What Nobody Tells You About Sexless Marriage

Illustrated By Anna Sudit
I joke (but is it a joke?) that my sex-and-relationships writing consists of long variations on two short tenets.
1. No, you're not weird, and you're almost certainly not alone. (Addendum: If whatever it is you're worried makes you "weird" is interfering with your life or others' lives, address that, with professional help if necessary.)
2. Talk with your partner.
There you have it: the backbone of my column, because these themes are that widely applicable. Take, for example, Loose Women's Saira Khan's on-air "confession" last week that she gave her husband permission to have sex with other people, which set off a media frenzy.
Khan, who's 46 and has been married to her husband, Steven Hyde, for 11 years, revealed on the talk show that she had less than zero interest in sex with her husband, leading her to offer him the opportunity to seek sex elsewhere. "As soon as he comes home, I panic and start saying, 'I’m so tired!'" she shared on the show. "I’m embarrassed to say this, but I said to him, 'You can go with someone else if you want'... I want to make him happy. He’ll kill me for saying this... Am I the only one?"
The response to her statement, Khan later said, was overwhelming. Reporters showed up at her door; stories were written and public judgment cast. Khan's mother even called from Kashmir to reprimand her for talking about sex on TV. ("No, mum, I'm talking about [how] I don't have sex," she rejoined.) She returned to Loose Women days after her original appearance, this time alongside her husband, to discuss the uproar. "I was actually quite frightened at first — I’m used to seeing pictures of myself in the papers, but this was my husband, my marriage," she said. "But it proves that this is a topic the nation wants to talk about."
It's not only people in the U.K. who want to talk about it. Data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that the second-most-Googled relationship term (after "abusive relationship") is "sexless relationship." "Sexless marriage" is three-and-a-half times more searched than "unhappy marriage" and eight times more searched than "loveless marriage." So, to answer Khan's original question: No, she is not alone, and couples' relationships likely include little to no sex far more frequently than they like to admit. (Which is never.)
Mutually agreed-upon non-monogamous relationships, such as the one Khan proposed to her partner, are likely also much more common than we assume. (Hyde declined her offer, for the record, and was also stricken when she opened up about their sex life on television — which raises a separate point about the importance of obtaining your partner's consent before you expose the intricacies of your intimacy to the world. See Tenet 2, and talk with your partner.) What was shocking about Khan's admission was not what she admitted, but that she admitted to it. In public. On television. Because when we depart from the monogamy script — first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes dutiful once-a-week sex with no one but each other until death do us part — we are supposed to keep quiet.

When we depart from the monogamy script, we are supposed to keep quiet

But those whose sexualities — whether that means their libidos or orientations or preferences — are mismatched with their partners' understand that relationships are not one-size-fits-all. "The mismatch of sex drive is a common reason why people consider ethical non-monogamy, for sure — I both know and work with couples like that," relationship coach Effy Blue tells me. "Sexual fidelity is not the measure of the success of a relationship. If one party has a higher sex drive, it doesn't mean that the other has to feel under pressure to satisfy. The couple can make a decision together for the harmony of the relationship."
And there, again, is Tenet 2: Talk with your partner, as Khan did when she introduced the idea of incorporating sexual non-monogamy into their marriage. Her husband didn't happen to be interested, and that's fine — but Khan recognized ethical non-monogamy as an option that might help satisfy their needs.
And that's what we're not talking about when it comes to marriage, and relationships in general. There are more options than we acknowledge in public, more options than we are led to believe. We already allow that sexual orientation lies on a spectrum; it follows that in the vast space between asexuality and hyper-sexuality, sexual desire does, too. There are countless reasons why someone might lose interest in sex or even develop an aversion to it, as Khan did, and I don't pretend to have insight into her physical or hormonal or psychological profile. Anything from medication to mental health problems to fatigue to hormonal changes to sexual history to relationship issues can wreak havoc on a person's sex drive, and many of these can and should be addressed.
But, these factors aside, each person's libido is unique to him or her, and you might reasonably find yourself in love with someone with a very different vision of how often you two should get down. "I work with a lot of couples with mismatched sex drives, and occasionally the mismatch can be so extreme that one partner will suggest opening up the relationship," sex therapist Vanessa Marin tells me. "Opening up the relationship can work, but both partners have to willingly agree to the arrangement. It's not going to work if one partner pressures or guilts the other into it, even if it's the lower-drive partner trying to pressure the higher-drive partner."
"In my practice, I encourage couples to come to that decision unanimously and acknowledge and celebrate their existing relationship for being able to accommodate each other's needs," Blue adds. "It has to be a joint effort. It's not about one person going out and leaving the other behind. It's the couple that is facilitating one party's needs. They need to work together and problem-solve as a team. They need to figure out what that looks like."
Blue acknowledges that the shift to non-monogamy takes relentless conversation: "It's not an easy shift, for sure," she says. "Everybody involved needs to have ninja-level communication, the ability to set and articulate needs and boundaries, and a high level of cognitive flexibility" — in other words, the ability to see beyond the monogamy script and craft something unique to the couple. That departure isn't for everyone, but it is possible, and it can be rewarding — even relationship-saving. Those who choose it, and choose to talk about it, deserve our respect.

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