Here’s a statistic for you. If you’re in a room with four friends who are either married or in a long-term relationship and all of them are having sex regularly with their partner, the law of averages suggests your marriage is the one that isn’t getting as much as it should.
Although there’s no definitive study on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that between 15 and 20 per cent of all couples are locked into a sexless marriage.
Tempting though it was to write the word trapped instead of locked, we’re being deliberately non-judgemental about this because there’s plenty of well-respected opinion that argues lack of sex doesn’t necessarily make for an unhappy marriage or a relationship from which one partner must, de facto, be striving to escape.
But – and this is an elephant-sized but – there’s also no escaping pure anthropological fact here: ultimately, human beings are animals and thousands of years of evolution can’t be denied. Men and women are simply biologically predisposed to need to be at it regularly.
The reasons are obvious enough – as recently as two generations ago couples who could barely afford to put bread on the table routinely produced as many as 10 or 11 children.
In fact, the poorer the family, the larger it was inclined to be. Not because they’d always dreamed of having a big family, but because it was the only way to beat the odds that disease, war and pestilence had stacked against a child’s chances of surviving beyond their 10th birthday.
Big families were just the pitiful result of playing the percentages and preserving the continuation of life.
Broken down to our core purpose, humans are just like any other animal. We’re designed to eat, sleep and mate. That’s it. It’s really no more or less complicated.
Of course, over the years we’ve learned to turn sex into a form of entertainment, finding pleasure in what was once functional and manufacturing desire on demand.
There are plenty of species whose members show genuine affection – and even love – for one another; but there isn’t another species on earth that needs or wants to have sex on a daily basis.
Venture out into the Serengeti and you won’t see a couple of cheetahs passing the time by indulging in a bit of oral sex between hunts. Neither will baboons observe a the niceties of foreplay before getting down to the business of swelling the number of their troop.
But the fact sex is now the currency in which desire and approval are traded brings with it a whole host of issues that, together, mean not getting it is now the third most cited reason for divorce in the UK.
It’s important to define what constitutes a sexless marriage or relationship here. Generally accepted opinion is that this is any relationship in which a couple has sex fewer than 12 times a year – which is arguably a lot more relationships than statistics might suggest.
While lack or loss of physical intimacy works for some people, for others it can create all sorts of issues in the relationship.
Sexual intimacy is an important way for couples to connect and after a prolonged period where it has been absent in a relationship, it can be desperately hard to re-establish that connection because it can be hard for couples to see whether lack of intimacy has caused the problems in the relationship, or vice versa.
Restoring intimacy requires an acknowledgement of the emotionality of sex, and that begins with communication, self-awareness and a commitment to purposely create the time to take the small steps that can eventually lead to sexual reconnection.
And it takes time. Just as you wouldn’t decide to run a marathon one morning if you hadn’t exercised in a year, so reconnecting intimately requires training. Just as it takes time time to break the links to intimacy in a relationship, so it takes time to rebuild them.
Usually, intimacy erodes not because one person has an unreasonable appetite for sex – although it’s not unheard of – but because there has been a slow withdrawal of the physical dimension to a relationship, a process that can easily be interpreted by one person in the relationship as an expression of rejection.
And that is when the real problems start – and it’s why sex is such an important part of most successful marriages.
Sex is a major part of the bonding process and it’s an integral part of what causes us to fall in love. As Scott Peck says in his brilliant book, The Road Less Travelled, if sex didn’t play a part in that, we’d fall in love with our friends, who we also love, but, crucially, in a different way.
This is why sexual intimacy is part of the reason we continue ‘feeling in love’. Without it we end up living with a glorified flatmate in a relationship that’s based on life admin that ends up more about whose turn it is to put the bins out than it is about getting hot and breathy under the duvet.
Again, it’s worth stressing the point that the presence of sex in a relationship or marriage isn’t a non-negotiable requirement of a happy and successful marriage – it’s simply that a relationship is more likely to be successful if sex plays a positive part in it (and we make that point because there are plenty of relationships that suffer through negative physical intimacy)
Like all good things, a healthy, productive, constructive and fulfilling sexual relationship needs work.
The notion that all marriages are destined to end up in the barren acreage of the marital bed is an easy but lazy and inaccurate stereotype. Show me a midlife couple whose marriage is sexless, and I’ll show you a couple of roughly the same age who are at it like rabbits.
But that’s not to say it’s always easy to keep the spark alive. Familiarity certainly helps to breed contempt. Busy lives breed exhaustion. Young families narrow the windows of opportunity.
We live a married life or a long-term partnership in the harsh glare of warts ‘n’ all reality. A relationship is not all about perfumed flesh and beautiful lingerie. Living with someone isn’t for the faint-hearted and it requires us to compartmentalise intimacy in a place where it won’t be infected by some of the more unpleasant realities of sharing a life and a space with another person.
It’s not that we lose interest in sex, it’s that familiarity can lead to a lack of desire. Desire needs an element of mystery and distance to it … and the great news is that couples can create this distance with really simple ideas – like arranging a date night but arriving separately.
Often, it’s not a punishment or a deliberate act of disapproval – it’s that we get out of practice, and not getting any becomes easier than getting some.
The problem is that unless the communication between you and your partner is flawless, the ending of your contract of intimacy brings with it some potentially serious issues.
Rejection damages self-esteem. It lays waste to self-confidence. You start to wonder whether it’s something you did or something you said. Could you have done more, said more, been more? Did you try hard enough, tell him or her you loved them enough? Have you driven them away? And eventually the maggot of self-doubt starts to feast on the rotting flesh of your own self-worth.
And here’s the bitter irony: in many cases the exact same things are going through his or her head.
Suddenly the lack of sex in your marriage isn’t about sex anymore. It’s about love and trust and respect – even though, in all probability, the absence of sex in your relationship has nothing at all to do with any of those things.
As well as being a fierce protector, the subconscious can also be a sly and malign manipulator, an architect of negative thoughts and behaviours that can set you on a road that leads through the derelict and weed-strewn towns of Anxiety and Depression on a straight shot to the one-horse desert of Unhappiness.
When it comes to communication, talking about sex may can include all the good stuff you want to do to each other and can also include getting to know each other’s sexual intimacy styles.
Sexologist Miss Jaiya talks about the sex languages of different erotic preferences and styles of touch. Once a couple know how each other prefers to be touched this can really increase the potential for connection, great sex, and expression of love in relationship.
Forgetting how to be physically intimate isn’t a crime and it isn’t the death knell for your relationship. You just have to learn how to do that dance all over again – and that starts by talking and being honest and open and real, and facing the issues that stopped the music in the first place.
What we see with the people we work with is that there is so much more couples can do to come into an understanding of each other, and we support them to learn how to effectively communicate with each other and have those tricky conversations about sex in a way that can support openness and connection rather than fuel defensiveness.
If you’re ready to relearn the intimate steps of your relationship, we’re here to help.