[T]here are varying definitions of a sexless marriage or sexless relationship: no sex in the past year, no sex in the past six months or sex 10 or fewer times a year. According to one study, approximately 15 percent of married couples are sexless: Spouses haven’t had sex with each other in the past six months to one year.
I was once in a sexless relationship.
I have debated admitting this publicly, but my story feels different than the narrative advanced by our patriarchal society. Why? Because I was the one begging for sex from an uninterested male partner. Sex 10 times a year would have been 10 times more than what I was having.
This topic comes up a lot in my work. As a gynecologist, I’m frequently asked about the “right number” of times to have sex a month. The answer is that there isn’t one. If both people are truly happy, then it’s a healthy sex life.
I understand the confusion about frequency. Messaging around sex is everywhere: It’s used to sell almost everything, and news articles remind us that various hormones and neurotransmitters may spike in response to having sex.
Yet a single hormone surge does not a rewarding relationship make, and virtually no one has studied the hormonal impact, on a relationship, of grocery shopping, making dinner or doing the dishes. If a couple doesn’t have sex but they both feel satisfied, then there is no problem. The issue is when there’s a mismatch in desire.
Of course, libido ebbs and flows, and there will be times when one partner is temporarily uninterested. Back in 2003, I was home with two premature infants, both on oxygen and attached to monitors that constantly chirped with alarms. Had even Ryan Reynolds — circa “The Proposal,” not “Deadpool” — shown up, he would have needed to display expertise in changing diapers and managing the regulator on an oxygen tank to interest me.
Looking back on my relationship, the frequency of sex dropped off quickly. I told myself it would get better because there were other positives. I falsely assumed that men have higher libidos, so clearly this was temporary.
Pro tip: Nothing in a relationship ever gets better on its own. You might as well ask the ingredients in your pantry to bake themselves into a cake.
I was embarrassed when my attempts at rekindling the magic — things like sleeping naked or trying to schedule date night sex — fell flat.
I started to circuitously ask friends if they ever felt similarly rejected. The answer was “Not really.” One who was going through an especially acrimonious divorce told me that she and her future ex still occasionally had wild sex. People have needs, after all.
The fact that people who hated each other were having more sex than me did not make me feel better. Not at all.
Eventually I decided that sympathy sex once or twice a year was far worse than no sex. I worried that no intervention would be sustainable, and the time not addressing the issue had simply taken its toll. We were terribly mismatched sexually, and it wasn’t something that he was interested in addressing.
My experience led me to listen differently to women speaking about their sex lives with men, whether in my office or in my personal life. There are spaces between words that tell entire stories. When I ask someone about her sex life and there is a pause or a generic “O.K.,” I say, “You know, the libido issue is often with the man.”
I say this to friends, acquaintances and even people I barely know on airplanes (after they learn what my job is). The responses from women are so similar that I could script it. A pause, then relief that it’s not just them, followed quickly by the desire to hear more. Many tell me intimate details, so glad to have someone in whom they can confide.
Libido can be affected by a number of things, including depression, medication, stress, health, affairs, previous sexual trauma, pornography, pain with sex and relationship dissatisfaction (having sex while going through an ugly divorce is probably an outlier).
Erectile dysfunction is a factor for some men, especially over the age of 40. Other men may have low testosterone (although there is a lot of dispute in this area). There is also the possibility that one partner in a heterosexual relationship is gay.
New love is intoxicating, and I’m not being metaphorical. A functional MRI study suggests that new love activates the reward centers of the brain and, like opioids, increases pain tolerance. I wonder how much the drug that is new love affects libido? If some men and women are simply on a lower libido spectrum in everyday life, might they revert to that once this “love drug” subsides, leaving those with a higher libido frustrated?
I want women to know that if they are on the wanting end for sex, they are not alone. If you love the person you’re with, then the sooner you speak up, the better. You can try what I did — sleeping naked and scheduling sex — because the more you have sex, the more you may want to have it, if you’re doing it right and it feels good. However, if things are not changing in the way you want, you may need help from a couples counselor, a sex therapist, a clinical psychologist or a medical doctor, depending on the situation.
Waiting until months or even years have passed can weaponize the bedroom. It will add so much more complexity because resentment compounds like a high-interest credit card.
Sexuality and relationships are complex, and there are no easy answers. It’s not good or bad to have a high, a medium or a low libido. You like what you like, but if you don’t speak up about what you want, you can’t expect the other person to know.
Our society seems almost built on the erroneous idea that all men want sex all the time, so I imagine it would be hard for men to admit to a lower libido, even anonymously. I have lied about my weight on many forms. That doesn’t make me a broken person; it just proves that a cloak of invisibility doesn’t hide you from yourself. The most damaging lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
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