How To Know When To Walk Away From A Sexless Marriage

Sex Therapist By Jessa Zimmerman, M.A.
Sex Therapist
Jessa Zimmerman, M.A. is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, licensed couples’ counselor, author of Sex Without Stress, and the host of the Better Sex Podcast. She holds a bachelor's from Cornell University, a master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University, and has completed a certificate in Sex Therapy from the University of Michigan.
Upset Woman Turned Away From Her Partner in Bed

One of the top issues that present in couples and sex therapy is a difference in levels of sexual desire. A discrepancy in desire is normal, but sometimes couples will struggle with conflict or avoidance around sex if they don't manage that difference together. Sexless marriage, generally defined as having sex fewer than 10 times a year, is the extreme result of difficulty navigating sexual interest between two people.

Should you divorce over a sexless marriage?

A sexless marriage may be grounds for divorce for some people, depending on how important sex is to them and how much work has been put into solving the issue as a couple. Some couples rarely or never have sex, and both people are totally fine with that. There is no "normal" or "healthy" level of sexual desire or activity, so if it's working for both people, there's nothing to change or worry about. In a relationship where at least one person is unhappy with the lack of sex, there are many steps you can take to address undesired sexlessness within the marriage first before turning to divorce. As with so many other reasons to end a marriage, it's worth trying to improve it first.

First and foremost, it's important to consider the reasons for the lack of sex. If one person has become ill, disabled, or otherwise unable to be physically intimate, that's very different from your partner being unwilling to engage with you sexually. Changes in sexual functioning can still allow physical intimacy, even if it doesn't look like it used to. You may need to reevaluate your definition of what constitutes sex: If you only think about sex as being intercourse or penetrative sex, you are limiting the many types of sexual experiences you two could be enjoying together. Relatedly, the changes we face as we age and weather may mean we have to adjust our expectations. Those losses certainly should be grieved, but they can also be tolerated and supplemented with other satisfying sexual experiences.

You should also consider how the lack of sex in your marriage is related to other issues between you. When couples struggle to be kind to and supportive of one another, when their communication is dripping with criticism or contempt, or when they are gridlocked over other significant topics in their lives, it's common to not want to have sex. If you've got other significant areas you have to address, do that work before you assess your sex life. Making changes to improve your overall relationship health usually has to happen before sexual intimacy can be created in a relationship.

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Sexless marriage divorce rate.

There is no concrete statistic on how many people divorce because of a lack of sex in their marriage. A 2017 study of U.S. General Social Survey data from 2002 found 16% of married couples were in a sexless marriage (no sex in the past year). A 2018 survey that found over one in four relationships are sexless. We don't know specifically what percentage of these couples were unhappy with the lack of sex, however. We also know that about 50% of marriages end in divorce. But so far, there is no study that ties these stats together.

Even if we did have a study showing how many couples got divorced due to a sexless marriage, we'd have a hard time knowing whether sex was really the issue—or just a symptom of other problems. I can say that lack of sex shows up in my therapy practice regularly, and couples often wonder whether their relationship can survive if that doesn't change. Many people are certainly considering divorce.

When to walk away from a sexless marriage:

1. Your partner refuses to work through this issue with you.

There are so many obstacles to sex in a relationship, so there are many things you may need to talk about and change in order to create a sex life that you can both enjoy. Before considering divorce, you should bring up your concerns to your partner, have an earnest conversation about what's in the way, and see how you can work as a team to address the issue. There is a lot you can do toward improving a sex life with your partner, but it does take both of you to step up to the table and address what needs to change.

Before you conclude that your partner isn't willing to help, make sure that you have done everything you can on your side of the court. Bring up your concerns in a collaborative way, without blaming and shaming. You can support a partner with lower libido simply by being willing to explore how you are contributing to roadblocks for your partner. Have true curiosity about how sex could work better for them and what they need to access or cultivate their own desire for sex. Approach sex like it's play rather than having specific goals and outcome that could set you both up for failure.

If you've been doing all of this, and your partner still refuses to talk about it and won't be a collaborative teammate with you in creating physical intimacy in your relationship, it could be time to leave.

2. Your relationship issues are so big that there are other reasons to divorce.

Lack of sex in a relationship can be a symptom of other significant issues. In that case, it's the other issues that really create grounds for divorce, if you can't work through them.

For example, if the two of you have toxic communication cycles, including blame, shame, criticism, gaslighting, or abuse, that can nix your sex life—and bring your marriage to its end. Likewise, if you can't get on the same page about money or parenting, you may not be able to save your marriage. If you have power struggles, infidelity, lying, or cruelty, your relationship may not survive. In all these examples, your issues go way deeper than the lack of sex in your marriage. If they aren't addressed and changed, you may very well decide to leave your marriage.

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3. 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.

Sometimes couples have what we call an "erotic conflict." Each person has things that turn them on, a vision of the kind of sex they want to have and with whom. Sometimes, what we want is mutually exclusive with the desires of our partner. For example, if one person is kinky and that is a turnoff for their partner, they may struggle to find sex they can share and enjoy. Likewise, a person's sexual orientation could get in the way—if they are not attracted to the gender of their partner.

In sex therapy, I am always trying to help couples find the overlap in their desires (think of a Venn diagram), but occasionally there is none. Some couples decide to address this by using fantasy and masturbation while staying married. Others decide to implement some type of open marriage in which they can meet their needs outside the relationship but remain married. But if those options aren't desirable, you may decide to divorce over this lack of sexual compatibility.

Can a sexless marriage survive?

Yes. 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. We are inundated with messages that sex should come naturally and that something must be very wrong with our relationship if we are having a hard time in the bedroom. But the truth is that it's common, almost universal, to struggle with sex at some point over the course of a relationship. These difficulties present an opportunity to address issues, to talk to our partner with openness, and to recreate your relationship and sex life to suit you now.

Lack of sex is usually a symptom of other things. Sexual desire changes over time, and especially when it comes to sex in long-term relationships, having different levels of desire is normal. Things change in our lives in ways that make our sex life more difficult. All of these are normal and common experiences.

If you want to stay in your marriage and enjoy a sex life together, you can step into the work it takes to make that happen—and invite your partner to do the same. You're not alone in these struggles, and your relationship doesn't have to end—unless you truly face irreconcilable differences.

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