Have an honest talk with your married friends or check with just about any therapist— you’ll find sex seems to be flourishing everywhere except in the place you’d expect it: the bedrooms of millions of married couples. It even has a name— "the sexless marriage."
On Dateline Friday, meet two couples confounded by the lack of passion in their relationships. Each volunteered to participate on Dateline and allowed our cameras to follow them through an unconventional sex therapy. It will be a rare glimpse into the most private part of marriage.
Below, are common myths about “sexless marriages” from Drs. David Schnarch and Ruth Morehouse, who have over 40 years of clinical experience and reviewing research on sex and marriage. As they explain below, less passionate marriages aren't necessarily because of the length of the marriage, the age of the people involved, or because of the presence of perceived physical problems.
1. Sexless couples rarely or never have sex. Some sexless couples still occasionally have sex. For instance, one couple had sex almost every day when first married, and could hardly keep their hands off each other. After several years, they settled into a pattern of sex once or twice a month. Sometimes they went three or four months without sex, and when they had sex it was passionless and mechanical. Although they usually both had orgasms, there was no eroticism, passion, kindness, or generosity to it. As far as they were concerned, their relationship was sexless and barren.
2. Sexless couples are likely to be older. Although frequency of sex declines as people get older, many young couples do not have sex. Because of stereotypes that young couples have sex all the time, they silently suffer thinking they are really screwed up and their relationship is doomed in future years. Most people believe adolescence is the sexual prime of life, but this refers to genital response. Many people are much better in bed when they get older. Becoming more comfortable with your sexuality, your body—and accepting yourself in general—really helps. It turns out that cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.
3. Women are more likely to be the low desire partner in their relationship. In half the couples who come to the Marriage and Family Health Center for sexual desire problems, the man is the low desire partner. Some studies find women more often report low sexual desire than men, but this may mean women are more sensitive to their own lack of desire and more willing to report it. Lesbian and gay male couples struggle with sexual desire problems too. The phrase “Lesbian bed death” underscores this common development.
4. The low desire partner is hung up about sex. This is one of the greatest surprises for couples. There is a low desire partner (and a high desire partner) in every relationship, whether you have sexual problems or not. “Low desire” and “high desire” are relative positions in a relationship, rather than something measured against a numerical preferred frequency. In many cases, the low desire partner is actually more erotically inclined and/or more sexually experienced than the high desire partner. The low desire partner knows the sex they’re having isn’t worth wanting, that’s why they’re not interested. It’s the high desire partner’s desire for additional servings of lousy sex that needs to be questioned.
5. Sex dies in marriage. Unmarried couples are more likely to have sex. Research says the marital bed is still the hot bed of sex. Married couples are more likely to have more sex, and more varied sex, than single people. For instance, oral sex is more common in married couples rather than single couples. Granted, many couples go through periods where sex disappears, but this is not necessarily the death knell of sex, for reasons outlined below.
6. Rekindling desire is virtually impossible once it dies. Rekindling sexual desire is not a snap, but it certainly is doable if you address it directly. Most couples have to rekindle sex, because sexual boredom is virtually certain due to the way sex operates in long-term relationships. Once couples rule out everything that makes them nervous, they do whatever is left over. Years of “leftovers” makes sex boring. However, sexual novelty is only introduced by one partner suggesting something new that the other isn’t completely comfortable doing.
7. Couples are either sexually compatible or they’re not. Sexual compatibility is not a matter of liking the same sexual behaviors, or preferring the same meanings and styles of sex. This can be nothing more than simply finding someone who has similar sexual hang-ups and limitations, and promising never to grow. Sexual compatibility is the ability to adapt to differences in each other’s sexual preferences. This becomes particularly important when sexual boredom sets in, and one of you proposes something new. Think of sexual compatibility as two people being willing to stretch themselves sexually, rather than stick with the same old things they like in common.
8. Desire isn’t something you can make yourself feel, either you do or you don’t. It’s like “sexual chemistry. The common idea of “sexual chemistry” has two main parts: One is that when you have “chemistry,” sex is effortless and automatic. The other is that once sex dies, the “chemicals” are used up and there is nothing you can do. This erroneous viewpoint is popular because we love the notion that sexual relationships don’t take work if you’re “meant for each other” or “in love.” However, there are lots of things you can do to get yourself in the mood for sex. For example, loose that extra ten pounds, let yourself fantasize in advance, take a nice bath, or wear sexy underwear that make you feel hot. Confronting underlying problems in your relationship can really help too.
9. Sexual desire problems mean you’re falling out of love or something else is going wrong in your marriage. Normal couples have sexual desire problems because the processes of self-development permeate love relationships. This shows up as arguments about autonomy, power, status, and feeling controlled. When you and your partner are struggling over whether you (your body) first belong(s) to yourself (and you can share if you want to) or your partner has a right to your body because you agreed to monogamy, it’s not uncommon to stop having sex for months or a year or more.
10. Hormonal problems are the most common cause of low desire problems. Many things can cause sexual desire problems, and some involves hormonal problems, medical illnesses, and medications. But many other things cause sexual desire problems, including the natural processes of emotionally committed relationships. This doesn’t mean marriage kills sex and intimacy (as many people believe.) It’s just a midpoint in a process that can ultimately make you capable of profound desire and greater capacity to love. Many couples try to hide conflicts in their marriage, by automatically presuming the problem is hormonal rather than interpersonal.
Catch "Love and Marriage" on Dateline Friday, July 14, as Dateline presents the ultimate reality TV and talks to husbands and wives on what goes on -- and what doesn't -- behind bedroom doors.
For more on Dr. Schnarch and Morehouse, click here.