Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Sexless Marriages: A Closer Look

Old Couple Hand in HandRecently the question was raised by some of my colleagues as to whether there can be happiness in a sexless marriage. An article on the subject refers to the research of Robert Epstein, a psychologist who reports that 10 to 20% of the romantic relationships in the U.S. are sexless.

According to Epstein, a sexless relationship is defined as one in which the partners have had sex less than once a month or less than 10 times a year. Others writing in the field take the word more literally – suggesting that many couples happy with that schedule would not describe their relationship as sexless.

Maybe the question of how sexual a marriage is and whether or not the partners are happy is a far more complicated one than the rate of sexual intercourse over time.

Work with couples would suggest that happiness from sexual relating must account for the trust and special connection partners feel for one another, the way they hold, touch, laugh, tease, celebrate, walk together, worry about, lean on, cry with, nickname, argue, text and call each other — the many dimensions of sexual intimacy.

Is the marriage between partners having weekly sex likely to be happier than a marriage with little sexual contact, but with a great deal of shared time and communication?

It depends … If the weekly sex is obligatory, it may not be a source of intimacy or happiness. If sharing time and communication without sexual intercourse really satisfies both partners’ intimate needs, they may be quite happy.

The real issue then is not how often a couple has sex, but how mutually satisfied the partners are with their sexual intimacy.

Do you think you and your partner are mutually satisfied?

If you are not sure, you are not alone.

Most partners would rather have sex or avoid it than TALK ABOUT IT!

Although we are inundated by sexual images in the media and saturated with sexual innuendo in prime time sitcoms, research and clinical work suggest that most men and women find it difficult to speak with their partner about their sexual relationship.


  • Avoiding sexual discussion is often driven by fear of being rejected or of rejecting the partner.
  • Based on the cultural stereotypes, partners often presume that speaking about sex will equate to the other’s wanting more sex or wanting sex with someone else.
  • Partners often don’t want to embarrass, hurt or create tension so they don’t mention that the old robe is a turn-off, the sexual routine isn’t working, groping is not an appealing invitation, or the lack of compliments is deafening. Instead, they quietly comply, disengage, ignore or withhold.

The reality is that silence, the avoidance of talking between partners,  jeopardizes mutuality and erodes sexual intimacy because it is rarely interpreted in a positive way.  A sexless marriage is often an unhappy one because the lack of verbal exchange makes it sexless by default.

  • He is worried about performance so he makes no overtures – she feels rejected but says nothing.
  • She fears that she has lost sexual desire and avoids responding by going to bed earlier or later – he is quietly resentful.
  • He wants to say something about her never dressing up any more – She wishes he would shave he way he used to but says nothing.
  • Both are really satisfied with more affection, less sex and many hours working together –but neither says anything, so the mutuality goes unrecognized.  

 The reality is that the more comfortable a couple becomes talking about their sexual connection – the more intimate they feel. The more likely they will find mutual satisfaction.

Becoming More Comfortable Talking about Sex

To be known and to know each other as partners need not turn a couple’s sexual intimacy into interrogation, over exposure or a Woody Allen Movie – it is meant to lower the fear of rejection and enhance the mutual satisfaction.

  • Consider Starting by checking in with your partner in a general way – your goal is to invite talking and thinking – not to solve, demand or change. “How would you say we are doing in terms of mutual sexual satisfaction?”
  • When your partner ignores you, asks you what you are talking about or where the question came from – tell him/her, be light, and use humor.
  • Come back to the question at another non-stress time.
  • Share your thoughts about the positives that you experience in the relationship.
  • Share the memory of a time when you felt there was a special sense of closeness-even from a long time ago.
  •  Wonder out loud what it would be like if…
  • Disclose what may be keeping you from being sexual – underscore that it does not equate to lack of love or interest.
  • Acknowledge that you want to speak about the intimacy between both of you but you are not sure how….
  •  Just start and keep on going…the verbalized effort to speak about your mutual experience may not be understood at first but it will demonstrate an interest that is crucial to intimacy.
  •  Regardless of the rate or expression of intimacy in your relationship, when and if it works let your partner know. It is a compliment and an affirmation.

Photo by Garry Knight, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.