‘Not this year, darling.’
I read this fascinating article in The Times
Nearly one in six long term couples have little or no sex. How do relationships survive without intimacy?
No one likes to think they’re having less sex than their married friends. And Alex, 45, a graphic designer from Surrey, is acutely aware that when he and his wife, Kate, 47, laugh and flirt on nights out, friends assume they’re “going home to go to bed together”.
Any envy is misplaced: the pair have been celibate for 14 years. “Hope is the corrosive thing,” says Alex, “thinking, ‘Maybe tonight, maybe tonight!’ And it never is. You just have to get past that. It ain’t going to be tonight.”
When Alex and Kate, a podiatrist, met on holiday in Northern Italy 17 years ago, there was no indication that sex would fade to nothing, that “a part of the relationship that’s about communication, bonding and togetherness” would be “unilaterally withdrawn”. At first, they bonked like bunnies rather than panda bears. But in their early thirties, says Alex, their physical relationship “gradually died down to the point where, six years ago we went on the holiday of a lifetime to Barbados, didn’t have sex at all, and it didn’t surprise me”.
Any sex issue in a relationship, never mind avoidance or absence, can become an emotional sinkhole around which couples carefully tiptoe — one slip and you fear it will swallow you and your marriage whole. Nothing was verbalised, says Alex, neither advance, nor refusal — “It was never an outright ‘no’.” At first, Alex was sympathetic — early on in their marriage, Kate had suffered several miscarriages.
“Horrible,” he recalls. “I could completely understand her lack of libido, which was why I backed off.” But the years rolled by “and the sex just didn’t resolve”.
In every other aspect, the marriage is rosy. Alex and Kate are affectionate.
“We touch in bed, spoon, but any time it crosses the line into anything vaguely sexual, she pulls away. If I do make a move she feigns oblivion or brushes it off.”
Does he ever have the sense that it’s him? “Oh yeah. She says, ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ And I’m not that physically different to when we first met. But I do wonder, have I done something terrible?”
Hurt and resentment festered until, says Alex, two years ago.
“My patience ran out and we rowed.” He discovered that “she’d assumed that I didn’t want sex any more either”. Kate was “visibly shocked that I thought otherwise. There were a lot of tears.”
She said discussing it made her more anxious, and sex less likely. (Or, as one therapist says, “She shut him down.”) Alex decided the best policy was to not “initiate at all. Ever. Just leave it to her, when she’s feeling up to it. And for a while, that resulted in once-a-month, ten-minute, pull-my-nightie-down-when-you’re-finished-type sex. That petered out into nothing.”
He misses the physical closeness, but it’s the emotional isolation that hurts most. “Lying in the double bed, next to the person you love — it’s the loneliest place in the world. You find yourself crying at night. Not now,” he adds. “I’m either deadened or accepting. You have to try not to let it affect the rest of the relationship, because bitterness and resentment is not going to get us to where we — well, I — want to be. But you can’t help it. And it does create a separateness.”
Hope is the corrosive thing — ‘Maybe tonight!’ and it never is.
In our society, as insecure as it is sex obsessed, Alex belongs to a secret club that many wish they weren’t part of — the 16 per cent of longterm couples, many aged 35 to 44, who have “little or no” sex, according to research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. And 94 per cent of those whose partners refuse sex wish it weren’t so — which adds up to a lot of pain.
What’s odd is that the under-55s are supposed to be cool with sex — not quite on a par with the Swedes, perhaps, but belonging to an intimacy-literate, post Carry On Camping, hang-up-free generation. Yet the sexless marriage (defined as a relationship in which sex occurs ten or fewer times a year) is “sadly, one of the most common presenting issues we work with,” says the sex and relationship therapist Lorraine McGinlay.
The 21st century has taken its toll. Typical ailments are infertility, insomnia, exhaustion, depression, immune-system-related illnesses and loss of libido, says one psychologist, adding, “If I do a workshop I might ask, ‘Is anyone in this room having sex?’ There might be one. We just don’t do it! — ‘Oh darling, I love you but I’m too tired.’ ”
And in 2016, men are equally likely to be the rejecting spouse. One psychotherapist tells me of a young, glamorous client, in despair that her banker husband hasn’t touched her since they conceived their children. In the reddit support group DeadBedrooms — which has more than 31,000 readers — the gender split is equal, and spread across all ages. One woman, whose husband has a low libido , writes: “I feel unwanted, I feel unsexy, I feel like there is something wrong with me for wanting sex.”
Psychotherapist Susanna Abse, the chief executive of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships says: “People’s sexual desire is very variable. It’s not whether they have a lot of sex, or no sex. The problem for couples is the disparity between them.” She adds: “There are many reasons people don’t have sex. If they’re both happy with it, that’s great. If one person isn’t, they’ve got problems.”
Sara administrates on a sexless relationship forum. Posts from 1,500 members, many from the UK, ooze anguish and grief. Often, they’re mindful of their spouse’s feelings, but they’re also desperate and isolated. Many cease posting, says Sara, when “they realise there is no magic bullet that will resolve their sexless marriage. How many times can you vent your pain and disappointment?” Common reasons for not wanting sex include “asexuality, naturally low libidos, lack of desire due to menopause, erectile dysfunction, emotional baggage and fear of intimacy issues, depression, or lack of desire due to medication”.
Compounding the pain is that no one dares talks about it. Alex says he’s never before spoken of his situation aloud. Part of it is loyalty to his wife. But while all couples have times when “sexual functioning” takes a knock — whether because of kids, stress, work or illness — a sexless relationship is harshly, gleefully judged. We’re clearly desperate to view our own sex life as superior to someone else who isn’t a nun. Abse says: “It’s quite shaming for younger couples and older couples in our very sexualised world to say, ‘We’re not having sex any more.’ People feel they’re failing.”
Increasing our susceptibility to the room-mate marriage, agrees McGinlay, are our outward-facing, busy-busy, keepy-uppy lifestyles. We feel pressure to “perform” rather than just enjoy.
“People are so very time poor,” she says. “They’re so consumed with filling their lives with everything else that space doesn’t get made for sex. There’s ferrying the kids, going to the gym, at work until 9pm. Where do you make time to connect with each other?” She adds: “We go to the theatre together, the kids’ sports day together, but that isn’t about intimacy. Where are you connecting on an intimate level? And are these situations then creating an environment where you want to have sex with your partner, and if not, why not?”
In the 2015 Relate study The Way We Are Now, 61 per cent of those with children said money worries are one of the top strains on a relationship, compared with 47 per cent for those without. Stress, especially financial pressure, says McGinlay, particularly hits men where it hurts, crushing libido mentally and physically: “Oxygen is diverted to the heart and lungs, away from the sex organs. If we’re highly anxious the brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. You’re back in caveman mode. And if there’s a sabre-toothed tiger about to attack you, you don’t need an erection. Reproduction is the last thing anyone wants to engage in when they’re under stress.”
He said, ‘I’m middle-aged. I don’t want sex.’ I said, ‘Not ever?’
We’re too tired and we’re tech-obsessed, meaning that many of us form habits that delete sex from the agenda. “I’d rather go to bed with my phone than with my partner,” is the essence of it, says McGinlay. “People see this as normal behaviour now.” And though we did bang on about Fifty Shades, we’re raised to view the nitty-gritty as embarrassing.
“Sex education is very functional. We’re not taught about intimacy. We’re not taught to talk about sex, to feel confident to ask for what we want and need.” She adds: “I remember learning about it through More! magazine and ‘Position of the Fortnight.’ ”
Julia, 59, a solicitor based in Exeter, says that her former husband was never tactile. Even when they did have sex, afterwards “he’d just turn over and go to sleep. If we walked along the street, if I tucked my arm into his, he’d say, ‘Don’t hang on.’ ” But she was still astonished when in their mid-forties he told her: “That’s it. I’m middle-aged. I don’t want sex any more.” Astounded, she replied: “What! Not ever?” He replied: “You’re not that good at it.”
“I had a family,” she says. “You can’t just walk out.” But it crushed her. “I felt horrendous. I blamed myself. His words achieved their purpose — they stopped me trying. It felt shaming. It’s something you have to shut away and keep within yourself.” She saw a doctor only because “I was headed for a breakdown”. The doctor told Julia that, never mind the sex, “without communication, no relationship can survive”. Julia says: “She was spot-on. If you don’t talk, one is burying issues, the other is hiding resentment.”
Eventually she had an affair, then divorced. She’s eight years into a loving relationship where “I discovered what good sex is all about. Sex isn’t just sex. It’s an awful lot more. It’s vital to a marriage.” She compares its lack in a relationship to “when somebody dies. It’s the fact there’s no longer a physical presence with you that’s so awful.”
Abse says: “Often there’s an underlying problem in the relationship that is expressed via the lack of sex, but it doesn’t get exposed. Couples continue in a dead, frozen way, rubbing along for years.” An affair, therapy, or both may ensure, or “the relationship falls away to the point it’s no longer viable”. After their separation, Julia discovered her husband had issues relating to his sexuality.
Meanwhile, it irritates Alex that for the partner, “there’s nothing wrong in their world. They don’t want sex, they’re not having sex.”
However, Emma, 55, the “refuser” in her 25-year marriage, believes there’s pain on both sides. “I just didn’t want to sleep with my husband,” she says. “You can’t make those feelings come out of thin air. He’d complain because I used to knit. I could never just put the knitting down and go to bed.” Her lack of desire “was my shameful secret — I didn’t think I was normal.” Since divorce, she’s found new love (“I feel like a teenager”). She still feels guilty about her husband. “It wasn’t his fault; we were mismatched.”
Most of those in a long term relationship have times when they can easily relate to couples whose sexual ice age reflects their mutual hatred, but, says Abse, “a lot of couples who don’t have sex have what we call an enmeshed relationship. They avoid difference and conflict.” If one partner is being “very loving”, they may not be “enough of another. You need a bit of difference to have an exciting sexual life. It becomes a little bit claustrophobic, what we call a babes-in-the-wood relationship. Being nicey-nice doesn’t necessarily help a couple be sexual with each other.”
According to the Journal of Marriage and Family, 74 per cent of refused spouses stay because of love. Alex is one of those people. He says: “For most people, sex is a fun, deeply positive and satisfying part of their relationship. And it’s been flipped round, so it’s a point of tension and stress and friction.”
He wants to make it clear: “This is not about somebody being a bit pissed off with somebody else, or there’s a bit of stress at work, so have a nice bath with an aromatic candle. There’s a tipping-point where the default is going to be ‘No’. And the whole nature of the relationship changes.”
Names have been changed
Anna Maxted May 10 2016 The Times
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