When I married my husband, we were five years in. I was only twenty-three, but our sex life was pretty absent. We had sex once a month, maybe, and it was all, always, on my terms. If he made a move, or even tried to be intimate, I froze. I didn’t think too much about it. He wasn’t the guy to push things, and I sort of just assumed it was normal. Men always wanted to do It and women were just less sexual, right?
When I met my now-wife, we ran hot, like any new couple. I discovered a sexual appetite I’d either never had, or long forgotten in my previous marriage. I wanted sex?! Holy shit! She was surprising too—voracious and entirely unselfconscious about asking for what she wanted.
Then, some time just before we got engaged, something shifted. I’m not sure exactly what. It was probably a number of things. But somewhere in there, she started turning me down and not instigating sex. You know how that made me feel? Rejected, unworthy, unattractive—and that came out as self-pitying anger. No amount of assurance I was sexy or beautiful made up for it. Although I knew it wasn’t rational, I had an expectation that I would be wanted whenever I wanted it. I’d grown up with all the say, and now I had none. I became, periodically, a passive-aggressive, pressurizing grade-A jerk. You know how that made her feel? Guilty, awful, inadequate—and not at all like getting her undies off.
The Merry-Go-Round Of No Sex
That was the start of a toxic not-so-merry-go-round. She was desperate not to trigger the jerk in me, so every kiss, every hug was guarded. No more incidental passionate goodbye kisses, no early morning slippery showers. No more anything that might “lead me on.”
Each of those thin-lipped kisses felt like a rejection. Every time she rolled out of my arms with a worried smile made me more desperate for her—for any scrap of the intimacy I’d come to crave.
Was this the fabled lesbian bed death I’d heard so much about? Was this just what a relationship with two women was like? She was just ahead of the curve, and I’d catch up shortly, start wanting less. We’d slip comfortably down into loving companionship and forget we were ever once sexual creatures. I was lonely. When we did have sex it was like coming up for air. I sometimes wept with the joy of feeling connected again. For her it was just as bad; she felt deficient, at fault, her libido was gone, that she was the one who needed fixing.
Academically we knew that marriage and sex are (at least) two-person activities, we just didn’t really know what to do with that information. We would talk and cry and talk and cry and cuddle and cry and talk. All good stuff, but I didn’t see a way out. We talked about counseling, but a lack of money and shame (probably the real culprit) held us back.
Then it started occurring to me: I’d been here before, only I’d been her. I’d been the one guarding the kisses in case I started something I didn’t want to finish. I’d been the one rolling out of arms and stonewalling with books and iPhones. It gave me new empathy for my ex who’d occupied the position with far more grace and patience than I’d been showing.
Without any reassuring gender norms to fall back on, things were clearer. This wasn’t normal. This wasn’t just men being men, and women being women. We were two people (are, dammit) in our prime, who loved each other, and only a few years earlier would nip into stairwells because we couldn’t wait to get home. Where were those women? We started to unpack what was going on and set strategies to fix things.
How we fixed our sexless marriage
Guess what is super not helpful? The Internet. There’s lots on there about mismatched libidos, and studies correlating sex with marital longevity and satisfaction (which is always reassuring, thanks). But beyond “go to counseling” there’s nothing on practical stuff. Very few people talk about the details of their lagging marital sex life, and I guess I don’t blame them. So here. Think of this as a “How we did it” for how we got the slap and tickle back into our bed.
1. Try hard to not be a jerk. This was a really important step for me to have taken, obviously.
2. Have long, set periods where sex is off the table. French kissing? Yes. Dry humping? Sure. Nipple tweaks? Bring it. Orgasms? Nope. This takes the pressure off. This gave my partner the chance to remember what it was like to feel sexy, without the worry of leading me on. We could have those intimate moments back and I wouldn’t ever feel rejected.
3. Introduce more mystery. No more wash-your-bum, scrub-your-feet showering together. No more sleeping nude (because then it’s not a treat, you know?). No more more-than-naked, intimate-but-not-hot activities.
4. Get healthy. A balanced diet, more sleep, more exercise all helped, both with our emotions and with her libido. I’m still slightly skeptical, but really expensive multivitamins and fish oil supplements seemed to make a dramatic difference.
5. Stop worrying. We were able to relax when we were no longer worrying about how much we should be having sex, and what that means for our relationship.
6. Find your personal escape. This is really a point about de-stressing. For my wife, putting down the business books and picking up some escapism helped heaps.
Things that didn’t work
1. Accompanied self-love. If, after a make-out session, I was rearing to go and she wasn’t, we could take our own pleasure, as it were. This was an okay-ish stopgap solution, but it made her feel awful, and ultimately served as a reminder of how she (perceived that she) was failing.
2. Eliminating sexy times completely. This came after a big horrible, tense period where things started to unravel. We decided to put a pin in it: sex was the problem, so would ban it altogether. It worked. No more tense fights, no more crying, but also, no more marriage. We were really close, harmonious flatmates. It maybe worked as a sort of circuit breaker, but overall, it sucked.
3. Porn and dirty books. Ever tried watching porn when you’re not in the mood? It feels sad.
It’s been a couple of years and things have changed a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Sex is fun again, we laugh and talk—things we stopped doing in case it broke the sexy spell. She feels safe to turn me down, and I feel safe to instigate sex without risking rejection. The incidental, erotic, intimate non-sex moments are back. And as it turns out, it was those moments that I’d needed—that we both needed—the most.
And plus? We’re having heaps more sex… which, I see now, is kind of beside the point.
Have you experienced a sexless marriage? (This fact sheet makes it clear that a sexless marriage sometimes involves minimal sex, not NO sex at all.) Studies show that nearly 20 percent of marriages for people under the age of forty involve minimal sex, so if you’ve struggled with this, you’re not alone. What have you done to improve—or simply live with—the situation?