In a 2014 survey by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, it was found that 12 percent of married people hadn’t had sex for at least three months. Six and a half percent of married women and almost five percent of married men reported that they hadn’t had sex with their spouse in over a year.
A lack of sex in marriage or otherwise committed long-term relationships is something that’s joked about all of the time. In general, though, married couples do have more sex than people who are single or dating.
However, for the not insignificant minority of committed couples who have lost the sexual side of their relationship, it is anything but funny.
It is important to note that regular sex is not an imperative part of life or of some relationships. If you’re both happy with anniversary sex, or never sex, then we’re happy for you.
For those of you that aren’t happy, for those of you who feel stuck, confused, resentful, guilty or scared, we talked to two experts—Amy Bucciere, a certified sex and relationship therapist practicing in Pittsburgh, and Dr. Erika Evans-Weaver, the director of the Center for Human Sexuality Studies’ Sex Therapy Clinic at Widener University—to find out what you should know.
1. Rule out physiological causes.
Both experts agree that it’s important to first rule out medical conditions that could be causing changes in your libido or bodily function.
“Diseases or conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or cancer—any of those conditions can impact your sex drive,” said Evans-Weaver.
2. Don’t assume that you know how your partner feels.
Simply put, the only way to find the cause of the problem is to look for the cause of the problem. We all have a tendency to assume that the way our partners are acting is directly related to how they feel about us. In many cases, this isn’t the truth.
Bucciere says that’s why it’s important to stay curious about what’s causing the sexual problems in your relationship, instead of coming to a conclusion on your own.
“[Ask yourself] is this actually true or is this something that I’m assuming? What is genuinely going on here? And it can be a lot of work to get an accurate answer to that question,” Bucciere said.
3. Remember that things are always in flux.
As your life circumstances change, so will the circumstances of your relationship. One of the hardest times is what Evans-Weaver refers to as the “sandwich generation,” which is when a couple is caring for both their young children and their aging parents.
“You’re exhausted, so you might want to be sexual, but at the same time you might say ‘I’d like to just cuddle up and take a nap,’” she explained. “And that’s real and fair.”
You may think that the root of your problem is that your partner has a different sex drive than you, and you could be right. But, that’s a reality in most relationships and it, too, can change over time.
“What are the chances that two people are going to be 95 percent in the same place when it comes to desire and arousal and availability to be intimate?” Bucciere said. “So it’s kind of a given that somebody is going to be higher and somebody is going to be lower, and you may go through different seasons…It’s not a stable position.”
4. Be mindful of the story you tell yourself.
“The most important thing is that if my goal is to assign blame and to alleviate myself of doing the hard things then what happens is nothing changes,” Bucciere said.
Believing that you are right and your partner is wrong is easy and convenient, and it doesn’t get you any closer to a solution.
“It’s in our ability to make a conscious, painful decision to say, ‘I wonder what’s really happening here because if the story I’m telling myself is somehow a reductionist story about my goodness and your badness’ or something like that, then that’s the story I’m going to end up with,” Bucciere continued.
5. Talk to your partner, not everybody else.
To get more familiar with this issue, I dove into some online forums for people in sexless relationships. What I found was a lot of people commissorating about their problems, while encouraging a lot of vitriolic behavior.
“Everybody wants to let off some steam, but you’ve got to let it off with the person that’s driving you batty, not everybody else,” said Evans-Weaver.
“The folks that you are commiserating with validate you, so you feel right, and by the time you get ready to actually have the interaction with your partner, it’s still [the same] issue but not necessarily one that you have the same motivations to confront because you already felt this validation,” she continued.
So whether they’re your friends, or strangers on the internet, it’s often best to avoid airing out your grievances with people who aren’t your partner. Consider going to your partner first.
6. Don’t lose sight of the ‘us’ in your relationship.
A lot of people end up sitting with and dissecting this problem for a while, and in that time the frustration, desperation and resentment have been piling up. It’s easy to lose sight of the point of it all.
“What happens is you end up neglecting what I have come to refer to as the ‘physics of the relationship’ and you’ve become solely focused on ‘me’ and ‘you,’ and I’m neglecting the ‘us’ that exists between us and it’s in that misfocus that we end up trekking down a long and painful road,” Bucciere cautioned.
7. It’s not all about intercourse.
Evans-Weaver said that sometimes the problem can be due to boredom because the societally-driven focus on penetrative sex isn’t satisfying to one or both partners.
“[People] get stuck in these really basic sexual scripts that are no longer pleasurable for them, but they don’t know how to communicate about creating something different that is fun and invigorating to them,” she said.
“We have to expand our perspective on what it means to be sexual with our partners because it can be anything from a sensual massage to mutual masturbation. Or it can be oral sex. It could be just touching. And it could be penetrative intercourse, but doesn’t have to be.”
And it isn’t all about orgasm, either. Making sex too goal-orientated can kill sex drive. According to Evans-Weaver, the focus should be pleasure and fun.
8. Affection and connection.
Sometimes you need to create the space for sex in your relationship though affection and re-establishing a connection.
“I remember working with folks and saying, ‘alright, what’s going on here is that one of you just wants more expression of affection and one of you actually wants to be more sexual with one another. Two different things, but the more that you express affection it’s going to also titillate your partner which might increase their desire to be sexual,’” Evans-Weaver said.
Bucciere emphasizes that feeling truly connected to your partner can change your whole approach to the issue for the better.
“It’s this idea that if we’re really feeling connected and the space between us feels safe and warm and open and loving, from there we’ll be able to figure it out,” she said.
9. Relationships take work. And they can work, if you do.
Start from a place of understanding that lasting relationships don’t happen because there’s no conflict or messiness, they last because both partners have decided that they’re going to work through the bumps.
“If people are genuinely looking to one another to say ‘I want this to get better,’ the implications of that are life-giving and tremendously healing and just a shit ton of work,” Bucciere said.
If you can develop a healthy method that you use to handle problems in your relationship, that’s a tool you’ll be able to come back to again and again.
“I genuinely, 100 percent believe that when two people are truly committed to making a process work, that it will,” Bucciere said. “If we can have our process down about how we work on this stuff, then we’re ultimately going to be able to handle whatever comes down the pike.”
10. Get help if you need it.
This is a complicated problem. There are professionals out there, like Bucciere and Evans-Weaver, who can help. Whether you need a mediator, an idea-generator or a fresh set of eyes to look at your situation, therapists are trained to assist you.
“My approach is: listen, nobody has all the answers, right? I don’t have all the answers to fixing the problems in my own life. So my role is not to tell you, ‘well, you’ve been doing this wrong all your life,’” Evans-Weaver said.
“It’s really just to ask insightful questions that provide you with an unbiased opportunity to examine what it is that you want to do and how do you want to get there.”