The deserted island of a sexless marriage


The deserted island of a sexless marriage

In one in five marriages, sex is a distant memory. And because most people think they are the only ones struggling with this, it's one of the best-kept relationship secrets. ANNELIZE VISSER talks to a sexologist and shares advice.


VAGUELY, she knew she was falling apart somehow. Vaguely, she knew she had lost touch with the material and living world. There was nothing left now but this empty treadmill of what Clifford calls the integrated life, the long coexistence of people who are in the habit of living together in the same house. She was old; a million years old, she felt. And finally she could no longer bear the burden of herself.

These sad thoughts, cobbled together from various quotes with apologies to DH Lawrence, belong to the former Constance Reid, now Lady Chatterley, literature's most famous character involved in a sexless marriage.

Fortunately for Connie, a gamekeeper is waiting in the forest, and it was the explicit descriptions of her sexual relationship with Oliver Mellors — and the unveiling of female sexual desire — that turned Lady Chatterley's Lover into such a controversial and influential book.

But the Connie quoted above is not the Connie whose body rings out like a bell, flutters like feathery flames, or flowers like a sea anemone in the tide. It's Connie without touch, Connie without tenderness, Connie on a deserted island.

The loneliness of sexless marriages

She often hears from people who believe they are the only ones who find themselves in sexless marriages, says  psychologist and sexologist Marelize Swart. After more than two decades in Canada, where she obtained her doctorate at the University of Calgary, she now practises in the Cape. An estimated 20% of marriages are sexless, and approximately two million people in South Africa are consequently silent about this most private of all marital secrets.

Embarrassment, shame and the fear of humiliation and condemnation prevent people from seeking help for a problem they also struggle to articulate due to an inadequate sexual vocabulary. Because many people don't know there are experts who specialise in sexual problems, it can be difficult to know where to turn. This is especially the case if you have already mustered the courage to confide in your family doctor, only to  encounter ignorance or prejudice about female sexuality in particular.

A glass of wine for the woman is probably not the solution, and myths about the unbridled sex drive of men make it even more difficult for them to report their low libido. And of course this is not a problem that  occurs only in heterosexual relationships.

Years later, the pattern of rejection and guilt, attack and counterattack, is almost irrevocably established. And it's not only the relationship that is destroyed in the process. Marelize says our sexual self-esteem not only determines how we see ourselves in the bedroom but how we estimate our self-worth in the wider world.

If the silence about sexless marriages makes you desperately believe you and your partner are the only ones who turn their backs on each other at night and pretend to sleep, at least one of you is living on a very lonely island.

How do you know your marriage is sexless? 

This is not such a strange question. A different definition applies to couples who are perfectly content with sex two or three times a month than to those who tackle each other two or three times a week in bed or elsewhere, then experience a sudden dip.

According to Marelize, a sexless marriage is often defined as one in which there has been no sex for 12 months, or where sex happens fewer than 10 times a year. But if you haven't been keeping score, here's a true-or-false test that doesn't rely on bookkeeping:

  • Sex is more work than pleasure.
  • Touching always leads to sex.
  • Touching always takes place in the bedroom.
  • You don't look forward to sex any more.
  • Sex doesn't provide a feeling of connectedness and togetherness.
  • You never experience sexual thoughts or fantasies about your partner.
  • Sex only takes place at a specific time, such as Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings. 
  • One of you always initiates and the other one experiences pressure.
  • You remember your pre-marital smooching as the best time of your sex life.
  • Sex is mechanical and predictable. 
  • You have sex once or twice a month at the most.

If your answer to at least five of these statements is “true", you probably find yourself in or close to a sexless marriage.

How did we get here?

Incompatible levels of desire can cause conflict from the outset, although infatuation initially masks this. Problems that arise later are mostly related to life milestones or other events that disrupt your sex life. But there are at least 20 possible causes, says Marelize. Make yourself a cup of tea and read on.

1 Your sex drive doesn't match. When someone with a strong libido is in a relationship with someone who isn't particularly interested in sex, it's going to be a struggle to keep both of them happy in the bedroom.

2 Mismatched libidos can lead to a situation where one person insists on sex, which inhibits the other's sex drive even more. This kind of intimate coercion is often experienced completely differently by the two parties. One may think he is seducing his partner while the other experiences pressure, violation and the feeling that one party's sexual needs take precedence over the other's emotional needs. That way, you may win the sex war but you will lose a satisfying intimate relationship, says Marelize.

3 Infidelity, whether physical or emotional, can cause the unfaithful partner to lose sexual interest. And if the affair is exposed, the other party will probably not resume the intimate relationship with much enthusiasm immediately.

4 Addiction — whether it's pornography, internet chat groups, video games, alcohol or a job that demands all your time and attention — does not bode well for your sex life.

5 Trauma due to sexual assault and rape is widespread in a community plagued by gender violence. 

6 Social disapproval of gay and bisexual relationships means that even in 2023 people enter into marriages while trying to deny and hide their sexual orientation.

7 A lack of privacy limits sexual opportunities and is sometimes cited as an excuse, such as where little kids sleep in their parents' bed or where several generations are forced to live together in cramped quarters.

8 Sex is a physical activity. If you suffer from a chronic disease such as fibrositis (which causes severe pain and fatigue) or an autoimmune condition such as lupus, you will not feel like going for a long run. Even less so if you are dog-tired from working all day, feel overwhelmed by household tasks, or if parenting drains every ounce of your energy.

9 Ignorance plays a big role, especially because sexual education by parents, schools and religious institutions mainly focuses on risks such as unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and considers pleasure to be a minor factor. Sex is a skill that needs to be learned, and you need to get to know your own and your partner's body. No matter what the preacher had to say about it, self-exploration is important because it can promote sexual confidence and empowerment.

10 The list of sexual dysfunctions is long and includes erectile dysfunction, premature or delayed ejaculation, anorgasm and vaginismus (involuntary spasm of the pelvic floor muscles that makes penetration painful or impossible). The embarrassment and humiliation caused by sexual dysfunction makes people avoid sex. Sexual pain, due to vaginismus among other things, is more common than people realise, and is an important reason for unfulfilled marriages.

11 Asexuality occurs in people who experience little or no sexual attraction and are exclusively interested in an emotional connection. It is sometimes considered a sexual orientation.

12 A relationship in which people regularly disregard or hurt each other's feelings, for example by demeaning each other in front of others, reveal secrets or hurt each other financially or in other ways, is one that will soon be characterised by anger. And anger turns the bedroom into a battlefield where sex is consciously or unconsciously withheld, enforced or weaponised in other ways. Anger must be dealt with outside the bedroom and with your clothes on, says Marelize.

13 Feelings of guilt cause people to isolate themselves from their partner. If there is something you feel guilty about, apologise, fix it and don't do it again. Shame also has to do with something that happened in the past, but in this case people blame themselves for something that was probably out of their control. Unfortunately, most people have been exposed to negative sexual experiences that they later feel ashamed of. Instead, be proud that you survived it, says Marelize, and don't drink the poison that was intended for the rat.

14 Cultural and religious conditioning has a huge influence on people's sexuality. Most of the unfulfilled marriages she deals with, says Marelize, are because of the Muslim faith's strict rules for courtship. In conservative families, unmarried couples must be accompanied by a friend or family member at all times, and sexual activity before the wedding night is not tolerated. If things go wrong there, it is often only when a couple want to start a family that they gather the courage to speak up about a sexless marriage.

15 Anticipatory anxiety and performance anxiety are the opposite of desire. Approaching sex with the fear of embarrassment or failure, and the desire to avoid it or get it over with as soon as possible, is like jogging with a heavy stone on your shoulders, says Marelize. Performance anxiety also has a negative effect on sexual arousal and erection, especially if orgasm is considered a performance goal.

16 Inhibition and obsession break hearts in the bedroom. Inhibition manifests as a poor body image, and embarrassment about being naked or losing control. Obsessions that hinder sexual expression include an irrational fear of contamination or dirt.

17 Let's talk about paraphilia. Certain people are sexually aroused by acts that do not involve any desire for intimate sex — such as an urge to expose themselves or wearing clothes of the opposite sex. This often sets the scene for a sexless relationship.

18 Non-sexual hidden agendas refer to reasons for a relationship that have nothing to do with mutual attraction, such as money, security, social acceptance and religious pressure. If you and your partner are not attracted to each other, there is not much a sex therapist can do, says Marelize.

19 Sex if you want to get pregnant is an aphrodisiac — until something goes wrong. Treatment for infertility is expensive, debilitating and painful, and deprives you of privacy. People often stop having sex outside of that all-important fertility window, which ends up damaging their sex lives.

20 People in long-term relationships sometimes harbour romantic expectations that do not match reality. This is such an important factor that it deserves its own headline.

Married sex is different

It is in the nature of romantic love and passion that it fades after a while. No matter how much you love each other, over time the sex becomes more routine and less exciting. Soon it's not the main reason why you jump into bed, but the last thing you do — or don't do — after you turn off the television and put away the computers and cellphones.

Sexual desire within a marriage or long-term relationship is based on a completely different way of thinking and feeling. Within such a relationship, you are involved with the whole person and you share the complexities of your lives together, including sexual and emotional intimacy. Together you must develop a marriage style with room for intimacy, desire, pleasure and eroticism, rather than making comparisons between your sex life then and now.

Especially in women, spontaneous desire is replaced by responsive desire over time, and there is nothing wrong with this, says Marelize. It's like going to the gym. At first you don't really feel like it, but after 10 minutes the endorphins kick in and you wonder why you don't do it more often.

This does not necessarily mean the stereotype applies that men are always in the mood for sex and women mostly pretend to have a headache. Banalities exchanged at braais about women agreeing to sex in exchange for a dishwasher are harmful (and insulting) in many ways, especially because they make people who are in the opposite situation — where the man loses interest in sex and the woman feels rejected — feel even lonelier.

Menopause creates new challenges. A decrease in oestrogen and testosterone can result in vaginal atrophy and lower libido, but this does not have to mean the end of your sex life. Now is the time to talk to a good gynaecologist, preferably someone who specialises in sexology.

Dr Marelize Swart
Dr Marelize Swart

Where can I find an expert? (And can I keep my clothes on?)

Sex therapy is still a relatively unknown practice in South Africa, says Marelize. “There are very few qualified sexologists because there is a shortage of local accredited training. Most sexologists in South Africa received their training overseas.

“When I started working as a psychologist in Canada in the early 1990s, many couples approached me for help with their sexual relationship. I realised that it was a specialist field and began further training in sex therapy in Canada and the US.”

Among other things, Marelize completed internships over two years in sex therapy and was registered as a sex therapist with the American governing body AASECT as a Canadian citizen. She is now a member of the Southern African Sexual Health Association and suggests that you search for help by visiting  its web page.

Sex therapy is like any other psychotherapy, she says. You treat the condition by talking about people's experiences, concerns and feelings. It is not the therapist's job to take sides or try to talk someone out of it. And yes, everyone keeps their clothes on. “The therapist is not going to have sex with anyone or show how to do it!"

An initial evaluation determines whether psychological or medical issues are involved. Marelize works in a multidisciplinary setting with gynaecologists, urologists, and physiotherapists with expertise in pelvic floor pain.

“I converse with the clients to derive to what extent the sex issue interferes with the relationship, or relationship problems with the sex. During individual sessions I obtain information about people's family, relationship and sexual history. Then comes the time for couples therapy to address the cycle of blame and guilt and the pattern of attack and counterattack.

“Rebuilding intimacy and sexuality often involves an agreement to temporarily avoid sexual intercourse. With the pressure out of the way, people have the freedom to explore touch as a way to feel close to each other and share pleasure.

“In the case of heterosexual relationships, it is also sometimes necessary to expand the definition of sex — namely that it is not just about penetration or orgasm."

Hope is not like baking a cake

The Canadian gynaecologist and gender activist Dr Jen Gunter (I've written about her book, The Vagina Bible), confessed to The New York Times about her own sexless marriage five years ago. She recalls her embarrassment when her attempts to rekindle her spouse's interest by going to bed naked or scheduling sex fell flat. And her loneliness when it seemed that none of her friends found themselves in a similar situation. These days she is focused on reassuring women that they are not truly alone on a sexless island. 

The longer you wait, the more weaponised the bedroom becomes, she says. The situation also gradually becomes more complex, because resentment accrues like interest on a credit card. And nothing in a relationship ever works out by itself. “You can just as well expect the ingredients in your pantry to bake a cake by themselves."

So, if you have read this far and have realised that you are not alone on the island, carve an SOS in the sand today, light a smoky fire and wave your arms to call for help.

You can read more about Dr Marelize Swart's practice here.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.