Can A Marriage Survive Without Intimacy? Marriage Therapists Weigh In
Finding yourself in a sexless marriage when you didn't want or intend for it to be this way can feel anywhere from frustrating to devastating. Rest assured that marriages can survive without intimacy under certain circumstances, and there are ways to fix a sexless marriage if both people are willing to work on it.
Here's advice on how to navigate a marriage without sex, from marriage and sex therapists.
Yes, marriages need intimacy to survive
A marriage does need intimacy to survive, though there are many types of intimacy. Physical intimacy often enhances a marriage, though it's not necessary for all people and all couples. Physical intimacy is more important to some people than it is to others; the problem only arises if the two people in a relationship disagree about the importance of physical intimacy.
Emotional intimacy, on the other hand, is often a necessity for a couple to be truly connected, honest, and happy. Emotional intimacy refers to the ability to share your true thoughts and feelings with each other and feeling a sense of safety, comfort, and warmth with each other. Most marriages cannot function in a healthy way without this emotional intimacy.
Emotional and physical intimacy are oftentimes linked, meaning that if a marriage is lacking emotional intimacy, it's likely to also lack physical intimacy as a result.
Yes, sexless marriages can survive
Some couples don't mind a marriage without sex. If it's not a problem for the couple, then a sexless marriage isn't a problem, says AASECT-certified sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman. (Here's our full guide to sexless relationships.)
Even if one or both people aren't happy with the lack of physical intimacy, that's an issue that can be worked on and improved over time. "If you love your partner and you value your relationship, there are ways to address the lack of sex between the two of you as long as you're both willing to work together," Zimmerman writes at mbg. "It's common, almost universal, to struggle with sex at some point over the course of a relationship."
Sometimes a couple stops being able to have sex due to health conditions, aging, an increase in caregiving responsibilities, or other factors that can't necessarily be "fixed." But even in these situations, couples can learn to accept the lack of sex over time because they love their partner and everything else about their relationship.
They can also enjoy forms of physical intimacy and sexual touch that don't revolve around intercourse but are still very sexy, pleasurable, and connective.
Some sexless marriages won't work out
All that said, for some people, the lack of physical intimacy can outweigh the other good things in the marriage, so they may choose to leave the relationship in the end.
"I've helped a lot of couples completely transform their relationships, so I have an optimistic view about being able to resolve these issues," Vanessa Marin, LMFT, a sex therapist and creator of The Passion Project, tells mbg. "But it can be especially challenging when one partner is unhappy with the level of intimacy in a relationship and the other partner is perfectly content. You just can't force anyone to change or to care about something that they don't care about."
If you're unhappy with the lack of sex in your marriage, the key factor to keep in mind is whether your partner is willing to work with you to improve the situation. If they're not, that's a strong sign that it might not work out.
"I'm not saying it's not possible to fix this kind of relationship, but it's definitely going to be much more challenging," Marin adds. "If you want to change your sex life, but your partner is not willing to work on it, you're going to have to ask yourself some tough questions about the future of your relationship."
When a marriage without sex works
A marriage without sex can work as long as the couple still has intimacy and closeness.
"If a relationship is sexless and both parties express this desire, it has to have a friendship foundation," marriage therapist and certified sex educator Lexx Brown-James, LMFT, tells mbg. "They must be able to have pleasure and closeness outside of the physicality. This means being able to celebrate joy with one another, engage in affection (which isn't always physical), and truly support one another along life's journey."
Brown-James says this model works in relationships where:
- A partner falls ill
- A partner acquires disabilities
- One or both people have a traumatic experience
- The relationship is simply changing with age
- Other life transitions
- One or both people are asexual (though not all asexual people abstain from sexual play)
She adds, "Ensuring there is a solid likability in the relationship along with commitment lays the foundation for relationship success."
If one or both people does still have sexual needs, she adds that the couple needs to be able to find ways to make sure those needs are being met. "This may look different for every couple. Maybe masturbation is integral, maybe cuddling, employing a sex worker, or engaging in erotic play through play parties can be options."
What to do
"A couple in a sexless relationship first needs to take an assessment on whether they want a sexless relationship. If they do, then great," Brown-James says. "If not, then talking to a professional is integral in exploring how to get the sexual needs met."
Here are a few steps to bringing sex back into a marriage, according to Marin:
- Making more time in your schedules for quality time and intimate time
- Getting a better sense of your own needs
- Learning how to express your desires
- Developing a healthier relationship with your body
- Experimenting in the bedroom together
- Focusing on non-intercourse activities, like kissing and touch
- Resolving past trauma
- Learning how to communicate in healthier ways
- Addressing other sources of stress in the relationship
It can be really helpful to engage with a sexuality professional who can help guide you on the journey of tackling sexual avoidance in your marriage. Just know it's absolutely possible to bring sex back into your relationship if you want it, as long as you and your partner are willing to work on it together.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter