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Most couples expect their love lives to slow down with age, but what if the intimacy stops altogether? Can a sexless relationship survive happily?
Helen and Mike have been married for 11 years and have been celibate for six of them. But they’re perfectly happy. Or, as Helen points out, they’re still together, so they must be – mustn’t they?
‘After our two sons were born we just fell out of the habit of having sex,’ says Helen, 44. ‘It took us almost a year of trying to conceive our second child and I found it was a relief to stop because it had become a means to an end rather than a pleasure in itself.
'I’m always tired and I don’t feel any urge for sex now. Mike used to grumble occasionally about wanting sex, but he doesn’t try to initiate it any more. I can only assume he’s quite happy because he never mentions it, although I know he’d be mortified if he thought any of our friends knew.’
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with sexual imagery in advertising, music and fashion.
In our overheated culture, sex is no longer a straightforward expression of desire; it has become a potent symbol of youth and vigour, success and personal fulfilment. Against this backdrop, it’s little wonder that sexless marriage is the ultimate taboo subject.
Yet the most recent research suggests that around one in 20 couples are virtually celibate, rising to one in 10 among those in the 45-54 age group. They stay together, and their relationships are apparently strong, but they no longer have sex. Sexlessness, it seems, is the unacknowledged reality of modern marriage.
So is it possible to be happy in a celibate union? Can a co-habiting couple connect on an emotional level without physical intimacy? And as long as one partner still experiences sexual urges, can they ever truly be content with a chaste kiss goodnight?
‘A happy, celibate relationship is theoretically possible, but extremely uncommon,’ says Professor Janet Reibstein, lecturer in psychology at the University of Exeter and author of The Best Kept Secret: Men and Women’s Stories of Lasting Love. ‘I’ve worked in this field for two decades: I interviewed a great many happy couples for my book and none of them were celibate.
‘Sex is the norm, and it’s the norm for a reason. One of the ways in which love and intimacy are expressed is through sexual contact. If a woman says she and her husband are happy to be celibate - or vice versa - then I would question whether the relationship does genuinely feel comfortable to the other partner, or whether they are simply resigned to not having sex.’
Of course, celibacy is a highly subjective term. ‘A husband or wife who is having sex once every four or five weeks, but would prefer it more often, might feel virtually celibate,’ says Mary Clegg, who runs sex information workshops where she teaches both men and women (in single-sex classes) how to get the spark back into the bedroom, ‘while another couple might simply feel that to be the ideal frequency.’
But the fact is that even couples who are unable to have full intercourse for medical reasons can nonetheless give each other sexual satisfaction in other ways – whereas a marriage based merely on hugging and kissing, however loving it may be, is a celibate relationship.
The big issue is agreement. Both partners in a couple may - with age, or for other reasons - lose much of their sex drive and feel content simply to embrace and caress one another with affection, rather than desire.
As long as this state of celibacy is a mutual choice, and can’t be misinterpreted, that’s fine. But it can cause a problem if, as often happens, one partner experiences a loss of sex drive which then results in them withdrawing from all physical contact.
A wife suffering from discomfort or loss of libido after her menopause may be unwilling to touch her husband for fear of him misinterpreting it as a cue for sex.
A man with an erection problem may feel too embarrassed and angry about his condition to reach out to his partner, even though she is desperate for any sort of physical contact.
For women in particular, the absence of the affection associated with sex can be more painful than the lack of intercourse itself.
‘I find equal numbers of women and men write to me about their partner’s loss of desire,’ says YOU's relationships councellor Zelda West-Meads. ‘If, for example, a husband no longer wants sex, the crucial question is whether he has lost interest in sex completely, or has he lost sexual desire for his partner?’
The husband himself will be well aware of whether his loss of libido is general or is specific to his wife. All she can do to ascertain this is ask him outright if he finds other women sexually attractive, or if he masturbates in secret.
It can be devastating to learn that your spouse no longer finds you desirable, and some partners will lie rather than cause further hurt. But honesty is the only way to tackle the problem.
‘If the desire was never really there in the first place, it’s much harder to rekindle anything,’ says West-Meads, ‘but if the loss of interest by the husband or wife has been caused by other problems in the relationship, such as work stress, money worries or resentment over not receiving enough help with childcare, then sorting those out can help reignite passion.’
The classic complaint among men is that their partners lose interest in sex after they become mothers, transferring their affection to the children.
But it’s not necessarily the arrival of babies that damps female ardour. To some degree, evolution is stacked against women. In the early stages of a relationship, women are genetically programmed to have a high sex drive in order to form a ‘pair bond’.
After this bond has been sealed, the woman’s sexual appetite usually declines, but a man’s tends to remain the same, in order to protect him from being cuckolded by another male. Researchers from Germany have found that, four years into a secure relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex, compared to between 60 and 80 per cent of men.
According to Relate sexual therapist Paula Hall, for a purely celibate relationship to succeed, the couple needs to agree, in advance, on the precise degree of sexuality they are allowed to display, which is very difficult.
‘Our sexuality is central to who we are as people. For a celibate relationship to work you have to decide how you will maintain physical intimacy and where to draw the line. Are you still allowed to wear that little black dress he always finds so sexy, for example? Must you wear granny pants so there’s no risk of arousing him?
‘You have to be clear about what you would do if one partner starts to feel sexual. You also have to ask yourself: is the decision to have a non-sexual relationship a healthy decision, or have you simply given up on having a sex life?’
The truth is that a great number of long-term relationships become sexless, or virtually sexless, by default, many of them as a result of the pressures of work and modern life. Testosterone levels are reduced by stress, and as testosterone is responsible for the sex drive - in both men and women - that means a lack of interest in sex.
Falling into bed at the end of a long day, sex is often the very last thing on our minds. And when small children wake at 5.30am, the lazy morning lie-ins of our courtship days are also out of the question.
But unfortunately human beings tend to be creatures of routine and, if we fall out of the habit of lovemaking, we can forget how to be sensual with each other at all. Ironically, the more sex you have, the more testosterone is produced by the body, so the less sex you have, the less you feel the need for it. But sometimes celibacy seems less of a challenge than trying to tackle emotional problems between your and your partner.
‘There can be times, such as when you have small children, where celibacy suits you both,’ says Hall. ‘But if that changes for one of you, the imbalance can lead to resentment, and this has a tendency to build up slowly and eat into a relationship, causing all sorts of problems. Arguments about not having sex then create a huge amount of tension and discourage the other partner from sex even further.’
Relationship counsellors refer to the term ‘disorders of desire’ to describe situations where libidos are mismatched. Where one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t, it can be very painful. Feelings of rejection, anger and failure and also a sense of loss - on both sides - are common.
‘I feel distraught at living in a virtually sexless life,’ says Amanda, 36. ‘The pain, rage and shame I feel are sometimes overwhelming. My husband claims he loves me yet he rarely touches me. I have humiliated myself in an effort to gain his attention; I have literally begged on my knees for him to show me he cares, but that makes him retreat into himself further because he resents being put under pressure.
‘We used to have a lot of sex, then it dwindled to a few times a year. The irony is that he really enjoys sex when we have it and promises me we’ll do it again soon, but we never do. I just want to be held and feel loved. I do think about leaving him, but we have children and a life together, and lack of sex seems such a selfish, superficial reason to go.’
Amanda’s husband, Martin, 43, sees it differently. He feels nagged into sex, which makes him even more resistant. ‘I’m well aware that Amanda is unhappy - she tells me virtually every day,’ he says.
‘I know I have a problem with sex, which I suspect is partly down to laziness, and partly to do with feeling henpecked in the relationship, so at a subconscious level I withhold sex and affection. Being shouted at makes me even less inclined to want sex. I wish she would be less shrewish,’ he adds, ‘then I might have the space to initiate something, but she’s too busy ranting, so I just ignore her.’
Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage, has every sympathy for a woman or man who feels anguish at the loss of sex and intimacy. She too says she’s never encountered happy celibacy; there’s always one partner yearning for more but willing to settle for less.
‘Generally speaking, celibacy is a unilateral decision, not a joint one,’ says Wiener-Davis. ‘The intimate touching that comes with sex is the tie that binds in marriage, the glue that holds the relationship together, and we need it,’ she says. ‘It sets that primary relationship apart from all other relationships and we are hard-wired to feel a connection and a sense of being special to one another.’
An absence of sex can create a void at the centre of the relationship, leaving a door open for infidelity and divorce. When a third party offers the love and physical affection a husband or wife craves, it can be difficult to resist.
‘A marriage without sex isn’t doomed, but it’s on shaky ground,’ Wiener-Davis points out. ‘Marriage is a package deal, and there are all sorts of things you must learn to accept about your partner, but accepting that he or she won’t have sex with you is a pretty big compromise to make. Yet there are people who can look at the bigger picture, who say “I’ve got four great children and a history with this person and even though I’m really unhappy, I’m not willing to walk away”.’
Few would argue that marriage and long-term relationships are about give and take - on both sides. Sex therapists often suggest that, where desire is not equal, the partner with lower libido should occasionally display a spirit of sexual generosity towards their husband or wife as way of demonstrating love for them.
If one partner refuses to entertain any notion of physical intimacy, there’s no opportunity to rediscover the pleasure of touching and being touched, which can, in turn, lead to a reawakening of desire. In the short term, celibacy may seem easier than talking about the lack of contact and less confrontational than discussing the serious issues that underline it. But marriage is for life, and a lifetime without sex is a lot to ask of anyone.
How To Keep That Loving Feeling
Keep talking: If you feel there’s a problem with sex in your relationship, don’t brood in silence; sit down together and discuss it.
Make time to be close: Cuddle up on the sofa or in bed, but agree beforehand that it won’t lead to sex, so there’s no pressure.
Rekindle some romance: Dress up and arrange to meet in a bar you used to go when you first dated. Practise flirting with each other again.
Indulge yourselves: Set aside one evening a week to light candles and massage each other. Be sensuous rather than sexual; with time, that will happen.