Understanding a No-Sex Marriage

no-sex marriage

Because I am a psychologist, people frequently share with me what they are afraid to say to their partner or spouse. The confidentiality of the therapy session invites this type of freedom — an undoing of customary inhibitions.

And, not infrequently, concerns about what isn’t working in the client’s relationship take center stage in our therapy work; fears about his/her marriage slipping away; specific frustrations/worries about husband, wife or partner; pain arising from a no-sex marriage; doubts about being in love after so many years…

In these instances something is lacking that they’d like back in the relationship or something is occurring that they wish would stop.

And when sex is the central complaint, there are two over-arching dynamics that often take shape: a client who no longer feels sexually desiring of her/his partner; and the client on the receiving end of this lack of sexual interest, the client who feels undesired.

Understanding a No-Sex Marriage or Relationship

What it’s like to not desire your spouse/partner (the voice of the un-desiring)

These are the clients who no longer desire their spouse/partner. Something has shifted for them, but these changes in desire go beyond the typical sexual fluctuations that occur in many marriages or long-term relationships.

In voicing their concern/distress about not desiring their spouse/partner, there’s (usually) an explanation for why they are no longer sexually drawn to their partner.
And many of these explanations place the responsibility for this lack of desire squarely on the other.

Here are a few common explanations for a no-sex marriage/relationship:

Your partner’s body has changed (weight gain/loss) in ways that make him/her less desirable to you — (the clients who share these feelings often do so in a sheepish way, partly because they feel bad for being “so superficial” and partly because they seem to expect some type of disapproval from me for their self-diagnosed superficiality. They “feel bad for feeling this way,” but then they add, “But I can’t help it. It’s just how I feel!”);

Your partner seems to be stuck in a particular role that is incompatible with the conditions that make you feel sexual (for instance, your husband’s energies are constantly focused on the children with little left over for you; your wife is consumed by work and every conversation seems to lead back to work-related issues);

You’ve hit a wall whenever you’ve tried to initiate sex and your partner’s unwillingness/unavailability to engage in sex has taken its toll, sending your libido into hiding. This may take the form of a suppression of your entire libido (you no longer feel sexual) or it can be specific to your partner (you no longer feel sexual toward your partner);

There have been changes in your spouse’s/partner’s personality that make you sexually cold (your partner seems angry all the time; the confidence that long ago drew you to your spouse has given way to insecurities that you find unsexy; your lover’s incessant complaining has placed a barrier between you);

And then there is the lack of explanation for one’s un-desiring of their partner. These clients state that they should want their partner more, that everything is fine in the relationship except for the fact that they don’t feel sexual toward their loved one.

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The thread running throughout most of these complaints is that there is something about our partner that is a turn-off that we’re not able to overcome: i.e., the years have taken a toll on a once-attractive body; changes in personality are just plain unsexy; a repeated inability to bounce back from the roles/demands of life leave little room for sexual seduction, and so on.

For those who are still committed to the marriage/relationship, this loss of sexual interest in their partner is distressing. Their desire to be sexual may continue to consume them, but not for the person they’ve committed their lives to. So they feel trapped (“I still love my wife and I want to be with her, but I’m just not into her sexually…”). They want to want the other and they may seek help to revive wanting.

And for those whose commitment is wavering, their lack of sexual desire may be taken as evidence that they should leave their partner. In these cases, therapy may be a last-ditch effort to see if everything possible has been done prior to ending the relationship. Some seek a type of absolution for the pain they’re causing (or will cause) by leaving.

What it’s like to not be desired by your spouse/partner (the voice of the undesired)

Then there are the clients who come to see me because of the pain of not feeling desired by their spouse/partner. They hunger for the emotional closeness that sexual intimacy brings. They want to experience sexual fulfillment. They want their identity as a sexual being to be validated by the person they love and desire. Without this, an important part of who they are is denied.

For the undesired, the dynamics of a no-sex marriage or relationship cause emotional wounding that permeates the entire relationship. A hunger exists that is never satisfied. The emotional distress can be considerable when such deprivation exists.

How does the undesired make sense of these no-sex marriage dynamics?

One explanation involves self-blame. And when these clients blame themselves, they take a significant emotional hit: “I must not be attractive anymore”; “If he doesn’t find me attractive, it’s something I’m doing wrong…”

understanding a no-sex marriageIt’s painful enough to feel undesired by your partner; it’s doubly painful to attribute self-blame for your partner’s lack of desire in you. These clients may be experiencing a significant depressive episode stemming from this type of self-reproach. And since self-reproach often blots out the energies of desire, a possible outcome is that the depression becomes the “solution” to these sexual dynamics. In fact, on more than a few occasions, I’ve had clients tell me that the pain of being depressed and not feeling sexual is preferable to feeling intense desire that is continuously rejected.

Another outcome is that the undesired moves into anger at his/her partner. In this scenario the undesired feels duped, robbed of his/her marital/relationship “right”: the right to be wanted and pursued by the person you committed your life to. Instead of, “What’s wrong with me?” the question asked is,“What’s wrong with you?” Patients asking their medical doctors to test their testosterone levels are frequently encouraged (pressured?) by the undesired partner to do so.

The pain of feeling undesired extends beyond sex. For some, to feel sexually undesired is to feel incomplete. Such pain can lead to depression (as mentioned above) or to decisions about the viability of the relationship.

Over the years I’ve worked with numerous clients who’ve had affairs because of this painful dynamic.

Some have come to me on the verge of having an affair, tortured about whether to remain faithful to the person they love or to reach for someone who is eager to make them feel desired. While the decision to have an affair is being kept secret from their partner, their pain at feeling undesired has been communicated over and over again. Clearly in these instances, it isn’t a lack of information that is preventing a resolution to this issue.

These are complicated issues without simple solutions. What’s important is to start by understanding the roots of your own pain as well as the struggles of your partner. If you are un-desiring of your partner, can you take a moment to imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of little-to-no-desire? If you are feeling undesired, can you put yourself in your partner’s shoes—even for a moment—to feel what it must be like to have no libido and to find that nothing you do seems to change this lack?

Without such empathy, pain is heaped upon pain, accusations upon accusations, and before you know it, the very fabric that once held the relationship together has unraveled.

Until next time!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured images “Woman with sad expression” and “A couple having a fight” by David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)