So what makes a marriage sexless? At face value, this seems like a simple question. According to the literature, a sexless marriage is one with sex happening less than once a month.
But wait, there's still sex happening you say? Yep, there is. But imagine how much stress and pressure there is in this relationship.
Think about it. You're in a marriage where sex hasn't occurred for months (or years), and you're approaching a moment where it looks like it may happen. How much pressure do both people feel at this moment?
The sex almost has to be good or who knows how long it will be before it happens again. In this environment, how easy is it to relax and enjoy the moment? To calmly let things unfold and follow the connection together? What if something doesn't work? What if it is over too fast? How much time is spent in foreplay? Talking? Looking into each other's eyes? And how much eroticism is in this moment? Passion?
These types of moments are pressure cookers for relationships.
A sexless marriage includes a great deal of pain, heartache, loneliness, and frustration. But ... it is still a relationship. And therein lies the path to growth and intimacy again.
Marriage is designed for our growth.
Growing up (differentiation) always involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. It is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others —especially as they become increasingly important to you.
For many people, growing up in the close confines of marriage becomes virtually impossible. It is not possible to view one's own needs as valid if those needs appear to contradict the needs of a spouse and/or other close family members (e.g. children). It comes across as selfish or controlling.
What happens is people create a reflected sense of self, which involves needing continual contact, validation, and consensus from others in order to feel good about ourselves.
Fact is, this is how many of us view ourselves - through the prism of how others see us.
This is the elegance (and frustration) inherent in marriage relationships. And this sets up quite the quandary - how can someone think about leaving the main relationship that defines them?
This is the anxiety that creates a sense of being stuck.
To speak bluntly, the less grown-up person will be so hamstrung by their anxiety that they will feel powerless to change things and will consequently stay in the relationship, even with the pain and frustration.
But, it is not only the less grown-up person who may choose to stay - growing up (i.e., differentiation) is not selfish. It is not about always putting yourself ahead of everyone else. You can choose to be guided by your spouse's (and others) best interest, even at the price of your individual agenda.
The significant difference here is that the choice is a genuine choice - not one mandated by anxiety. And, this choice doesn't leave you feeling like you're being ruled by the needs of others.
For most of us, growing up does not lead to accepting more of the same because we come to realize the truth of marriage is not about soothing each other. It's about learning to stand on your own two feet.
In a sexless marriage, the essential element missing is intimacy - and growing up involves recognizing how to achieve it. Intimacy develops best through conflict, self-validation and unilateral disclosure. It is a process of both confronting yourself and self-disclosure to your spouse. Not just self-disclosure as we often believe.
This two-pronged approach to intimacy will require handling your self much better than you may have thus far. The reason is because intimacy requires self-disclosure first, then perhaps safety and security appear. Or not.
It takes courage to say something like this... "I don't expect you to agree with me; you weren't put on the face of the earth to validate and reinforce me. But I want you to love me - and you can't really do that if you don't know me. I don't want your rejection - but I must face that possibility if I'm ever to feel accepted or secure with you. It's time to show myself to you and confront my own separateness."
Self–validated intimacy involves providing support for yourself all while letting yourself be truly known.
A scary proposition.
As you achieve a higher level of growing up, revealing yourself is less dependent on your spouse's moods or life's minor ups and downs. You learn that you are more capable of expressing who you are in the face of neutral or even negative responses from those around you.
You also can begin to unilaterally push the boundaries of your relationship, because you feel less threatened when your spouse refuses (or even starts) to grow.
On the flip side, the lower the level of your growth, the more prone you are to engage in highly dependent relationships where you wind up trying to control your spouse in order to maintain "control" of yourself.
In a sexless marriage, spouses are stuck in this system until one of them realizes the dynamics at play between them (these same dynamics are at play in every marriage by the way).
- There will be a high desire and a low desire for sex - and the person with the least desire for sex will control the sex. But having that person control your sense of adequacy is optional.
- Reviving sexual desire is not as simple as "resolving past hurts." Bringing sex back to the relationship involves a two-choice dilemma - a situation necessitating a choice between two or more anxiety-provoking alternatives. "I don't want to have sex with you, and I want you to be okay with that and not leave me."
A key fact to remember with two-choice dilemmas, the choice is not between being anxious or not – it is between one anxiety and another. When relationships hit gridlock, we want two choices. The problem is we only get one at a time. You make a choice, and then your spouse gets to make his or hers (or vice-versa).
It is times like this when couples get creative and think they can avoid the two-choice dilemmas of life. This is when you encourage your spouse to "be reasonable" — so you don't really have to choose. But you must realize, you and your spouse are not in the same boat, so you can't steer your boat and your spouse's at the same time.
This is how both spouses collude to create a sexless marriage that remains in this state for long periods of time.
The low desire spouse has made it known they are not interested in sex, and the high desire spouse colludes in this by failing to act because they don't want to have to choose.
On the other hand, expecting your low desire spouse to sacrifice for you in the name of love will also kill the marriage, sex, intimacy, and love.
So both spouses remain in a "no man's land" - not happy with what they have and not willing to risk the anxiety that making a choice will create.
Anxiety in marriage (and life for that matter) is inevitable.
Here's how you can determine if anxiety is crippling you:
- You can't remain calm in the face of your spouse's agenda/needs/wants.
- You are reactive and have a poor self-image so you can't change your position even when it's in your best interest.
- You refuse to see your spouse as a separate person (the two shall become one idea).
- You are unwilling to tolerate the anxiety of personal growth.
Growing up involves choosing. So does the act of having sex. Choosing is the path to growing up in married life.
Because growing up is the process of:
- Maintaining a clear sense of who you are as you become increasingly intimate with a spouse who is increasingly more important to you; knowing what you value and believe as well as not defending a false or inaccurate self-picture.
- Maintaining the proper perspective about your anxieties, limitations, and shortcomings so that they neither drive nor immobilize you.
- The willingness to engage in self-confrontation necessary for your growth.
- Acknowledging your projections and distortions and admitting when you are wrong - whether or not your spouse reciprocates or even cares.
- Tolerating the pain involved with growth. It is mobilizing yourself toward the growth you value and aspire to while soothing your own hurts when necessary, without excessive self-indulgence. This is supporting rather than berating yourself.
The dilemmas of married life can't be avoided, but they can be grown through. They require a willingness to risk and humility to learn new ways and paths through life.
It takes tremendous personal courage to grow through gridlock. But the outcome is so worth it. Not only might it produce a great marriage, more importantly, it will produce a relationship with your own authentic self - someone you may not have been introduced to previously.