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The Sexless Marriage: Why Sexual Intimacy Fades
In the second installment of her series on sexless marriages, Dr. Carla Manly explains the importance of reconnecting by understanding the root causes of detachment.


Scott Webb
Sex provides a bonding experience that can prove more beneficial as time goes on.


It’s important that couples appreciate the very real truth that a successful marriage does not occur by chance.”
It feels so wonderful to be in love—especially during the early stages of a relationship. Before the reality of life sets in, the delights of new love and lust are tremendous. It’s wonderful to have the "high" of being connected and desired. It feels wonderful to experience the intense longing and desire that lead to wild, passionate sex. And, yes, it’s even more wonderful to have these amazing feelings and experiences of love and passion deepen in the months and years after the honeymoon.

The lusty fun experienced during the infatuation stage of a relationship can subside as the rigors and stresses of daily life begin to tax a relationship. Referring back to Part 1 in this series on sexless marriage, I noted, "This leaves us with looking for long term solutions that don’t leave partners at the mercy of their physiology. For those committed to having a thriving relationship, there is work to be done in finding and maintaining healthy ways to connect sexually without relying on the highs of the roller coaster ride. It takes thought, time, and energy to keep passion alive after the infatuation stages."

It’s important that couples appreciate the very real truth that a successful marriage does not occur by chance. Solid relationships take a great deal of effort to construct and maintain. A couple can fall into the trap of comparing their marriage to the "perfect" relationships their friends seem to have. In truth, many supposedly "perfect"marriages are, behind the scenes, held together by little more than convenience or necessity. This becomes the reality for far too many marriages, because the investment required to keep a marriage in good form can feel far too overwhelming amidst the struggle to stay afloat financially, professionally, and personally. In fact, every marriage contains many intricate moving parts that require attention, time, and energy. During the times that life is especially taxing, energy is often devoted to the vital priorities of working hard, paying bills, and tending to family matters. When exhaustion sets in, it is natural to want to run on automatic pilot. When a relationship begins to run on auto pilot, all but the vital necessities—including communication, fun, and intimacy—fall by the wayside.

“When a relationship begins to run on auto pilot, all but the vital necessities—including communication, fun, and intimacy—fall by the wayside.”

Many experts define a sexless marriage as one wherein the couple has sex no more than 10 times per year. Using this definition as its benchmark, Newsweek noted that 15 to 20 percent of couples have sexless marriages. In actuality, a sexless marriage is not necessarily a problematic one. What is most important is the level of intimacy and satisfaction experienced by each partner, not the number or frequency of sexual encounters.

For example, a marriage can flourish when both partners prefer little or no sexual intimacy; such couples have equal or nearly equal sexual drives. Sexual intimacy may not be a priority for them, and efforts are made to nurture healthy intimacy and bonding in other ways. On the other hand, some couples have copious amounts of sex, yet one or both partners are left feeling empty and unfulfilled. Although wild, lusty sex can be a fun part of a couple’s overall sexual relationship, lasting sexual intimacy must be cultivated through deeper connection and intimate engagement. As terrific as a carefree romp in bed might be, there is a vast difference between sexual intimacy and sex as a mere physiological process to have one’s needs met.

Intercourse isn’t the only way to create intimacy with your husband or wife. Sexual intimacy can be found in the simplest and most sweetly intoxicating of encounters. There is wondrous bonding to be had in warm embrace following a long day at work. When life gets busy and chaotic, making time for a quiet, private space of "cuddle time" in bed can be just what the doctor ordered. Love-filled kisses cause an increase in beneficial neurochemicals, such as dopamine and oxytocin. A sexy make-out session can work as a "love drug" to elevate mood and intensify partner bonding. When libido is running low, a gentle massage or sensuous stroking can be the antidote to feelings of isolation and disconnection. Of course, never underestimate the power of creating intimacy by looking at—and listening to—your spouse with warm, gentle eyes that speak of love.

“What is most important is the level of intimacy and satisfaction experienced by each partner, not the number or frequency of sexual encounters.”

Armed with the understanding that it’s not the amount of sex that matters, but the sense of being fulfilled and connected, we can better understand why sexual intimacy diminishes. A passionate relationship can turn into a sexless one for many reasons; there is rarely a singular underlying cause. Each person’s sex drive is a result of a unique combination of biological, psychological, and sociological factors.

In some cases, partners may actually have very dissimilar sexual drives; this issue may be hidden or discounted during the lusty stages of infatuation. As a relationship becomes long term, differences in libido can become a challenging issue. A spouse with a stronger libido may be left feeling continuously unfulfilled and deprived. The spouse with the lower sex drive may feel quite content with few—or no—sexual encounters. That said, an individual’s typical sex drive is affected by personal circumstances and experiences; slight fluctuations naturally occur on an ongoing basis.

For example, sexual appetite may wane as one spouse transitions to a challenging new job or after the birth of a child. The change from a sexy, intimate marriage into a dry and sexless one can occur in a quick, very noticeable shift or a slow, less obvious demise. Rapid shifts in intimacy often result from issues such as infidelity or the abrupt onset of a life stressor (for example, a serious medical condition or death of a loved one). The less perceptible shifts often result from decreased communication, hurried schedules, built-up resentments, or changes in a partner’s self-image (for example, weight gain, pregnancy, or aging issues). Longstanding hurts from early childhood history, past relationships, or marital discord can create invisible barriers to intimacy. Whether the decline in sexual connection is rapid or sluggish, the results are the same; the marriage suffers when the bonding power of sexual intimacy disappears.

“When daily life becomes stressful and difficult, a strong foundation of intimacy within the marriage can be incredibly grounding and affirming.”

The strongest of marriages are built upon a firm foundation of mutual respect, honesty, and deep commitment to nourishing the relationship over time. Unlike even the closest relationships with family and friends, it is within the confines of a healthy marriage that partners seek the most intimate level of powerful bonding, closeness, and nurturing. Sexual engagement is but one aspect of the marital relationship, yet it is a highly important one. Consistent, ongoing satisfaction of both partners’ sexual desires is but one element of the matrix. The unique connection that occurs during physical intimacy fosters and reinforces trust and attachment in a way that other activities simply cannot duplicate. Sexual intimacy creates a safe haven that allows a couple to bond and experience the nourishing, revitalizing power of deep, connective lovemaking. This type of bonding offers a couple a deeper sense of being safe and cared for in a very unpredictable world.

When daily life becomes stressful and difficult, a strong foundation of intimacy within the marriage can be incredibly grounding and affirming. Sexual intimacy cannot cure the bumps and bruises that occur, but the bonding energy it creates can surely help a couple face the world feeling supported and loved. Rather than seeing sexual intimacy as a burden that can be pushed off until life slows down or troubles subside, healthy couples realize that sexual intimacy actually serves to provide greater strength and commitment.

Unfortunately, in marriages where sex is viewed as a mere physically satisfying act, the curative and bonding powers of sexual intimacy are missing. Thus, when life becomes stressful and challenging, the connection of sexual intimacy is either unavailable or quick to diminish; at the very time when partners need each other most, the bonding power of sexual intimacy is lost. In the struggle to pay bills, tend to family issues, and find a bit of rest, sexual intimacy can fade away. If communication about stressors is not honest and clear, one partner often feels rejected and pushed away. Resentment often builds as the couple moves further and further apart. This only adds to the sadness and frustration, and partners can become alienated by the cycle of hurt, disappointment, and resentment.

Sexual detachment does not need to be permanent. When a couple chooses to do the work necessary to understand the root causes of the issues at work, sexual intimacy can be created and nourished. The next installment in this series will provide valuable, specific tools and insights to rebuild and foster deeper sexual intimacy. The road to recovery can be slow and difficult, but the benefits are incomparable. Sexual intimacy is vital to the staying power of a healthy, love-filled marriage.

RELATED STORIES
Sexless Marriage (Part 1): Understanding Why Passion and Sex Die
Sexless Marriage (Part 3): Getting Reconnected

As a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, Dr. Carla Marie Manly maintains a focus on helping clients transform their lives and their relationships. Using a body-mind-spirit approach that underscores the importance of overall wellness, Dr. Manly works with her clients on a highly individualized basis to uncover the core concerns that often manifest as psychological, behavioral, and somatic symptoms. Combining traditional depth psychotherapy with somatic therapy, Dr. Manly offers her clients a specialized approach to creating passionate, joy-filled lives. Working in both individual and group settings, she strives to promote change by increasing her clients’ personal self-awareness and insight.  A devoted writer, speaker, and yoga instructor, Dr. Manly is dedicated to helping others create the lives of their dreams. California License: Psy25539. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com and follow her on Google+.


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