When to Walk Away From a Sexless Marriage

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated Feb 09, 2024


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How Long Does a Divorce Take

Is a sexless marriage a good reason to divorce – especially if you are otherwise compatible and still love your spouse? Divorce is a serious matter, and it isn’t a decision to be taken lightly – but can a sexless marriage survive?

Although rarely discussed openly, sexless marriages in America are probably more common than you might think. One clue that this is the case is that “sexless marriage” is the most commonly Googled marital issue.

According to data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, people search for “sexless marriage” three-and-a-half times more than for “unhappy marriage” – and eight times more frequently than “loveless marriage.”

If this doesn’t surprise you, you may be in a sexless marriage (or know someone who is).

How Long Does a Divorce Take

How Is “Sexless Marriage” Defined?

The definition of “sexless marriage” can vary greatly depending on each spouse’s libido. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to feeling or believing that you are in a sexless relationship.

For example, if Tasha craves daily sex and Mario’s happy with three times a week, then that could not be called a sexless relationship – even though Tasha’s sexual needs are not being met.

However, if Tasha divorces Mario and marries Keith, who is perfectly content with having sex only once a year, Tasha would be justified in calling her marriage “sexless” – even though Mario would not define it as such.

Believing you’re in a sexless relationship is more about the gulf between your libido and your spouse’s than a carved-in-stone number of how many times you have sex per week, month, or year.

That being said, researchers have gathered data seeking to quantify the sex lives of the average American. Robert Epstein, PhD., Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, defines a sexless marriage as one in which a couple has sex less than 10 times a year.

In their 2017 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that, on average, established couples were having sex once a week.

Interestingly enough, the level of happiness reported by the 30,000 participants was more or less the same whether they were having sex three times a week or only once a month.

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The Effects of a Sexless Marriage on Men

Generally speaking, men have been both hardwired and culturally conditioned to want sex on a regular basis. Assuming a healthy libido – but not a sex addict’s libido – very few men will be happy to live in a sexless marriage for any length of time.

Eventually, it may be the reason a man asks for a separation or divorce – or how he justifies looking outside his marriage for physical intimacy and sex.

The effects of a sexless marriage for a husband include:

  1. Sexual frustration
  2. Low self-esteem
  3. Depression
  4. Anxiety
  5. Anger
  6. Bitterness
  7. Feelings of emasculation
  8. Prostate cancer

Wait – what?! Prostrate cancer?! A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that frequent ejaculation may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

The quantity and quality of sex have direct links to a man’s physical health. A study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior revealed that: “Results … suggest that high frequency of sex is positively related to later risk of cardiovascular events for men but not women, whereas good sexual quality and enjoyment seems to protect women but not men from cardiovascular risk in later life.”

They hypothesize that “both men and women who have moderately frequent sex will have lower cardiovascular risk than those who are sexually inactive,” but go on to warn that “high frequency of sex will be related to increased cardiovascular risk, especially for men.”

The Effects of a Sexless Marriage on Women

For a woman, a sexless marriage erodes her feelings of love, affection, connection, intimacy, and sometimes loyalty as well. Physical intimacy – including touching and sex – helps people feel like they are part of a couple or family – and the lack of it makes women feel deprived and isolated.

The psychological effects of a sexless marriage for a wife can be quite catastrophic.

A wife can suffer all the psychological damage listed in the section for men (above, except for prostate cancer and emasculation), but other effects may include body image issues and lack of self-confidence.

A Word About the Importance of Oxytocin in a Marriage

Good sex releases oxytocin (according to the Cleveland Clinic sometimes called the “cuddle chemical” because of the role it plays in romantic attachment) and endorphins (hormones that can help reduce stress, relieve pain, and improve your sense of well-being) into the blood and brain.

The lack of these hormones can leave a spouse feeling disconnected from their partner and emotionally imbalanced.

The Cleveland Clinic also says, “Oxytocin is associated with trust, sexual arousal, and relationship building” and notes that “oxytocin levels also increase when you’re hugging someone and when you’re experiencing an orgasm.”

The article adds that oxytocin has an important role in many human behaviors and social interactions, including:

  • Sexual arousal
  • Recognition
  • Trust
  • Romantic attachment

A marriage without sex is also a marriage deficient in oxytocin.

Should You Divorce Over a Sexless Marriage?

Most married couples experience the occasional dry spell. This can even happen within a perfectly healthy relationship in accordance with the ordinary stresses, trials, and tribulations of life.

Sometimes, however, an ordinary dry spell goes on long enough to become a full-blown sexless marriage, and that is a cause for greater concern.

If this experience sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. In a survey conducted for a book called Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, 14.1% of married men and 13.9% of married women reported that they engage in partnered sexual activity a few times a year or less.

Perhaps the slight discrepancy indicates that a man and a woman in the same marriage might estimate the frequency of sex a little bit differently, or men in same sex marriages may have less sex than men in heterosexual marriages. In any case, there is a significant segment of the married population that is simply not having regular sex.

If having an intimate relationship – including sex – is important to you, and if your spouse isn’t meeting your need for intimacy, then you may be wondering if it’s time to consider divorce.

However, divorce is a serious matter, and it isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. We’ve put together seven signs to help you decide when to consider walking away from a sexless marriage, below.

Our hope is that these signs will either help you explore and resolve your marital problems or give you the impetus to see a lawyer about starting divorce proceedings so you can move on to find a new romantic partner with a compatible libido.

7 Signs You Should Consider Divorce Because of Your Sexless Marriage

  1. Your Partner Refuses to Work on the Issue
  2. You Have Other Major Relationship Issues (Like Lack of Love)
  3. You and Your Partner Have Incompatible Sexual Interests
  4. Your Sexless Marriage Has Led to Infidelity
  5. Your or Your Partner’s Communication Skills Are Poor
  6. Your Spouse is a Sex Addict
  7. Romantic, Emotional, and Sexual Intimacy Have Vanished from Your Marriage

1. Your Partner Refuses to Work on the Issue

Chances are, you and your spouse didn’t go from fiery passion to low libido overnight, so it’s unreasonable to expect the physical intimacy to return just because you both say you want it to. Nonetheless, having a spouse who refuses to work on the issue is a major redflag that the marriage will remain sexless.

As it turns out, having more frequent sex takes actual commitment, and it may feel a little bit like work at first.

Sex and marriage experts tend to agree that it takes real honesty, collaboration, and courage for you and your spouse to get back into the swing of things.

According to sex therapist Kimberly Resnick Anderson, “[Couples] decide it is easier to have no sex at all than to deal with hurt feelings and unpredictable emotions, such as guilt or anger. Intervening before the problem takes on a life of its own is key.”

That’s why you might be headed for divorce if your husband or wife isn’t ready to face this issue head-on. Without buy-in from your partner, things are likely to get worse over time.

After all, to quote another sex therapist, Dr. Tammy Nelson, “The longer you go without sex, the more you feel you aren’t interested in sex. It works the other way around as well. Sex is the best aphrodisiac. The more sex you have, the more sex you want.”

Unfortunately, re-infusing active sexual intimacy into your sexless marriage isn’t something you can do on your own.

2. You Have Other Major Relationship Issues (Like Lack of Love)

A sexless marriage doesn’t always equal a loveless marriage, but when it does, divorce may be the “best worst” option.

When you and your partner are particularly busy or stressed, sexual intimacy can become something of a luxury – but affection and touch are basic human needs. Lack of affection and touch can thus reflect bigger marital problems than an absence of sexual intimacy, especially short term.

According to Kyle Benson of the Gottman Institute, it’s all about empathy. “To attune to your partner requires the ability to experience their feelings on such a level that you almost become your partner. Empathy is so deeply connecting that it’s physical.”

Does this remind you of anything else? Maybe the issue you came to this article in the first place? Perhaps the secret to everlasting sexual desire in your marriage is maintaining an emotional connection that mirrors the physical union you’re longing for.

When a relationship begins, lust (in the form of testosterone for men and estrogen for women) is often enough to ensure frequent sex. Over time, however, that overwhelming sexual attraction can fade. If you’re lucky, it gets replaced with something much deeper and more durable, and that bond is a terrific basis for a healthy sex life

You know in your heart whether you’re just in a sexless relationship or an overall unhappy marriage. If your husband or wife isn’t providing you with the support and tenderness you want, your sex life is really the least of your concerns.

3. You and Your Partner Have Incompatible Sexual Interests

Is it possible for two people who desire sex to find themselves in a sexless marriage? It absolutely is, especially if those people have radically different sexual needs.

This could mean disagreeing on how much or what kind of sex to have. You might not even know that you disagree with your husband or wife on the matter, because so many people find this so difficult to talk about.

When couples simply can’t manage to talk it out, they might default to a whole lot of plain old missionary sexual intercourse, which can get boring pretty quickly.

The real difficulty comes in with the addition of some extenuating circumstances, like when one partner has a lot more sexual experience than the other, or even when one spouse is a survivor of sexual abuse.

An abuse survivor, through no fault of their own, might simply require more patience and gentleness than their partner can muster. Some people just aren’t sexually compatible, even if the love is there.

While having an incompatibility problem is a frequent contributor to divorce, it’s not always a marital death sentence. You and your spouse have options. You can try to reach a compromise through sex therapy, or you can even consider an ethical open relationship.

Both of these options are a lot to ask of a vulnerable person, though, so you may not be able to navigate those options.

4. Your Sexless Marriage Has Led to Infidelity

When a couple’s sex life has been suffering for a while, it might motivate one or both parties to look outside the marriage for the fulfillment they’ve been lacking. Cheating in a sexless marriage truly adds insult to injury, and it might be the breaking point where you and your spouse realize that you’re better off pursuing divorce.

There are a lot of reasons why you and your spouse haven’t been getting it on that aren’t exactly personal. An affair, however, is often a symptom of underlying problems.

According to research conducted by psychologist Shirley Glass, 48% of men cited emotional dissatisfaction as the primary reason they cheated, and only 34% of women who had affairs reported being either happy or very happy in their marriage.

While sexual desire might seem like the reason you or your partner strayed, it also represents some level of disregard for your relationship, which can be too painful to recover from.

Unless you and your spouse are ready for some serious couple’s counseling, continuing the marriage may not be sustainable, and you may be headed for divorce.

5. Your or Your Partner’s Communication Skills are Poor

An inability to communicate about sensitive albeit vital issues with your spouse is a definite warning sign for divorce. If you can’t communicate, you can’t resolve your issues.

In fact, a bungled attempt at communication can lead to more and greater hurt feelings and misunderstandings for both spouses.

You might just have difficulty communicating your needs and preferences about sex. Sex can feel like a taboo subject and it takes practice to be able to talk about it openly.

Or you might have an overall communication problem in your marriage which makes sex and many other things difficult.

Physical as well as verbal, good communication skills are required for almost everything in a healthy marriage – including sex.

A study in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality reveals a direct connection between the presence of passion in a marriage and sexual communication skills.

The study showed that “sexual self-esteem is a distinct … aspect of global self-esteem and that sexual communication differs from general communication. Furthermore, it was found that high levels of both global and sexual self-esteem predicted a higher ability to communicate about satisfying sexual behaviours with a partner.”

When a couple’s communication is liberally laced with anger, contempt, criticism, and sarcasm – or when they are unable to communicate well enough to reach a mutually-satisfying resolution on other significant issues in their marriage – the desire to have sex with each other often goes out the window.

6. Your Spouse Is a Sex Addict

Having a spouse with a higher libido than yours does not automatically mean they are a sex addict. However, if your spouse has a complete lack of control over sexual thoughts, urges, impulses, and actions, they may be suffering from sexual addiction.

Excessive sexual thoughts and behaviors can significantly impact your marriage and may pave the road to divorce

The editors at WebMD offer the following 8 potential signs of sex addiction:

  1. Obsessive sexual thoughts
  2. Spending excessive time on sex
  3. Feeling shame or depression
  4. Excluding other activities
  5. Masturbating excessively
  6. Engaging in risky or inappropriate behaviors
  7. Cheating on partners
  8. Committing criminal sex offenses (e.g., stalking, rape, or child molestation).

Without treatment from a medical professional like a psychologist, psychiatrist, or sex therapist, a sex addict has virtually no chance of recovery. With the right interventions, it is possible for a sex addict to recover. However, by the time they seek treatment, they may have already blown up their marriage.

7. Romantic, Emotional, and Sexual Intimacy Have Vanished from Your Marriage

When your spouse repeatedly prioritizes everything except their relationship with you, love and attachment may wither away and die. Romantic and sexual intimacy releases “feel-good” hormones such as endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin – all of which have a role to play in building and maintaining a healthy, loving marriage.

Without intimacy, you are more like roommates than spouses, and your marriage may fall victim to “roommate syndrome.” Couples with roommate syndrome are generally living in an emotionally disconnected, passionless, and sexless marriage.

Predictability, polite disinterest at best, screaming matches at worst, and resentment suck the life out of a marriage.

Many assume roommate syndrome is just a sexless marriage. The other terms for this type of marriage are “silent divorce” (in which a couple stays unhappily married and leads separate lives), and “parallel marriage” (in which a couple has a relatively happy marriage, but each one is meeting most of their needs outside the marriage via work, volunteering, hobbies, sports, theater, permitted sexual gratification outside marriage, etc.)

What Percentage of Sexless Marriages End in Divorce?

How likely is a sexless marriage to end in divorce? To try to answer this question, we must first try to determine the percentage of Americans living in sexless marriages.

According to Dr. Robert Epstein, research shows that 10% to 20% of romantic relationships in the United States are “sexless.” He defines a sexless marriage as a couple having sex less than 10 times a year.

A 2017 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior ound that among the almost 18,000 participants aged 18 to 89 years old, “15.2% of males and 26.7% of females reported past-year sexlessness while 8.7% of males and 17.5% of females reported no sex for 5 years or more.”

Denise A. Donnelly – an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University who studies sexless marriages – reports that couples in sexless marriages think about divorce much more frequently than couples who are having sex regularly. Donnelly also notes that a sexless marriage could indicate that emotional intimacy has also vanished.

Despite researchers’ attempts to reach a definitive conclusion about how many sexless marriages end in divorce, reaching a universally-accepted number proves elusive.

Even if we accept Dr. Epstein’s claims that 10–20% of American couples are currently in sexless relationships, and we also accept that about 39% of Americans are currently getting divorced annually, it is impossible to know how many sexless marriages end in divorce.

A sexless marriage is not grounds for divorce – and even if it were, people might not use it out of embarrassment – and most people file for divorce using a no-fault grounds, which is almost always “incompatibility.”

In the article “Sexless Marriage Statistics – Commonality, Divorce Rates, and Other Stats,” author Benjamin Jorgensen claims that a whopping 74.2% of sexless marriages end in divorce.

Jorgensen claims his statistics are based on “the results of a recent study based on four different surveys of a total of 34,133 married and unmarried couples,” but he doesn’t cite the studies directly, so it’s hard to tell how accurate this statement might be.

Even if we were lucky enough to find a reputable study claiming to reveal how many couples got divorced due to a sexless marriage, it would be impossible to know whether the lack of sex was the real issue or if it were just a symptom of other problems in the marriage.

Bottom line: the percentage of sexless marriages in America that end in divorce remains murky.

Can a Marriage Survive Without Sex?

Yes – assuming that both partners are content with the lack of sex (temporarily or permanently) and the marriage is otherwise happy and healthy.

However, if one spouse has a robust sex drive and the other is completely disinterested, the lack of sex can generate a lot of negative feelings – such as frustration, anger, and resentment – that could eventually lead to extramarital affairs and/or divorce.

According to a 2015 Pew survey, “As far as what helps people stay married, married adults said … that having shared interests (64%) and a satisfying sexual relationship (61%) were very important to a successful marriage.

In Journal of Marriage and Family, authors note that: “Although reported consequences of involuntary celibacy tended to be negative, most partnered celibates were in stable relationships and reluctant to leave. As a result, they developed diverse coping strategies, and most were still hopeful of resuming sexual activity.”

Spouses may choose to remain in a sexless marriage if:

  • They believe the situation is temporary.
  • Both partners have low libidos.
  • Both spouses identify as asexual and do not experience sexual attraction.
  • One spouse has a physical or mental health condition that reduces libido or ability to perform.
  • Sex is less important to the couple than other aspects of their marital relationship (e.g., financial security, companionship, their children, shared hobbies and interests, etc.).
  • Love, affection, and emotional intimacy are still present in the relationship.
  • The spouse who misses sex is willing to settle for “the devil they know” rather than risking the status quo by trying to find someone new.
  • One spouse has “gaslit” the other into believing the lack of sex is their fault (e.g., they are no longer sexually attractive because they have “let themselves go”).
  • Religious or cultural beliefs do not permit or frown on divorce.
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3 Tips to Deal with a Sexless Marriage

  1. Consider Marriage Counseling
  2. Have an Open Discussion
  3. Try Scheduling Sex

1. Consider Marriage Counseling

If you’re experiencing relationship problems but you and your spouse aren’t ready to call it quits, find a good marriage counselor and/or sex therapist and start talking! These folks have devoted their lives to fostering healthy marriages (and sex lives), and you shouldn’t discount their hard-won wisdom.

Sometimes, you need a counselor’s skill set in order to sort out your issues and communicate effectively. At other times, your willingness to find a counselor and start therapy is enough to demonstrate to your partner that you care and are willing to fight for the relationship.

If you’re both willing to put in the work, chances are you’ll get through this – or understand why you need to part.

2. Have an Open Discussion

Marriage counseling can be pretty expensive – although we’d argue that it’s much less expensive than a contentious divorce – and some people just aren’t prepared to open up to a stranger about something so personal as their sex lives.

While we really do recommend working with a professional, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you and your partner to put in some of the work on your own.

There are many resources written by therapists available for free on the web, and there are relatively inexpensive online coaching courses, as well as books, for you to try. Just learning how to communicate well outside the bedroom can lead to good results inside the bedroom.

Using new communication strategies developed by experts might give you the tools and confidence you needed to open up in the first place.

And if you just can’t resolve your differences, we have resources to walk you through filing for an easy, low-cost, amicable divorce.

3. Try Scheduling Sex

According to Dr. Tammy Nelson, a nationally recognized expert in sex therapy and the author of Getting the Sex You Want, sex itself is the best aphrodisiac. That means that sometimes you have to work through the logistics in order to reach the romance. This may sound counterintuitive, but it really works.

Like most of us, you’re probably busy, and possibly spending the majority of your waking hours running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Over time, you’ve probably learned that if you want to actually get something done, you’re going to have to schedule it yourself.

To a lot of people, scheduling sex sounds decidedly unsexy, but it doesn’t actually have to be that way. Did you know that you can actually attach a photo to a Google calendar event?

Well, I bet your partner didn’t know either, which makes for a fun surprise in an unexpected place (unless this is a shared work calendar rather than a personal one, which could be more of a shock than a surprise for the co-workers!).

Scheduling sex also gives you a lot more opportunities to set the scene. When you know what’s going to happen in advance, you can drop the kids off at their grandparents’ house, light some candles, don sexy outfits, role-play, and be as loud as you want.

A lot of couples already have regular date nights. Is what they’re doing really so different from scheduling time for sex? Clarifying your expectations with your partner makes it more likely that you’ll get what you really want out of the experience.

Adding to this, The Gottman Institute recommends the six second kiss - and what could be easier to do?

Six seconds is less time than it takes to type a text, but it can release oxytocin and increase endorphins, build a connection ritual, create physical touch, and even lead to sex, among other benefits!

Final Thoughts

A lack of sex in your marriage can be a sign of serious issues, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Once you have the tools to identify the underlying causes and overarching worries, you can open up the lines of communication, which is almost always the first step in getting your mojo back – without stepping outside your marriage for a sexual affair.

If the love is still there, then the lovemaking can come back – barring any permanent physical impediments.

So sit down with your partner and get talking – clothing optional!
























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