Silent Night: When All’s Quiet in the Master Bedroom
As I write, the holiday madness is over and peace prevails in my house this snowy evening. The hush following Christmas and New Year’s means friends, cozy fires and finally—relaxation. Unfortunately, in some homes the silence is more profound, neither calm nor bright, but dull and deadening; a sexless marriage.
Sometimes two people decide to continue living together but no longer really talk, nor trust, nor touch. Nighttime is a painful reminder that much of the rest of the hemisphere is turning in to snuggle and take comfort in lovemaking.
Last year, The New York Times republished a blog post by Tara Parker-Pope, titled When Sex Leaves a Marriage based on an interview with Denise Donnelly, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied sexless marriages. Explaining this phenomenon, Donnelly suggests that either sex is not the focus of the relationship from the beginning or it appears to gradually diminish from twice a week to maybe once a week and less by middle age for most couples. Abrupt shifts due to major family events like the birth of children or a spouse’s affair can shut sex down more completely. The consequences? Not surprisingly, usually more unhappiness and more thoughts of divorce. “There is a feedback relationship in most couples between happiness and having sex. Happy couples have more sex, and the more sex a couple has, the happier they report being,” Donnelly states.
Elaina, 44, had come to my office regarding this very problem. “I don’t want sex with him anymore—it’s unthinkable.” Asked how her body’s silence began, she answered, “It started after the birth of our last daughter. At first, I was just too tired but the months dragged into years. Then there was a job loss and a family move that I didn’t want. Pretty soon, we were only functioning and all touching stopped. The sexless marriage seemed awkward and uncomfortable. I change in the bathroom before coming to bed and always wear PJs. We’re cordial but only engaged about the children’s lives, not our own.” Was she lonely? “Oh, it’s desperately lonely. I don’t have an intimate. I wouldn’t share my thoughts or fears or happiness with him, much less my body. I think he might want to but it’d be like sleeping with a stranger. Not something I ever really wanted to do, frankly.”
Other times, there are warmer feelings in sexless marriages, like in Rianne’s experience. “He’s my best friend, but in some ways, this is the very thing that turns me off. He’s accommodating and warm and doesn’t hold a grudge. All the men in my family of origin were strong-willed, gruff and opinionated. My husband seems a little feminine to me and I just can’t get into sex with him.” Why did she marry this nice guy instead of her familiar model? “It was the thing to do at that age, and maybe because he was less macho than men in my experience, it made him seem novel and exciting. He’s actually good in bed—attentive and willing to please me—but there’s no spark for me to get started.”
Certainly women are not the only ones who turn away from the comforts of the flesh. Speaking to our dismay over male desire problems and sexless marriages, popular women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan grab attention with posts like senior editor Bethany Heitman’s If He Stops Wanting Sex Somethings Wrong, Heitman gathers the opinions of psychologists and fellow sexperts as to possible causes, including stress, anger, anxiety about his “sack skills“, him not committing to the relationship, or him wanting to leave the relationship. I might add that he could be testosterone deficient, prefer porn, fear failing erections. The litany is as long as the reasons women stop wanting sex. And something is wrong then, too.
If both partners accept the status quo—fine. Happy room-mating. But if there is unhappiness in this arrangement, there is hope for change. Can the silent night again become a holy night full of tenderness, touch and connection? Obviously, as a sex therapist, I think this is a definite possibility and a worthwhile goal.
Sexless marriages that have lasted for many years can be resurrected to include passion and desire. But how does one go about changing this desperate scenario? The first step, brace for conflict. I repeatedly say to couples that marriage without conflict is a surefire formula for a cool bedroom. I know the nicest people who don’t have sex. Secondly, you have to name the elephant in the bedroom. “We don’t have sex. Our marriage doesn’t feel like a marriage. And I feel so sad about this. I want to change it. Do you want to change it too?” Lastly, you can’t solve all your problems before you start to have sex again. Oftentimes, the distance relationally demands the sexual connection to help the couple gain enough momentum to solve their other problems.
Certainly, big wounds need to be addressed first—the time he cheated, the time she told her friends about his failed erection, the time he left for a trip and missed the baby’s birth, etc. But believe me, after a long hiatus, you will never have everything straightened out completely to make getting back together in bed feel completely comfortable at first. Simultaneous pathways—touching and talking—generate the synergy necessary for desire to take over. Expect the first time to be a bit utilitarian. That’s okay. You can direct a stone that is rolling, but getting it on the right course while it’s lying on its side is usually nigh impossible.