marital strains. These stressors are considered typical, and although they may cause a period of a sexual break, the intimacy will eventually resume once the stressors settle down. While sex may not be an immediate priority, it is important that couples engage in non-sexual intimacy in order to stay connected. Date nights, love notes, flirting, and hugs are a great way of expressing that while life is a bit crazy right now, your partner is still very important to you.
While the aforementioned causes of a sexless relationship are easily resolvable, other causes that may account for lack of sexual intimacy in a relationship are more complex. For example, low/no sexual desire, non-attraction to partner, sexual avoidance, depression, or illness, may prevent partners from engaging in sexual activities; sexual function issues such as painful intercourse or erection concerns also make it difficult to enjoy sex. Finally, individuals experiencing physical, emotional, or psychological issues may be closed off to intimacy. Couples experiencing these types of sexual issues would benefit from seeing a sexuality-focused therapist who would then treat the couple holistically in order to determine the root of the issues.
When a couple is not sexually involved, relationship quality may suffer; the levels of equality, respect and trust may also decline. In addition, lack of sexual activity, whether temporary or permanent, can leave the sex-wanting partner feeling frustration, resentment, or anger, and it can also have an effect on mood and self-esteem. One of the ways those in an involuntarily celibate relationship cope with the situation is by ignoring the problem. The sex-wanting partner may feel that if he or she patiently waits, the non-wanting partner will eventually regain the desire for sex. To the contrary, researchers have discovered that the longer the couple avoids sex, the longer it will continue in that pattern. Ultimately, the sex-wanting partner may seek sexual satisfaction outside the relationship in order to cope with the forced abstinence. According to research, sexual dissatisfaction can be a predictor of infidelity, an increase of pornography usage, and possibly, the solicitation of prostitutes.
If there is a mutual agreement between both parties to be sexually inactive, the relationship can still be happy and fulfilling—sometimes companionship is enough. This type of arrangement could be successfully stable and functioning with partners expressing great fondness for one another and deep commitment. In couples with high levels of satisfaction in marriage and life, intimacy can be achieved in many ways, not just sexually. For couples navigating sexual concerns, seeking professional therapeutic assistance can help with healthy coping strategies. To locate a well-trained sexuality professional in your area, please visit AASECT, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, at www.aasect.org/directory.asp.
- Julissa Coriano is a Widener University graduate student pursuing a master’s and a doctoral degree in Human Sexuality and a master’s in social work. The Sexuality Matters comlumn runs the second Wednesday of every month.