Dear Neil: My wife and I are married 25 years, but we are no longer sexual, and haven’t been for three years. I guess you could say we have a celibate marriage, but I don’t understand why. We were always frisky with each other, but it slowly lessened until there was nothing at all. Why does this happen, and what can I do about it?
—High and Dry in Denver
Dear Denver: Here are the most common reasons marriages turn celibate:
Anger or resentment. Hostile, adversarial or angry energy is likely to turn people off to each other, and as that negative energy builds, people feel hurt and distant from each other, and then they don’t want to be loving and giving. Also, the angrier one person gets, the less sexy the other partner is going to feel and the less s/he may want to give to the other.
At least one person has a low libido, so desire isn’t strong, and there is no sense of urgency or hunger. This may be related to low testosterone (the hormone most closely associated with sex drive) in either partner–male or female, because women have testosterone also, but in considerably lower levels than do men.
Your relationship has grown cold, disconnected or distant, where at least one of you no longer feels very close to the other. As that happens, one of you may adopt the attitude that you’re not going to give in to the other, or that you don’t want to take care of the other.
The relationship isn’t affectionate anymore, and there is very little physical warmth or touch, so sex begins to feel awkward and artificial.
Concerns about appearance. Some people no longer feel attractive, and therefore don’t want to be seen or touched.
The spark is gone. The relationship is no longer romantic, and therefore there isn’t enough erotic build up.
Loss of trust where one person no longer feels safe. A betrayal, an attempted betrayal or a perceived betrayal all can kill desire and make one person withdraw from the other. A betrayal can also solidify the resolve that you no longer want to give yourself to someone who has treated you badly.
Protection from feeling vulnerable. If I don’t open up to you and allow you close to me physically, then perhaps I won’t feel so vulnerable to your judgement, rejection, criticism, withdrawal or anger.
Age has a way of humbling many of us. Our minds may be willing, but our bodies may not cooperate. And as we grow older, we tend to feel tired more of the time–so it can all grow to feel like “too much.”
Repetition over time. The same thing the same way has a way of growing old and boring.
Withholding sex can be a way of punishing someone. It can also be used as a form of leverage in negotiating disagreements, conflicts or issues.
Illness, surgery or medications: all could repress normal libido or make sex less spontaneous.
There are medical conditions that can make sex painful, or block arousal altogether.
Some couples don’t spend enough time together or do enough activities together for the relationship to feel close and romantic. They may be married and they may be faithful to each other, but they have grown too far apart and they have lost the feeling of being friends and companions.
Because of upbringing, religious teachings or rape or incest, some people grow to feel that sex is wrong, bad, dirty or demeaning.
There are some people of faith who decide to follow a spiritual path that encourages abstinence.
It could be that one person hasn’t enjoyed sex, and therefore has no incentive for engaging in it. One way of helping your lover to not enjoy the experience is to be too quick, too focused on your own pleasure or too selfish.
It may take the two of you so much time, energy and exertion that it no longer feels worth the effort.