What Causes Sexless Relationships & How To Fix One, According To Sex Therapists
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
If you've found yourself in a sexless relationship, you likely have a lot of questions on your mind: What causes a relationship to become sexless? Is a sexless relationship healthy? And maybe the scariest question to ask yourself, especially if you've been in this relationship a long time and very much love the person you're with: Should you stay in a sexless relationship? Here are all the answers you're looking for, straight from sex and marriage therapists.
What is a sexless relationship?
A sexless relationship is a relationship where there's little to no sexual activity occurring between the couple. There's no exact way to quantify what counts as a sexless relationship, as different people have different expectations and desires for sex. Having sex 10 times a year or less is usually considered a sexless relationship, according to AASECT-certified sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman. But it's very dependent on the individuals. For example, some people are perfectly happy with sex about once a month, whereas for others, that might feel infrequent enough to consider it a sexless relationship.
"It's a bit arbitrary," Zimmerman tells mbg. "I am always hesitant to define what amount is a problem or to focus on frequency because just meeting a number doesn't mean your sex life is really working. Whenever we talk frequency, I think we are having the wrong conversation; it should be about quality—the degree to which both people find it enjoyable, engaging, and positive in their relationship."
Sexless relationship statistics.
Of the 659 married people who shared details about their sexual frequency in the 2018 U.S. General Social Survey, about 19% were in what could be considered sexless relationships, reporting having had sex "once or twice" or "not at all" in the last year.
In comparison, about 35% of those married people had sex one to three times per month, 25% of had sex weekly, and 21% had sex several times per week.
In general, it's common for sex in long-term relationships to fluctuate in frequency and quality. One study found four in five couples dealt with mismatched libidos in the last month. "Sexless relationships happen all the time," marriage therapist and certified sex educator Lexx Brown-James, LMFT, tells mbg.
What causes sexless relationships.
There's often not one direct cause that leads to sexless relationships but rather a myriad of factors that contribute to how a relationship slowly becomes sexless over time. Here are a few common contributing factors, according to Brown-James and sex therapist Vanessa Marin, LMFT:
- Neither person cares about sex that much
- Being so busy that sex is deprioritized
- Neglecting intimacy and pleasure in general
- Conflict in the relationship that creates disconnection
- Health challenges (e.g., sexual pain, dysfunction, aging-related changes, etc.)
- One or both partners are asexual
- One or both partners have experienced sexual trauma, making sex harder or less appealing
- Mismatched libido or other forms of desire discrepancy
"There's also so much misinformation out there about sex, and that can lead people to developing unhealthy relationships with it. For example, believing that sex should always be spontaneous," Marin adds. "And sometimes couples find themselves in a sexless marriage and can't even remember how they got there."
Effects of a sexless relationship.
A sexless relationship will not necessarily harm the overall health of the relationship. "If both people are happy without sex (or infrequent sex), there is no problem. Like so much about our sex life, it's a problem when it causes distress," Zimmerman explains.
But she notes: If one or both people are unhappy with their sex life, it can cause negative feelings that can bubble up in other areas of their life and taint the rest of the relationship. When one or both people are unhappy with the sexlessness, she says some potential effects include:
- Negative feelings like loneliness, resentment, frustration, guilt, rejection, and inadequacy
- Negative feelings and pressure around sex, triggering a sexual avoidance cycle
- Less openness and connection
- Less goodwill and kindness
- Less patience with each other
Is a sexless relationship healthy?
Yes, sexless relationships can absolutely be healthy. "Some people are perfectly happy without sex, so there is no problem. And even when sex is a problem, the rest of the relationship can be healthy," says Zimmerman. It all depends on the couple, what each person's individual needs are, and how they communicate and tend to each other's needs.
"But if one or both people are unhappy, that will inevitably lead to a negative cycle and some spillover to the rest of their relationship," she notes. "If the sex life isn't 'healthy,' it doesn't mean the whole relationship isn't, but it can take a serious toll."
Can a relationship survive without intimacy?
A relationship can survive without intimacy, and so can sexless relationships. But a relationship without intimacy is not exactly the same as a relationship without sex. Some people might not have a ton of sexual activity and don't mind it all, especially if they have other types of intimacy like emotional intimacy and spiritual intimacy.
But if you have no types of intimacy whatsoever in the relationship, that's a whole separate problem that may not necessarily be related to the lack of sex.
"A relationship without intimacy and passion that solely has commitment is called empty love," Brown-James says, citing psychologist Robert Sternberg's triangular theory of love. "These relationships can survive; however, partners might look more like roommates than lovers. There is one caveat where marriages without passion survive and thrive. Relationships where friendship and commitment are the base of connection survive and thrive when passion is absent."
Should you stay in a sexless relationship?
Whether you should stay in a sexless relationship depends on how important sex is to you personally. "People who value sex also can stay in a sexless relationship and be happy," Brown-James says. "While sex is one way to bring pleasure into a relationship, it's not the only way and for some not the most important way to connect with one another. It's really an individual choice whether a person wants to stay and something that takes an honest conversation with yourself about desire and sexual needs."
The decision to stay in a sexless relationship also depends on how willing you both are to working on creating a mutually satisfying sex life together. Have you opened up a conversation about the state of your sex life together, and have both people put in active effort and care into solving this issue?
"If you are in a sexless relationship and feeling unsatisfied, there is reason to discuss your dissatisfaction with your partner and come up with solutions," Brown-James says. "Parsing out exactly what you mean, expect, and want is integral to knowing if you want to stay or leave."
It may not make sense for you to stay in a sexless relationship if any of the following are true for you, according to Zimmerman:
- Your partner refuses to work through this issue with you.
- Your relationship issues are so big that there are other reasons to divorce.
- Your sexual interests are so different that there are not ways to enjoy sex together, and you don't agree to find another way to explore those interests.
(Here's Zimmerman's full guide to how to know when to walk away from a sexless marriage or relationship.)
"One of the things that can keep people stuck and not dealing with the issues is the belief that this means their relationship is doomed," Zimmerman adds. "It doesn't have to mean that, but if people don't understand they can address the issues, they are likely to avoid the issue and doing anything to fix it."
How to deal with a sexless relationship.
If you're in a sexless relationship and really struggling to get your sex life to a place that feels good for both people, consider working with a sexuality professional. Oftentimes bringing in a supportive, impartial third party can help clear the air and set you on the right path.
Below are five more tips from Zimmerman, in her exact words:
1. Talk about it.
Have a different kind of conversation, one that is meant to get you working on it as a team, as allies, committed to a win/win. Most couples in this situation believe their interests are opposed (more sex/less sex), but it's crucial to be working together on a sex life that works for both people. That has to come through in the conversations. And you have to keep the topic on the table, not just bring it up once a year.
2. Uncover the obstacles.
What's gotten in the way of sex? Instead of anger that you aren't getting what you want, cultivate curiosity about why this is a struggle for your partner. There are many things that can get in the way, including relationship issues, power dynamics, the meaning of sex in your relationship, the sex itself, etc. You need to identify what's in the way and work together to change those aspects.
3. Develop a new paradigm.
Challenge expectations about sex. Learn how it works. Redefine it so it's not attached to particular acts or outcomes. Create more flexibility around how you can share sexuality. Learn how sexual desire really works, and approach sex with openness to play rather than having specific metrics for success.
4. Approach sex as a "playground" without attachment to an outcome.
Rather than a binary yes/no (which so many people end up with), create room for "maybe." Let's get started and see what happens. Create those opportunities and enjoy them together, whether that results in "sex" the way you think of it or not. This is how you can take the pressure off—by learning to play and enjoy and create a way of engaging where there is no failure.
5. Prioritize it.
Schedule opportunities for this playground, this "maybe." Make it a regular part of your life—to be physically intimate in some way, without pressure that it has to be any particular act(s). And keep talking!
How important is sex in a relationship?
How important sex is in a relationship will vary based on the couple and the individuals in it. In general, research shows sexual satisfaction is linked to overall relationship satisfaction, but that doesn't necessarily mean more sex is better. One study in the Social Psychological and Personality journal found that adding more sex to a relationship stopped improving happiness after a certain point (about once a week), while other research has found people who don't have sex are just as happy as people who have a lot of it.
"It's so dependent on the couple!" Marin says. "For some couples, having sex once a year feels totally healthy. For other couples, having sex less than once a day doesn't feel healthy! We each get to decide how important sex is to us individually, and how to balance those needs as a couple."
For couples who do generally care about having a relatively active sex life, Zimmerman notes, "When sex is working well, it feels like 20% of the relationship—just one more aspect that's working. But when it isn't, it feels like 80% of the relationship, potentially overshadowing the other parts that may be working just fine."
Just remember, it's perfectly normal to not want to have sex with your partner sometimes, and ebbs and flows in sexual desire within a relationship are common. As long as there's communication and a willingness to work together, relationships can survive these ups and downs without trouble.
Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join our upcoming live office hours.