Living as a couple with hardly any sex: ‘If we have to cross something off the list, we usually sacrifice pleasure’

Many factors can affect and even end a couple’s sex life. We talk to experts about why sexual frequency declines and what happens when sex takes a backseat to relationship priorities

Vivir en pareja sin apenas sexo
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in 'Scenes from a Marriage.'

In today’s society, sexuality has become omnipresent. It surrounds us. It is almost impossible to escape from it and, in fact, it is nothing new. That’s how it’s always been. Traditionally, this all-consuming desire, which leads many people into madness, betrayal, and nonsense of all kinds, has been channeled through marriage, courtship, and sex in the conjugal bed with their life partner. However, when the passion of the early years disappears and relationships become long term, the desire to have sex decreases considerably. A study published by the International Society for Sexual Medicine concluded that 35% of couples have sex an average of between one and three times a month. At its most extreme, it states that 5% of people with a partner did not have more than one or two sexual encounters a year. But what happens when, for whatever reason, being in a couple stops being synonymous with having sex? Can they go on? Can everything to flow smoothly with sex taken out of the equation?

“Relationships in which there is no sexual activity are more common than many people think. Especially if we understand by sexual activity the penetration associated with orgasm,” says Laura Morán, a psychologist, family and couples therapist, and sexologist. She has just published Perfectamente imperfectas (Perfectly imperfect). In her book (available only in Spanish), she gives various key pieces of advice on making relationships work. “It usually happens because for many people sexual relations may be considered important, but they are not urgent. If we have to cross something off the list, we usually take hours away from sleep and pleasure. Due to our frenetic pace of life, we give up things that are important, but not vital (although we usually make mistakes in that, like not eating and resting well).”

“In general, wanting or not wanting to have sexual relations is usually a consequence of the conjunction of several individual elements and the relationship itself,” she continues. “One of the big problems can be stress, which, in general, hinders our ability to experience pleasure because when you are ‘alert’ you are prepared to survive, not to enjoy yourself. Furthermore, sexual relationships are the first to suffer when there are disagreements, conflicts, or unresolved friction in the relationship. Even though the problem arises in bed, a lot of the time it has come from outside of it.”

Having children, with the change in dynamics that this implies, and suffering from a physical or mental health problem, are other factors that can disrupt the sexual harmony in a relationship. “Although at other times the causes are less ‘serious’ things,” says the doctor, “like both members of the couple simply find satisfaction in other shared activities.”

“There is no single rule that determines how much sex is normal within a couple. The frequency depends a lot on each relationship and the different stages of life,” says psychologist and sexologist Silvia Sanz, author of the book Sexamor (available only in Spanish). “Also, it should be noted that a lack of sexual activity does not always equate to there being a problem in the relationship. Many couples have a very good emotional connection and do not have very frequent sexual activity, while others have a very strong passion and physical intimacy, which is the fundamental or essential part of the relationship, but have problems in the other areas of the relationship.”

The unbearable asymmetrical desire

Therefore, we could say that the short answer to the question we posed at the beginning of this article, whether it is possible to maintain a relationship with hardly any sex, is yes. Of course it is possible, especially if both members of the couple are on the same wavelength, and they find that cooperation, communication, sharing a common project (such as a family or a company), or a hobby that they share and experience together is enough to continue.

However, issues arise when the desire is asymmetrical. “If one party wants to have sexual relations and the other doesn’t, that’s when problems arise,” says Morán. “Because it is very possible that the rejected person does not feel that they are only rejecting the physical act of going to bed, but rather that they feel a rejection against their own person. That is why it is important to work on the ‘nuances of no.’ Saying that you don’t want to have sexual relations does not necessarily mean that you reject the person, you are simply declining sex with him or her. The problem is that if the situation drags on over time, it is not talked about, or it is only fought over, it ends up creating an unresolvable conflict between both.”

“In cases like this, the dynamics of the relationship are altered. The bond is strained,” explains Sanz. “Sometimes that feeling of emotional distance causes things to bother you more. You are more irritable. You put yourself less in someone else’s shoes, or you may feel frustrated. Self-esteem collapses: the person who does want to have sex feels unwanted, and unattractive. And from there a whole series of problems can arise, such as infidelities and, ultimately, breakups.”

The harmful mental health effects of these situations of forced sexual abstinence within the couple are profoundly aggravated by comparison. People who are going through a situation like this tend to think that they are the only ones who have that specific problem while everyone else is enjoying sex to the fullest.

Although it is no consolation, the truth is that this is evidently not the case. According to statistical data from the United States referenced in the journal Psychology Today, between 14 and 15% of couples have sex infrequently. However, the media, movies, and advertising sell us a very different image. “We can come to feel very intense social pressure regarding what to expect from a partner in terms of the frequency of sexual activity, which will generate even more anxiety and stress,” says Sanz.

“The sexual freedom that we enjoy,” explains Morán, “seems to require constant sexual pleasure. Furthermore, in the past sex was something that was hidden, and now we have to show it off on social media to be considered a successful couple. However, as sexologist Joserra Landa says, when we try to normalize something we tend to make it normative and they are two different things. It is convenient to naturalize human sexuality, alone and as part of a couple, but it should not be considered an obligation or an imposition, because that is incompatible with it being truly pleasurable.”

How to deal with the situation

Sex is often more important for what it implies than for the relationships themselves, since kissing, hugging, undressing, and giving and receiving pleasure involve communication, satisfaction, and generosity. It is an excellent way to strengthen the bond between two people. Its absence makes everything more difficult for us, but not impossible.

“It is possible to enhance intimacy in a couple by improving communication, creating a solid foundation to seek other forms of intimacy that are not just sex,” explains Sanz. “Create special moments, surprise each other, or do joint activities. In short, focus a lot on the good things you share, feel the emotional connection that keeps you together.”

“The first thing that should be clear is that sexual activity goes beyond our genitals and that caresses, kisses, hugs, and complicit and intimate physical contact in a couple should also ‘count’ as sexual activity,” Morán points out. “Now, they are not substitutes for the orgasmic experience of sex. If this imbalance in desire occurs in a couple, I think the best thing you can do is take the opportunity to review why this is happening and what you can do together. Of course, you have to do it as a team, not as opponents,” she concludes.

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