When To Walk Away From A Sexless Marriage

According to sex therapists, there are several red flags that signal staying isn’t worth it.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 

Sexless marriages are more common than you probably think. A late 2000s study suggested that about 15 percent of all marriages don’t involve sex and a 2021 Kinsey Institute survey of Americans aged 18 to 45 found that nearly 26 percent of married millennials have very quiet bedrooms. However, sexless marriages aren’t always loveless marriages notes Dr. Tammy Nelson, a renowned psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author of Open Monogamy and When You’re the One Who Cheats.

“There are two parts to committed partnerships – companionship and eroticism,” Nelson says. “Couples can be great roommates and care about each other a lot and not have the erotic aspect of their relationship. Not having sex is not an indication that they don’t love each other.”

There isn’t a single reason couples stop having sex. As Nelson points out, sexless relationships can be the result of “illness, depression, alcohol or drug use, job loss, major transitions into parenthood, or any tension in the relationship that is unresolved.” Depending on the health of the relationship, couples can overcome

“Some sexless relationships can be healed and recovery is simple,” Nelson says. “It depends on the cause of the sexless marriage. The first step is to talk about the issue and communicate about the causes and work together to come up with solutions.”

But when should you consider leaving a sexless relationship? As circumstances vary depending on individual couples, there aren’t hard and fast rules for leaving sexless marriages. While there are no specific issues that doom a sexless relationship other than domestic violence, sex therapists say there are several red flags that signal staying isn’t worth it.

1. The Good No Longer Outweighs The Bad

Sex isn’t the only part of a relationship. If sex starts to fade but the relationship is still supportive and emotionally intimate and there are practical considerations like children, it can still be a valuable and rewarding relationship. The considerations will vary by individual and weighing them requires asking very hard questions about your values, your desires and what kind of compromises you’re willing to make to stay in the relationship. But if you’ve done the hard work and the bad outweighs the good, then it may be time to make a change.

2. You Have Incompatible Sex Drives and Can’t Compromise

If you’re in a sexless marriage and both of you are happy about it, there isn’t a problem. “Everybody has a different sex drive, has different sexual needs, has different sexual desires,” sex and intimacy coach Leah Carey says. “For some people, a sexless marriage might even be preferable.” Love and commitment dictates the health of all relationships, including sexless ones. For couples with low sex drives and strong emotional connection, sexless marriages are ideal. And if one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t, they can find a path forward if there’s trust and mutual respect, including brokering non-monogamy or ethical non-monogamy arrangements that allows the higher libido person to get their needs met. But if no compromise can be found, that’s a sign it may be time to move on.

3. Refusal to Communicate

Like all successful relationships, ones that thrive without sex maintain a healthy level of communication about their relationship. Unfortunately, Carey notes, when most couples stop having sex, they usually don’t talk it. “They just go along and wait for the sex to magically reappear without any conversations,” she says. “And if at some point somebody brings it up, it's usually in a fit of disappointment or anger or something that causes a larger blow up.” Moreover, without communication, withholding sex can seem like breaking an unspoken promise. “Some people are okay with a break from sex, or a purely companionate marriage,” Nelson says. “But no sex in a marriage where it was implicitly agreed that there would be a sexual relationship can feel like a betrayal.”

4. The Resentment Becomes Overwhelming

When couples won’t address the reasons they don’t have sex, the problem doesn’t magically resolve. The problems drag on and tensions build because you're building up resentments. “Once a resentment is in place, it's very hard to move it without some type of communication to help ease it,” Carey says. Over time, resentment defines the relationship. Once that happens, it’s pretty much impossible for the sexual part of the relationship to bounce back. “All you know is this person causes me rage, and I no longer want them to touch my body,” Carey says.

5. Infidelity

Nelson notes that certain couples benefit from outsourcing their sexual needs. “It can take the sexual pressure and expectations off of the lower sex drive partner,” she says. However, such arrangements must be discussed at length and have open communication around them. If one partner cheats because of the situation, the deception and violation of trust that comes with cheating hits like a wrecking ball. “Infidelity is a form of erotic betrayal,” Nelson says. “Many couples find it hard to come back from that kind of trauma and it’s easy to understand why it might be hard to heal from an affair.”

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