Back in the days predating circa Season 1 of Mad Men, most married women spent their days engaged in coffee klatches with the neighbors with the expectation of wifely duties included a roast in the oven and tolerating sex. Meanwhile, wives were forewarned by the 1964 Grammy-winning hit Wives and Lovers, “Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger, you needn’t try anymore.”
Times may have changed in the past 50 years. We’ve been through the sexual revolution and back again. The majority of married women work outside the home.
But, we still have this universal expectation that marriage is the death knell of sex. Sexless marriages and frigid wives are the punchline of many a joke. Husbands are presumed to have much higher sex drives than their wives who reluctantly agree if a man promises a new dishwasher.
When the roles are switched, women often take her husband’s constant rejection personally. After all, isn’t she the one who’s supposed to be feigning sleep?That eternally cold shoulder may lead to the partner feeling unwanted, undesired, and impact self-esteem, especially for women with husbands who turn them away.
So, regardless who’s on the receiving end of rejection, what is a sexless marriage? And should you be worked up about it?
Dr. Gail Saltz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and author of The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life, says it’s very difficult to come up with a strict definition of a sexless marriage because there’s a fairly wide range of normal.
“Within couples used to having sex three times a week who suddenly go to once a month, something is going on. For couples for whom both have a lower libido or even a specific issue created by chronic illness in place for a long time, once a month my feel perfectly fine. Less than once a month, I’d be concerned whatever the issue is,” says Dr. Saltz, frequent contributor to the Today show. “The definition of sex has to have some flexibility, as well. Couples may physically please each other without intercourse. I wouldn’t necessarily call that a sexless marriage, though some would say it is. Maybe the reason is intercourse is either not preferred or not easy to do.”
How important are sex and intimacy to sustain a marriage or long-term relationship? If both of you are going to bed with the remote and an iPad instead of each other, is the marriage doomed to fail?
Alexandra Jamieson, author of the Amazon bestseller Women, Food, and Desire, shares, “When one partner denies sexual intimacy on any ongoing basis for any reason, that creates a wall between the partners.” In her new relationship following a marriage that had become sexless, she says, “We have a rule in our relationship. If one wants it, the other shows up as if it were his or her idea. This allows us to freely express our desires without fear of being ignored or denied. That’s a huge issue in relationships.”
Jamieson suggests couples take a cue from the BDSM world. “In that world, people constantly talk about what they want, sharing fantasies with each other. Partners talk about what each wants and what each doesn’t want, the boundaries. That’s a valuable conversation. If you want something more, tell your partner what’s going on and that it’s important. This might require some uncomfortable conversations but could lead to real joy together, without blame.”
Sexual intimacy, with or without intercourse, is an essential part of a marriage. Michele Weiner Davis, Divorce Busting® Sex Coach, advises, “Being complacent about ho-hum sex is a recipe for marital disaster. A sex-starved husband and a sex-starved wife are in danger of getting a divorce over the lack of sex in the marriage. If one spouse is sexually dissatisfied and the other is oblivious, unconcerned, or uncaring, and has no interest, sex isn’t the only casualty; intimacy on every level becomes non-existent. Spouses stop touching affectionately, having meaningful talks, laughing at each other’s jokes, or connecting emotionally. Infidelity and divorce become all too real threats.”
Communication in and out of the bedroom is key to healthy relationships. Withholding sex from a partner because you’re angry about the Visa bill or that he didn’t take in the trash is a passive aggressive approach to dealing with anger, and is even considered by experts as a form of abuse.
Like many issues in marriage, healing a sexless marriage takes strong communication and a commitment to negotiation and change.
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