The Sexless Relationship

Americans are strangely conflicted about sex and sexuality. In fact, I would go so far as to say we have one of the most unhealthy attitudes toward sexuality in the developed world. Puritanism, a terrible idea if ever there was one, left a lasting impression on the American sexual psyche and that impression has only been made worse by the uninformed preaching of an equally sexually conflicted fundamentalist clergy base.

As I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room last week perusing a copy of WebMD magazine I was shocked to come across an article about sexless marriages. Now, there has been a great deal written about sexless marriages over the past several years and the general consensus has been that couples allow many things to get in the way of a healthy sex life – careers, children, stress, busy schedules, and a host of others. All of the articles have suggested ways to “rekindle the fire,” which always strikes me as an unfortunate analogy in that I really don’t want anything even remotely connected to my sexuality anywhere near a fire…

Much to my surprise, the author of a piece in WebMD was actually advocating on behalf of sexless marriages. I couldn’t ascertain who the author was or what their gender was, but the essence of the article was that they were perfectly content with their partner being their friend and felt that sex got in the way of that friendship. My response to that absurd notion is that I have had a lot of good friends in my life, and I have never been the least bit interested in sleeping with them because t me there is an important difference between a friend and a lover. It is very true that we hope our lovers are our friend, but there are reasons that friends with whom we have casual sexual relationships are called “friends with benefits” rather than lovers – the quality of the relationships are vastly different. It has been noted that men need sex in order to feel intimacy with their partners while women need intimacy to feel sexual. While I believe that is a sweeping generalization rather than a universal truth, it does point out the reality that a lack of sexual intimacy in a relationship is symptomatic of a deep problem in the relationship.

This is an aspect of life where neither the men’s or women’s movements have been very helpful. The women’s movement rightly asserting the truth that a woman always has the right to say “no” to sex. The men’s movement has rightly stressed that men need to respect a woman’s right to say “no.” However, neither the men’s nor women’s movements have going beyond the right to say “no” to the results of a relationship in which the answer is always “no.” In every other aspect of relationship counseling we stress that a partner doesn’t have to meet all of their partner’s needs – in fact, it may well be impossible to find a partner who meets all our needs – but in a healthy relationship, partners understand that each of them are not only free to meet the needs not met in the relationship outside the relationship. For example, perhaps one partner loves horror movies and the other finds them disturbing. The  horror movie lover doesn’t stop going to horror movies, they either go alone or find a friend to go with them to the latest slasher flick. Even though this makes common sense, there are many relationships wherein one partner clings to the other in an unhealthy manner and expects them not to go to the movies at all. This inevitably leads to conflict.

It’s more muddied when we are talking about sexless relationships. Understandably, most couples aren’t willing to allow the other to meet their sexual needs elsewhere. I always internally laugh when I hear one member of a couple tell me that, even though they don’t want to be sexual with their partner, their partner promised fidelity at marriage and so “just has to live with it.” I often point out that they, too, promised fidelity and that absenting oneself from sexual  intimacy represents a profound betrayal of their own marriage vows. Of course there will always be nights when one partner has a headache or doesn’t feel well, but when the headache lasts years it’s time to see either a therapist or a neurologist, or both.

I’m also aware that there can be physical barriers to certain sexual activities and psychological barriers as well, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. A creative couple can overcome barriers by thinking outside the box [pardon the pun] and finding ways to be sexual that work for them. One doesn’t have to be able to engage in the Kama Sutra to have a healthy sex life! The point is not gymnastics, the point is intimacy. I have also worked with couples were one of them has a “reason” they acknowledge is “their problem” such as that there are young kids in the house. Most often, for these people it doesn’t matter if they get the kids out of the house for the night – they still have their “reason” and tend to resist marriage or relationship counseling because “it’s my problem.” Unfortunately, when we are in a relationship every sexual issue becomes “our” problem.

We especially need to be aware that if our relationship remains sexless long enough our partner may well find another outlet for their sexual needs. Countless wives have complained to therapists that they “caught” their husband masturbating, often while watching pornography, despite the fact that they haven’t had a sexual relationship for years – and using that fact to justify continuing to refuse physical intimacy. Could there be a more self-fulfilling prophecy? Why would be believe that a sexual need is going to disappear simply because we are unwilling or unable to meet it?

Current research indicates American women are cheating at almost the same rate as men. I wonder how much alleged infidelity is due to sexless marriages. While I can’t speak for women (because I’m not one), I can tell you that much of a man’s self-esteem and sense of happiness in his primary relationship is connected to his ability to express himself sexually. Placed in a sexless relationship, even the most committed man will eventually seek to have his needs met elsewhere and also end up being the son of a bitch should his “cheating” come to light. But I have to ask if the party behind the cessation of sexuality hasn’t first “cheated” on their partner by choosing to place other needs ahead of the needs of their relationship?

Rumor has it that in parts of the developed world it is common practice to have a spouse for the purposes of raising a family and other domestic concerns and also have a par amour for sexual purposes. I don’t believe that’s the ideal situation, though the very existence both of the world’s oldest profession and the biblical model of polygamy and concubinage suggests the issue has existed perhaps for as long as humanity has walked the earth – but are we really content to refuse to evolved in this area in the unrealistic hope that the issue will go away by itself?

We need to have a serious discussion about sexuality, and a prerequisite for the discussion will be removing the taboos that surround sexuality in our culture. We all need to place our thoughts, needs, and desires on the table in the hopes of working together toward a solution. If religious voices are inhibiting the discussion, we need to politely excuse them from the discussion – they have been a large part of the problem for far too long



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