Recent studies show an alarming increase in “sexless marriages” – in fact, The Times reported that more than 21’000 people search help on this monthly via Google, outnumbering searches such as “unhappy marriage” and “loveless marriage”. The phrase “sexless marriage” refers to couples having sex less than once a month.
But who cares? A survey by psychotherapist Abby Rodman says 75% of those couples do! They had healthy sexual relationships, but claim that having children(!), stress and fatigue, health reasons or simply time had dried up all the romantic passion. In fact, this matter so much that half the respondents stated they would not have married their spouses had they known their married life would be sexless. (Although 75% said that they would not end the marriage because of the lack of sexual intimacy).
(Not making) love hurts
Why do they feel so strong? Because constant sexual rejection in a marriage hurts. A lot. Reading through articles, blogs, and recalling phrases I have listened to during counselling sessions, the following statements best capture the pain of spouses in sexless marriages.
- I feel unloved, unwanted.
- I feel unattractive, ugly.
- I feel hurt. I sometimes hide in the bathroom and cry.
- I feel so ashamed – what about me is so despicable?
- I feel angry and cheated because I explained my desires, yet he/she ignores my pleas.
- I feel ignored, my needs and desires are simply not important to my spouse.
- I feel so worthless because he/she has time and energy for everything else but not me.
- I feel so alone. I lie next to him/her in bed and yet feel so far away.
Sexual rejection by a spouse hurts much because it denies the means and expression of intimacy reserved exclusively for each other. Especially in relationships where there was at some point much sexual arousal, the onset of habitual sexual rejection communicates not just “I don’t want sex” but rather “I don’t want you.” Simply put, long-term sexual denial feels like rejection of the person.
Something’s gotta give
Marriage by definition is companionship, a means to obtain intimacy. When sexual relations within marriage is rejected over a long period it not only impedes the relationship but also has devastating effects on the identity and emotional health of the rejected partner. The following statements give good insight into the effects of such long-term sexual rejection.
- I feel so disconnected from with my spouse. We live like house-mates, nothing more.
- I find myself to be very irritable; small things make me act out in anger.
- I have lost confidence – not just at home. I am not the strong man/ woman I used to be.
- I feel resentful; my heart is really hard towards my spouse.
- I feel attracted to the attention of others; the rejection has made me vulnerable to emotional and physical affairs.
- I have grown tired of being rejected so I have stopped making efforts for the relationship.
- I am very suspicious – I hate admitting this but I think my spouse is interested or in relationship with someone else.
- I am so depressed; the one person that I love does not want me.
- I have suppressed every sexual desire, because not feeling anything is less painful than being rejected.
- I am addicted to porn and masturbation. I know it is wrong but I can’t stop it (and I honestly don’t care anymore).
- I don’t have hope for our marriage anymore. Things will always be this cold between us.
These phrases capture much pain. Looking at the two lists of statements above I feel so much sympathy for anyone in a sexless marriage. And I understand why Paul would write so strongly about not denying your spouse sexually intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:3-7). Yet every marriage goes through ups and downs, and therefore the challenge of married life is to continue “cleaving to your [spouse]” to remain “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Never stop pursuing intimacy with your spouse!
Helpful, hurting and hopeful
Over the years I have noticed three general responses of people suffering from long-term sexual rejection. The first group harbors anger, visible in hostility and frustration – typically accusation. It is as though these people subconsciously want to hurt their spouses to share in their pain of rejection. This is not helpful. Yet anger and hostility hinders any form of intimacy, which requires safe space to open up. So this response pushes the couple further apart.
The second group has become passive, apathetic. Escaping the torment of perpetual rejection, they have given up on any hope for intimacy and suffocated their own desires for intimacy. Marriage has become a cold, platonic friendship. This is indeed a very lonely place – especially within marriage. This is not necessary: there is hope!
The third group has embraced vulnerability to allow for intimacy, enduring the hurtful rejection towards the other’s heart. It simply means to forgive the other in order not to close one’s heart. They strive for connection beyond fear. These spouses talk about their hurts – but with open hearts – and intentionally create an environment of affection, warmth and encouragement. They never lose hope that they will regain the romance and intimacy which they once enjoyed. And they see the fruit. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)
To the rejecting spouse I don’t think I need to write any further advice, except to ask your partner whether he or she feels the same as the statements recorded above, and strive to understand his/her needs for intimacy. Then share your feelings to identify the barriers to intimacy, whatever they may be, and seek help as a couple. Do it today!
My counsel to you, the rejected spouse, is take courage, and embrace vulnerability to graciously and patiently explain your feelings to your spouse, but do so in gentleness and love, not angry, and not nagging. Express your love and attraction for him/her. Affirm your affections and approval of him/her. And with of without your spouse, seek help – your journey need not be so lonely. But never lose hope!
You might not be able to fix this, but nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:37) Ask him to make a garden in your wilderness! (Isaiah 51:3)