Stuck in a Sexless Marriage? Here’s When You Should Walk Away, According to Experts

In a relationship, everything that happens inside the bedroom has a sizable influence on everything outside of it — and vice versa. While some lucky partners can enjoy a thriving sex life no matter what’s going on in the outside world, many of us will feel our libidos waxing and waning depending on work, finances, stress, kids, family life, the amount of sleep we’re getting… the list is endless. Over the course of a marriage or long relationship, it’s normal to go through periods of less-frequent sex, but what happens when those periods get longer… and longer… and finally seem like they might never end? When should you truly walk away from a sexless marriage?

Let’s pause here and point out that there’s nothing necessarily “wrong” with not having sex in a partnership or marriage. “It is only a problem if it is a problem for your relationship,” therapist Lea Trageser, LMFT, of Helix Marriage and Family Therapy tells SheKnows. “Many couples might be in relationships that don’t have sex frequently or at all. That is OK as long as it is OK for them.”

A sexless marriage can become a problem, though, when there’s a discrepancy in desire or one partner’s needs are going unmet. “The partner who wants sex in the relationship may start to feel lonely and insecure about themselves,” licensed marriage and family therapist Laurie Singer, MS, BCBA, tells SheKnows. Resentment and disconnection can follow. Research has also noted a connection between sex and mental health, with one 2019 study finding that “both being sexually active and more frequent sex were associated with better mental health.” All of which is to say: if you’re in a sexless marriage and don’t want to be, you might be wondering whether you should give up and walk away or stick it out and try to fix things. But how?

What Is a Sexless Marriage?

While exact definitions vary, a sexless marriage is typically defined as a marriage in which you and your partner are having sex no more than 10 times a year, Singer says. And as it turns out, sexless marriages are more common than you might think: a 2018 study found that over 15 percent of couples surveyed hadn’t had sex for the past year, and 13.5 percent hadn’t had sex for the past five years.

This is more than just a dry spell — it’s a prolonged period without sex, also sometimes called a dead bedroom. “Over time relationships change, that is just a fact,” Singer says. “The secret is accepting the change and moving forward with each other, not away from each other.” A sexless marriage often (but not always!) points to the latter.

Sexless Marriage Causes

As any long-term couple can tell you, your libido can change a lot over the course of a relationship. “Life gets busy,” Singer points out. “Kids, jobs, and illnesses can lead partners to lose their sexual desire.”

If you’re in a sexless relationship where the lack of sex is a problem, your dead bedroom is likely a symptom of a deeper issue. According to sex therapist Aliyah Moore, the root causes of a sexless marriage can include:

Stress and a busy lifestyle: It’s not easy to balance work, family, chores, and other obligations. Now add the demands and energy required to keep up an active sex life into that mix. The weight of those burdens might be the cause of a couple’s lack of sex, Moore says.

Communication issues: If you and your partner aren’t communicating well, and especially if you’re having arguments that you’re not fully resolving, you might start to feel emotionally distant and less up for intimacy. The “accumulation of feelings of resentment, anger or disappointment may be a barrier for couples to be physically close,” Moore says.

Changes in relationship dynamics: “Couples may have some changes in attraction, intimacy, and desire for sexual connections,” Moore explains. Some lifestyle transitions, like aging or becoming parents, may naturally “reduce sexual desire and frequency,” she adds.

Health concerns: Physical or mental health issues like chronic pain, fatigue, hormonal disorders, or mental disorders can have a big impact on your sex life, Moore says. In addition, some medications you might use to treat these conditions, such as anti-depressants, can also decrease your libido.

Lack of spontaneity: It’s normal to fall into patterns and habits as a couple. When things get a little too repetitive in the bedroom, though, you might notice you’re having less sex due to simple boredom and monotony.

Mismatched libidos: Many partners have different levels of desire, and it’s definitely possible to keep up a thriving sex life when this is the case — but it’s not always easy. The sex drive mismatch can cause “tension and frustration in the relationship,” Moore explains, as the partner who wants it more might experience “feelings of inadequacy or rejection.”

When to Walk Away From a Sexless Marriage

When it comes to walking away from a sexless marriage, remember that no two relationships are the same and your breaking point might be different than someone else’s. To determine yours, Singer recommends asking yourself a few questions.

For one thing, are you or your partner getting your sexual satisfaction elsewhere? While some porn can help your explore your libido, it is also “a big contributor to sex in marriages declining,” Singer says. “Obviously an affair can be as well.” You should also ask yourself how important sex is in your relationship. “If it’s a deal breaker in the relationship, then this needs to be addressed with your partner,” Singer says.

If you’re deciding whether or not to leave a sexless marriage, you’ll likely need to evaluate your relationship as a whole, Moore says. This includes looking at aspects like “communication, emotional connection, common values, and how other areas of life are in harmony. One must internally assess what is significant, crucial, and felt emotionally towards the relationship in order to decide whether to keep working on the relationship or to think about moving on.” According to Moore, some signs of a deeper incompatibility may include:

Consistent lack of desire: If you or your partner are lacking in sexual interest over a long period of tie, even after you’ve both attempted to address the problem, “it could symbolize a fundamental lack of compatibility in sexual needs and interests,” Moore says.

Emotional disconnection: Sometimes a lack of physical closeness points to a lack of emotional intimacy. If that’s the case, there’s a likely a deeper issue in your relationship that you’ll need to address to return it to a healthy place.

Resentment or hostility: “As time goes by, resentments and hostilities between partners… can destroy the feeling of being close and together,” Moore explains. “An ongoing negative or conflictive environment around sexual matters could indicate some latent problem that need to be studied.”

Unwillingness to address the issue: “If one or both of the partners are unwilling to acknowledge or address the lack of intimacy problem in the relationship, it might suggest their apathy for resolving problems or indifference in maintaining the relationship,” Moore says.

Remember that leaving or staying in any relationship is “an incredibly personal decision,” Trageser says. If looking for specific signs or limits isn’t helpful, know that — at the very least — safety and respect is paramount when you’re talking about your wants, needs, and feelings around physical intimacy. “If there is disrespect, demeaning, or devaluing present during these conversations, then that is a red flag,” Trageser says.

How to Fix a Sexless Marriage

If you’re looking to rehab a sexless marriage and resuscitate that dead bedroom, our experts agree that communication is key. “Simply put, tell your partner what you want,” Singer says. Specifically, Moore adds, “Open up and talk to your partner in a sincere and direct way about your attitudes, likes, and concerns on the topic of intimacy in your relationship.” Just as important: “Do not blame or criticize” while you’re doing it. “Show your needs and care for what your partner is feeling,” Moore says.

Here are a few other things our experts recommend to get a sexless marriage or relationship back on track:

Reflect on your sexuality and your partner’s. “Look back on times in your relationship and life where you were feeling in touch with your sexuality,” Trageser says. “What was different then?” Maybe something about your life or environment has changed, like having kids, going through a stressful period at work, or experiencing less overall intimacy with your partner. “Reflect on things that hit your sexuality accelerator, and reflect on things that pull your sexuality emergency brake,” Trageser says. “Through reflection and curiosity you can reveal a map that you can use to explore physical intimacy more.” Then, you and your partner can learn each other’s “maps,” sharing these revelations “with respect and curiosity,” she explains.

Identify any underlying issues. Stress, relationship disputes, and health concerns all have the potential to tank your libido. “Seeing what the primary factors are will allow you to deal with them properly,” Moore says. Singer agrees, noting that issues like erectile dysfunction or pain (whether is during sex or not) can change your sexual relationship. “Whatever may be the cause of sex declining in the relationship, be understanding of one another,” Singer says.

Prioritize intimacy. Sometimes you need to literally schedule in the time to be emotionally or physically intimate, like you would a work meeting or your kid’s soccer practice. It may feel silly or awkward at first, but this makes it clear that intimacy and connecting with each other is a priority on the level of work and family engagements. It doesn’t have to be sex, either; you can use this time to have intimate conversations, engage in non-sexual touching (like holding hands or cuddling), or even enjoy a moment of stillness together.

Get experimental. Sometimes the bedroom goes dead because of monotony, pure and simple. If this is your situation, “open up to various solutions and experiment with new activities or new means to restore drives and enthusiasm in your bedroom,” Moore says. Get vulnerable and share your fantasies while encouraging your partner to do the same, talking through what you’ve been craving and how you can try new positions or kinks in a safe, consensual manner.

Focus on pleasure, not a “goal.” Many of us have a habit of seeing sex as a goal-oriented task, where you can only “succeed” if both partners (or at least one) achieve orgasm. This can put a ton of pressure on your intimate moments and suck all the fun out of it. Instead, “draw the attention to enjoyment and bonding,” Moore says. Take your time, shift your mindset, and focus on simply being together and enjoying each other’s company.

Take care of yourself as an individual. Like we mentioned, the bedroom isn’t vacuum-sealed; everything that happens outside of it also impacts what happens inside of it, and vice versa. With that in mind, check in with yourself. Are you squeezing in some self-care time? Are you paying attention to your mental and physical health? “Make sure you take care of both your physical and emotional needs beyond the relationship,” Moore says. Make time for stress-relieving activities like exercise, meditation, reading, or therapy — anything that helps you reconnect with yourself as an individual. Increasing your self-esteem and overall wellness “will ultimately help your relationship” in and out of the bedroom, Moore say.

Try sex therapy or couples therapy, if it’s accessible. Therapy can be “a very useful tool” for those dealing with sexless relationships, Singer says. “The therapist will give you exercises, open your communication and provide you with the guidance you and your partner may need to improve your sex life.”

Be patient. If you’ve been dealing with a dead bedroom for a while, you might feel pressure to fix it ASAP. What’s really needed, though, is patience — for both your partner and yourself. “Getting the closeness restored is a time-consuming process,” Moore says, “so don’t be hard on yourself or your partner.” Stay persistent as you make positive changes, don’t let new obstacles demoralize you, and lean on each other for support as you go.

Most of all, remember that your relationship and your sex life are yours. The amount of sex you’re having (or not having) is only a problem if it’s not meeting your needs or your partner’s, and comparing it to how much sex you think others are having isn’t helpful either. “For many couples, having a sexless marriage doesn’t mean the demise of the relationship,” Singer says. “It may be just fine for them. Working with some individuals between the ages of 60-80, I’ve found that sex is often just not that important to them. The couples still show intimacy towards each other by hugging, cuddling, or holding hands.”

In other words, experiencing a dead bedroom doesn’t mean your relationship is over or unsalvageable. “What matters is what the partners want and need from the relationship,” Singer says. And if you’re not getting what you need — in or out of the bedroom — everything starts with communication. Talk to your partner, get vulnerable, and make sure you’re on the same page to work through this together.

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