Sexless marriage

When kids arrive, many parents find that lovemaking drops to the bottom of their to-do list. But can a marriage survive without sex?

Maryam Sanati 0

Photo: Shapecharge Photography/iStockphoto

“Nobody talks about this, ever,” says Karen,* a 30-year-old suburban Toronto mother of three. “But I know I’m not alone.” By the time Karen arrives at the heart of the matter, she is like an attorney delivering evidence in a courtroom, quick to come to the point: There’s “virtually no sex” in her marriage, she says.

“My husband and I can go months, and have gone years. He has the drive and desire. But I don’t.”

It’s not for lack of devotion. Karen remains in love with Chris,* her husband of 10 years, and they’re equal partners in raising their children, aged two to eight. They believe marriage is sacred and forever, whatever adversities may come — but lately, their family has had more than its share of tumult.

After the birth of her middle child in 2004, Karen tumbled headlong into a bleak postpartum depression, which she initially blamed for the halt on their sex life. “It lasted three years and included hospitalizations on my part and every antidepressant in the book at one time or another.” Then she became pregnant again, and just as Chris was on parental leave for their second child, he was let go from his job. By 2006, Karen recalls, “I was very sick and unable to work, and we ended up filing for bankruptcy.”

Even when they emerged from that wreckage and Chris found a new job, something within her seemed altered. It felt like there was no going back. “I still found myself not wanting to have sex.”

While many couples openly admit to a dampening of sexual desire after their kids arrive, Karen’s right: Almost no one talks about the kind of enduring loss she’s experiencing. Yet, just as she suspects, her circumstances are shared by many. According to Newsweek magazine, psychologists estimate that 15 to 20 percent of couples have sex no more than 10 times a year. And Psychology Today reported that, in the United States alone, a third of women and one-fifth of men suffer from a persistent lack of interest in sexuality, sexual thoughts or fantasies — the condition is called hypoactive sexual desire.

*Name changed by request.

Denise Donnelly, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who has researched the sexless marriage phenomenon, points to a spectrum of causes: Sex can decline because of the demands of mid-adulthood, with its emphasis on family and career, or in the aftermath of a significant event, such as an affair, or if one partner is simply “bored” by the other spouse. “There are many people who have low sex drives, and may even be asexual. They may have some sex with their partners to begin with, but it becomes unimportant to them (and usually not so unimportant to their spouses),” Donnelly told The New York Times. “These folks may also be dealing with guilt, issues with the human body, or feel that sex is ‘dirty’ or only for procreation. A small number of couples showed a mixed pattern, where they would have periods of ‘feast’ and of ‘famine.’”

When Karen looks at why her sex life didn’t improve, even when her family’s stresses lifted, she blames herself — and her body. “I hate the way I look,” she says. “I’ve gained 50 pounds since we got married and yo-yo between losing and gaining it back. My husband tells me I’m beautiful and that he is very attracted to me, but I don’t understand how he can be. I hate him seeing me naked.” The children, too, preoccupy her thoughts. “We have a lock on our bedroom door, but still I am so paranoid that the kids will wake up, I just can’t relax. Add into the mix a toddler who is still nursing and doesn’t sleep through the night.…” Karen also fears she’ll get pregnant again, although she recently underwent a tubal ligation.

“I want to want to have sex,” she continues. “I enjoy it when we do. But I always choose sleep over sex. I am always tired! I know this is affecting my marriage, and I know it has to change. We’re both young. I just turned 30 and my husband is a year older. I never thought this would be an issue at our age. I marvel at my friends with kids who have ‘healthy’ sex lives because I just don’t know how they do it. There is just so much to get in the way.”

Unknotting the tangle of what gets in the way means first understanding the intensely physical demands of new parenthood. For the mother, it’s one change on top of another, beginning with the recovery from childbirth and the mounting fatigue. Then there’s the stress that comes from being physically needed. “After all the touching, cuddling, holding and breastfeeding, she may not want to be touched anymore,” says Bev Behar, a marriage and family therapist in Thornhill, Ont.

Psychologist and sexologist Peggy Kleinplatz, a professor at the University of Ottawa, describes a common state of maternal deprivation: “She is the one with the least sleep, the least food, the least amount of exercise, and she is simply doing what she needs to get by.” Nowhere on her list of essential duties is having sex with her partner.

Men can feel this way too; just as male postpartum depression is real, so is low male libido. And often, therapists say, men battle the stereotype that says they’re always sexually ready.

Emotionally, the challenges are intricate for both mothers and fathers. Nerves may be frayed, patience is low. You tend not to talk to your partner as you once did, to explain things in ways you took care to do in the past. Instead, there is the curt language of fatigue and, with it, “the little rejections, often unintentional,” Behar says. They can be as simple as shrugging off a kiss or embrace because your thoughts are with the domestic to-do list in your head. “To the partner [who’s making overtures], this can be a painful personal rejection. The spouse may withdraw and, after a while, not try to initiate anything romantic again. Then comes the anger, the sarcasm, the ‘we never have sex’ accusations, or ‘you never liked sex to begin with.’ None of this, of course, makes either partner feel sexy. The spiral can go down and down.”

While it’s possible to work on restoring your sex life, there’s no magic five-step formula that produces results for every couple every time, and no one can force the necessary level of passion and physicality magically to appear. As Behar notes, “Who is anyone to say to someone who feels they don’t want to have sex, ‘Well, you must’?”

Some simply don’t. It’s possible for couples, including those who can’t have sex due to a disability, for instance, to de-prioritize sex by mutual agreement, or to offer each other “don’t ask, don’t tell” options like extramarital liaisons. Some partners contend they can have a healthy marriage without sex; and therapists might agree with them, depending on the circumstances.

But, consistently, therapists will agree that healthy intimacy — where both partners are satisfied with the frequency and quality of sex, however they might define those factors — is essential to a relationship. A common paradigm in most sexless marriages is that one person wants it and the other doesn’t. It’s that incompatibility that can frustrate and, in the extreme, derail a relationship.

Rather than force the sex, what couples in this situation can do is identify the causes for disconnect and how a lack of sex makes each partner feel: Maybe he feels unwanted, while she’s OK with the status quo, or vice versa. Then, say therapists such as Kleinplatz and Behar, it’s critical to address the disparity as well as the emotions themselves. For instance, an imbalance in sexual interest between partners might be a mirror to an imbalance in parenting responsibility. It’s the often-seen situation Kleinplatz describes as “he with most of the desire; she with most of the work.” More than one therapist repeated to me the old saying “Doing the dishes is the greatest aphrodisiac.”

But sexual desire can sometimes fizzle in the most egalitarian of relationships. Many women might commiserate with the title of Joan Sewell’s 2007 book, I’d Rather Eat Chocolate. She subtitled her memoir Learning to Love My Low Libido, and she did just that, examining the place of sex, therapy and, at one point, separate beds in her marriage to her sweet and funny husband, Kip. Sewell also investigated the gap in desire between men and women, and the insistent and disempowering advice (in Cosmopolitan, for instance) that tells women to get estrogen therapy or a good vibrator. As if it were that simple. Sewell acknowledges that low libido can harm a marriage, but she does not emerge at the end of the book “cured” and happily hitting the sheets four times a week.

As for children, Sewell doesn’t have any. “I think that kids become just another excuse for women not to have sex,” she once told a reporter, suggesting a degree of insensitivity to those who do have children. Or is this raw honesty?

When you have kids, Behar offers, there comes “an acceptance your sexual relationship is not going to be the way it was before. What may seem alarming is that, sometimes, you are not sure where it is all going.”

The website experienceproject.com takes the idea of a confessional booth and throws it out into the public sphere. The site contains more than six million “life experiences”; people anonymously share their innermost feelings, looking for advice or comfort or just barking into the void. More than 5,000 of these personal stories are about coping with sexless marriages. It’s a heartbreaking record of frustrations and feelings of resignation.

“It’s killing me,” writes a 43-year-old father of two from Australia. “I’m out in the living room right now; can’t sleep after being rejected again. There are times when I just want to run outside and scream.… [But] I just can’t accept ending this relationship when we have two young kids.” Several comments follow this post, some offering solace, if nothing else. “I hope that you are able to get strength from the [experiences on this site] as I do,” says one poster. “Unfortunately, the track record here, as far as people actually being able to repair the marriages, is almost none.”

Researchers, including Donnelly, report that people in sexless marriages are less happy and more likely to consider separating, if not divorcing.

That’s not a path Karen, the Toronto mom of three, wants to consider. Karen says her husband is supportive, and has never pressed her. They have honest conversations about the lack of sex, but she isn’t keen on seeking counselling for it. Having gone through years of postpartum depression, Karen has a tainted view of therapy; she sees it as a process without clear results, and an endless road involving medication.

For others, however, finding a therapist who enables an open discussion of sex, and illuminates its place and significance in a multi-faceted relationship, can be a lifeline (see Sex therapy 101). And, indeed, professionals such as Behar and Kleinplatz have facilitated many successful turnarounds, treating couples whose sexual disconnection was once profound. “I will never say that any circumstance is beyond help,” says Kleinplatz.

Karen and her husband continue to rely on patience and, of late, there have been signs of progress. “We had never had sex on our wedding anniversary. Either I was pregnant or ill, or newly had a baby. Somehow the timing was never right,” she says. “But last year, on our anniversary in May, it just worked out that we did.” In Karen’s case, genuinely wanting sex, and feeling confident in her own skin is a slow work-in-progress. “To me, the anniversary meant things are taking a positive turn. That’s what I’m hoping.”

Sex therapy 101

When to consider it Are issues about sex (too little, too much or the quality is lacking) dominating and seeming to define your relationship? Do you or your partner have strong emotional reactions as a result ­— anger, resentment or feelings of failure? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you might benefit from sex therapy.

But first determine if any of the causes are physical See your family doctor, gynaecologist or urologist to discuss potential factors, including aging and unhealthy lifestyle choices, that can influence sexual function or interest in sex.

What’s the difference between a sex therapist and a marriage counsellor? Certified specialists in sex therapy focus on discussion about sex — examining emotions, concerns about function, levels of sexual desire, histories, motivations, behavioural patterns, fetishes, reliance on such things as pornography, and so on. Marriage counsellors, meanwhile, look at the broader aspects of a relationship. A marriage counsellor might not give enough intensive attention to the sexual aspect.

How to find one Look for an experienced psychotherapist certified in sex therapy by a reputable institution. Check the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (ccacc.ca) for a directory of sex specialists in your area. Stay away from those who suggest physical contact with clients as a way of “coaching.”

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