While not every couple wants or needs it to be happy, sexual intimacy is vital for many married people. A lack of sexual intimacy in marriage can be frustrating, even when other parts of the relationship are in a good place.
Being in a sexless marriage is a hard topic for many spouses. It’s often what keeps them from getting the support they need, especially when the underlying issues aren’t obvious.
There’s good news, though. Lacking intimacy in your marriage doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed, or that you’re alone. If you’d like to reconnect with your partner by restoring the intimacy you share, we’re here to help.
Here’s what you need to know about sexless marriages, their causes, and how couples can address them.
What is a sexless marriage?
Despite the term, a sexless marriage doesn’t necessarily mean no sex at all. Experts and researchers use different variables to define it, like frequency and the length of recent inactivity.
Some studies focus on 1-3 month spans while others assess sexual intimacy over the last five years. Relationship and sex therapist Dr. Rachel Becker-Warner defines sexlessness as:
“…any partnership where sexual intimacy occurs 10 times or less within a year period.”
The National Health and Social Life Survey uses the same definition. According to their findings, 20% of couples in their survey are in sexless marriages. The US General Social Survey found that sexlessness over a year ranged from 6.5-8.5% for married women, and 6.8-9% for married men.
It’s also worth noting demographics also influence what’s considered normal within a marriage. Religion, cultural attitudes, sexuality, and age all influence our views on sexual intimacy.
No matter how you define it, the most important thing is to find what works for you and your spouse.
A study on discrepancies in sexual desire notes that one partner may experience more or less sexual desire relative to the other. Many couples seek therapy to help navigate this for healthier long-term relationships.
Top reasons why you’re lacking intimacy in your marriage
Differing levels of desire are a common factor, but not the only one. Couples often work out this part of their dynamic before they get married. Partners who communicate the discrepancy early on can build intimacy in a way that works for them. If their desire changes over time, couples therapy can help them navigate it.
Other factors can be hard to address because they can show up at any time. Some are triggered by external events while others are just a product of time or growth. There are ways to deal with them all in a sexless marriage, but only when we know what to look for.
If you’re struggling with a lack of sexual intimacy in your marriage, here are 12 potential reasons why. We’ve grouped them by three areas worth focusing on: your relationship, lifestyle, and health.
- Poor communication
Open and honest communication helps partners meet each other’s needs, especially around intimacy. Couples can share the same level of desire and still want different things for their sex lives. Without communicating these things, it’s harder for married couples to satisfy their needs together.
- Lack of emotional connection
Sexual and emotional connection go hand in hand, and both take work to maintain. Married couples can become distant over time, which can lower the sexual intimacy they once enjoyed. This isn’t always triggered by arguments or any specific event. Taking each other for granted, and not making time to bond in everyday life can have the same effect.
Mental health struggles
No one is immune to mental health issues, but they don’t only influence our relationships with ourselves. Depression and anxiety can chip away at our self-image, and some medications can impair sexual performance.
Ignoring mental health struggles can also lead to harmful behavior that creates new problems within a sexless marriage.
Old problems are just as disruptive to a couple’s sex life. Unresolved conflict can turn small disagreements into full-blown arguments. It has a compound effect on physical and emotional intimacy as resentment builds up under the surface. Left too long, these issues can make partners completely withdraw until they work on them.
- Too many stressors
Life gets stressful, but how couples handle the shared burden is key to their long-term connection. Marriage also comes with other stressors like finances, budgeting, bills, future planning, and family building. These things are normal in any marriage, but they need to be properly managed so they don’t drive a wedge between spouses.
- Lack of work/home boundaries
Solid work/home boundaries are vital for managing stress and ensuring couples can share enough quality time. Taking work home limits how much partners can bond. It can leave one spouse feeling neglected and the other overwhelmed, and that means neither can prioritize home life.
- Having kids (childbirth)
Children are wonderful, and many couples dream of building a family home. Still, they add a lot of variables that can contribute to a sexless marriage. A lot of them come from the process of childbirth itself, long before the stresses of parenting kick in.
Difficulty conceiving can make sex feel like work or a source of failure. Pregnancy creates hormonal and that can make sex uncomfortable or painful. Recovering from childbirth, breastfeeding, and other physical changes also affect desire, self-image, and anxiety around sex.
- Having kids (parental responsibilities)
Being a parent means prioritizing your child’s health, safety, and development. Balancing parental and marital responsibilities takes work, but it’s crucial for married couples. When there’s too much on your plate, it’s hard to schedule enough time for all the important things, including your co-parent.
- Medical problems
An emotional connection is key, but a lack of sexual intimacy often has medical causes. Physical health, like mental health, influences how much couples can enjoy their sex life. Issues like high blood pressure, poor diet, smoking, and medication impact sexual performance and confidence.
- Disability and injuries
Some disabilities have a direct effect on sexual dysfunction. A serious injury can also put a sudden halt on things during recovery. We’re not just talking about factors that limit movement or bodily functions, either. Physical injuries can make spouses more hesitant around sex, or add pain to certain activities they used to enjoy.
- Low sex drive
Smoking, alcohol consumption, and dietary issues can decrease libido, but some people have a naturally low sex drive. This is the discrepancy in sexual desire we mentioned earlier, but it’s worth noting that desire can fluctuate with health, hygiene, and the level of physical care we take.
- Natural effects of aging
Aging is one of the main influences on health and sexual desire. Estrogen and testosterone drop off in women and men respectively, which can lower libido and energy levels. Hormonal changes can create other health issues like erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, and difficulty having orgasms.
What are the consequences of lack of intimacy in marriage?
Those are some of the common factors behind a lack of physical intimacy. They aren’t fatal – each one can be addressed in a way that brings you and your partner together. The real issues come from ignoring any ongoing issues until they worsen.
So what are the long-term consequences of a sexless marriage for couples who want to be more intimate?
- Uncertainty about your relationship
Sexual intimacy is one of the main ways couples affirm their love, bond, and show affection to each other. There’s a common misconception that these feelings lose intensity over time, from the highs of the honeymoon phase to some eventual plateau.
In a healthy marriage, the intensity doesn’t weaken, the feelings simply deepen and evolve with the relationship. That said, a sudden lack of intimacy can leave spouses unsure of where the relationship is.
Not addressing the issues means neither spouse knows where they stand. This uncertainty is especially hard for partners who struggle with rejection and abandonment.
- Low self-esteem
When the person you care for most doesn’t want to connect emotionally anymore, it can manifest internally. As much as we try not to let outside factors influence how we see ourselves, intimacy is about being vulnerable.
When there’s a shortage of intimacy, our insecurities can sneak in through that vulnerability. This can take a toll on our self-esteem. Underlying issues like body image, stress, and declining health can have a compound effect on the anxieties we internalize about ourselves.
- Resentment, fighting, and misplaced guilt
Internalized issues rarely stay that way, though, especially in a relationship. They build up until one partner lashes out or breaks down at the smallest hint of conflict. Even then, bottled feelings are dangerous long before they spill out.
Frustration, stress, and anxiety about a lack of intimacy can leave someone quietly resenting their partner. The trouble with quiet resentment is that your partner can’t tell what’s simmering under the surface most of the time.
They may think things are going well so nothing changes. They may notice that you seem off without knowing why or how to help. If this triggers their insecurities, it can create a feedback loop of negativity.
Sometimes, a resentful spouse can recognize that they’re angry about the wrong things. While that’s a good thing, it can evoke guilt and shame that keeps them from reaching out.
- Lack of non-physical intimacy
This article is focused on sexual intimacy and its causes, but it’s not the only way couples connect. Non-physical intimacy is just as important when building a healthy, loving relationship. It’s even more important for partners who don’t prioritize a sexual connection but still value emotional intimacy.
Non-physical intimacy includes quality time together, shared activities, laughing, and bonding over your interests. It’s about showing affection in ways that matter to you outside of sex.
A sexless marriage is usually lacking in these other forms of intimacy too – they all feed into each other. Building non-physical intimacy leads to a more fulfilling sex life, which reaffirms the emotional connection in turn.
When there’s a lack of intimacy, some spouses start looking for it outside the marriage. Extramarital affairs can destabilize even the most solid relationships, and the aftermath is often ugly.
Even when couples agree to open their marriage to others, it’s not always done constructively. Unresolved issues, insecurities, and jealousy can stay hidden right until the moment hits.
More often than not, though, infidelity involves secrets, lies, and broken agreements. When the affair finally comes to light, it destroys the trust that all forms of intimacy rely on. Even if spouses decide to work on the issues together, that trust can take years of committed work to restore.
What should married couples do to address this problem?
But the key to building intimacy with your partner is exactly that: committed work.
The issues don’t have to be extreme before couples decide to address them. Rebuilding intimacy is a journey, but the earlier you start, and the further you get, the easier it becomes. So what can couples do?
Let’s start with what won’t address a lack of intimacy, physical or otherwise.
More sex won’t fix a sexless marriage. An unsatisfying sex life is a symptom of the underlying issues. Working on the deeper issues will bring couples closer together and naturally lead to more physical intimacy. Here’s where to start.
- Focus on being with your partner
When it comes to building relationships, listening truly is a skill. Be intentional about removing distractions that pull your focus away. Give your partner the kind of attention that reminds them that they’re loved, cared for, and heard.
- Show your appreciation
Gratitude is an amazing way to acknowledge your partner and show how much you value them. Simple things like saying thank you feel good when they come from a sincere place. This goes for your actions, too. Make time to recognize their efforts and reciprocate in ways you know they’ll appreciate.
- Keep it fun
Rebuilding intimacy might be work, but it’s not all serious! Keep things playful by connecting over things that bring both of you joy. We bond when we laugh together. Fun and silly memories can sometimes be the most enduring. More than anything, a lighthearted approach keeps the path back to each other gentle and inviting.
- Book a session with a couples therapist
Most of the time, unresolved issues in a marriage should be seen and understood by a professional who can help couples find out the deeper problems in their relationship. Friends and family might help, but they can only do as much. Also, opening up about intimacy and sex problems with friends and family can be challenging. It can also be uncomfortable for your spouse to talk about this problem to others.
Couples should know the importance of intimacy in their marriage. If it’s currently an issue, partners should focus on working and communicating about it. Intimacy is something all people need, and as couples, you should be able to provide this need to your partner. There are ways on how to deal if you’re lacking intimacy in your marriage. Talk to us so we can help.