Conjugal amiss: sexless marriage?

For many married couples, sexual satisfaction dies or diminishes with time, due to many reasons. Understanding that sexual problems don't necessarily signal the end of the relationship is essential

CoupleThirty-two-year-old Ramakant was highly diabetic when he first visited us. It was a hereditary condition. That he was a mild diabetic at the age of 24 was known to Sangita even before she married him. However, what she did not know, and neither he, was that diabetes could affect his sexual performance. The severity of his condition increased by the time he was 32 and he suffered “erectile dysfunction”. Sangita was 28 then and was frustrated because of her unfulfilled sexual desires.

In another instance, Michelle was suffering from clinical depression. She had lost interest in sex and would reject all advances of her husband John. He felt cheated out of marital bliss at only the age of 34 and started staying away from home, which only exacerbated her depression.

Another young woman, Ranjana, had an accident and suffered multiple fractures below her waist. She was crippled at the age of 27 and her sexual life with her husband came to an end. He nursed her while she was in hospital but after the doctors said that her condition would not improve beyond a certain point, he decided to call it quits and filed for divorce.

Very often, it happens that the sex life of a couple either comes to a standstill, or ends prematurely, as one of the partners is compelled by either physical or psychological reasons to not have sexual intercourse.

What happens at such times to their otherwise normal spouses, who have to deal with this ‘premature sexual retirement’ and thus to their relationship?

There are only three possibilities

  • Suppress your sexual urges. Feel deprived. Feel frustrated due to this deprivation. Build toxic resentment over time. Those who choose this way invariably develop a stress-induced physical or psychological disease such as hypertension, peptic ulcer, ischemic heart disease, hysteria, psoriasis and migraine.
  • Get out of the relationship and into new ones. Indulge in sex outside marriage: Those who choose this have a “justification” for straying that provides them a guilt-free comfort zone while they indulge in infidelity – the justification that one’s “valid” needs remain unfulfilled in the marriage.
  • Understand this “inevitable” aspect of the relationship and learn to cope with the circumstances with complete and graceful acceptance of the situation: Evaluate the complete relationship. Identify other strong and satisfying aspects of it. Stay with each other for genuine love and caring. Accept the limitations in sharing intimacy and explore other ways of doing it.

The choice the partner would take in these circumstances depends on many factors:

  • How evolved he/she is as an individual
  • With what expectations he/she entered the relationship in the first place. How satisfied or unsatisfied he/she is in the other aspects of the relationship
  • Whether for him/her, “taking” mattered more than “giving” in the relationship
  • How satisfied he/she is in other areas of his/her life such as work, profession, earnings, hobbies and creative expression
  • What was the status of their sexual relationship before things changed
  • What type of moral upbringing and exposure he/she has had and what company he/she is presently keeping.

In our 20 years of practice as marriage and sex counsellors, we have seen people dealing with this situation in all possible ways. We have seen blatant break-ups and secret affairs. We have seen the initial feeling of disappointment followed by gradual acceptance of the situation. We have seen couples coming up with very innovative ideas of satisfying each other sexually without indulging in penetrative sex and we have also seen spouses very gracefully accepting the handicap of the partner and still showering abundant love and affection in the true spirit of “unconditional” love.

In a special study by the Family Therapy Centre of the Western Psychiatric Institute at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, around 100 happily married couples ranging in age from their early 20s to their early 60s were asked some questions about their sex life. Over 90 per cent of the couples had a less-than-perfect sexual relationship. Yet, more than 80 per cent rated their marriages as “very happy” or “happy”. Almost all these individuals denied that lack of sexual bliss was a problem for them and none expressed a need for change. Apparently, a sexual problem is not synonymous with a marital one.

Ironically, more divorces take place because of causes other than the status of the sexual relationship. Statistically speaking almost 80-90 per cent divorces take place for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with sex such as:

  • Intellectual or emotional incompatibility
  • Diverse moral and social values
  • Mismatching of financial status and expectations
  • Lack of healthy communication
  • Unacceptable lifestyles of either of the spouses
  • Unrealistic and impractical expectations from each other
  • Feud with family members other than the spouse himself/herself. Misunderstandings with in-laws
  • Rigid preferences in the areas of career, place of residence, views on staying in joint family and so forth
  • Accidental or voluntary disclosure of some unknown aspect of the pre-marital days of the spouse that is unacceptable
  • Physical or mental illness or disability in the partner that is unacceptable
  • Addictions such as alcoholism, drugs or even pornography
  • Cognisable crime committed by partner leading to legal proceedings and/or arrest
  • Physical abuse.

Sexual problems or relationship problems?

One of the serious mistakes most people make is attempting to isolate a part of the relationship, like sex, from the whole, thinking that when that one part is fixed, the whole relationship will get better. This is the cover-up approach.

If you feel you have sexual problems in your relationship, and your sexual functions were normal, healthy and exciting in the beginning, then your problems most likely have little or nothing to do with sex. They are symptoms of something deeper, such as unexpressed anger or disappointment, unresolved conflicts, lack of trust or fear of failure. By discovering the real problem and working together with your partner to heal them, you will see your sexual problems diminish and eventually disappear.

Most sexual problems are just symptoms of problems in other areas of the relationship. The real problem always lies in the relationship, and not in the bed. If you try to hide or suppress the problems or weaknesses in your relationship, they will emerge in bed. Many suggestions could be made to create more excitement in the sex life, but they will not work. Sex is just a mirror of the rest of your relationship.

Sexual excitement is a natural reaction to certain conditions. When those conditions are absent or inhibited, so is your natural sexual response. Sex is a great barometer for telling you how well your relationship is working, and when it needs more attention.

If this is true, then what part does sex play in the break-up of marriage? It is such a complicated question that two of the best minds of our times, Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell, seem to have got it all wrong. Both of them believed that undue sexual restraint, brought about largely by ignorance as well as social custom, caused a great deal of pain in married life. Both looked about them and saw their fellow men deeply torn by an unnecessary rigid code of sexual conduct. Both would have warmly greeted a swing of the pendulum in sexual matters but neither could have anticipated a swing so hard.

The good fight that such thinkers fought against inhuman restraint, ignorance and hypocrisy in sexual life has been won. But the triumph has resulted not in greater freedom but only in greater “licence”, which is not at all the same thing. Modern sexologists seem to cross all barriers and limits, justifying even un-physiological and medically harmful acts such as anal sex and oral sex as recommended alternatives.

The entire community of sexologists in the West do not talk about “human behaviour” but about the behaviour of the human sexual apparatus. The qualities such as privacy, mutual respect, modesty, caring, fidelity, fall outside the realm of their discussion. Sex becomes, as Aldous Huxley once described it, “a maniac struggling in the musky darkness with another maniac”.

Perhaps nowhere is it more asked of sex than in marriage, yet perhaps no other institution is less able to deal with the modern sexual imagination, the ideal of which is variety and multiplicity. Sexual satisfaction is looked upon as a right – demanded by those not receiving it, shattering to those unable to give it.

In short, sex looms large today. Famous psychiatrist and writer Rollo May has discussed at length the effects of our enlightenment in sexual matters and concluded that the emphasis on technique in sex “makes for a mechanistic attitude towards lovemaking, and goes along with alienation, feelings of loneliness and depersonalisation.” But the interesting question is whether the emphasis on technique in sex is a result of alienation and depersonalisation, or whether it brings about these phenomena. The correct answer is probably that both are true: one falls into technique, into sex itself, to alleviate the terror of loneliness; then because sex cannot achieve this monumental task, the loneliness and the terror that accompany it grow deeper. In the process, tenderness is diminished. Instead of the two flowing together; sex becomes copulation – pure and simple – and we are more slaves to our bodies than perhaps ever before.

Where ideally marriage should put an end to men’s and women’s sexual strivings, where marriage ought to be a relationship in which tenderness and sensuality flow together, each strengthening the other; in practice it seems less and less frequently to work out in this way.

There was nothing of particular value in the old sexual code of repression, and much that was harmful. But once the old code was banished, how much better off we would have been if married couples had been able to affirm sex for what it can be at its best – a source of pleasure and delight, sharing of intimacy, and a means of potentially deepening and enriching their relationship.

If the other is only a means to selfishly grab physical gratification, then in actuality it is not even a relationship. It is merely an arrangement for self-indulgence with mutual consent. Such arrangements are bound to collapse the moment sex is unavailable. However, if both are in a sincere and committed relationship based on love, care and mutual respect, then sex is just one of the many ways of expressing such love, and sharing intimacy. Such relationships are truly meaningful and fulfilling, and last forever.

Instances when you cannot have sex

When you have absolutely no desire for sex and even aversion to it due to physical or psychological reasons.

When you are incapable of performing intercourse due to neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, endocrine conditions like diabetes [fifty per cent of diabetic men have erectile dysfunction], disorders of pituitary, thyroid or adrenal glands, diminished testosterone levels, and injury to genitals.

When you are prohibited from having sex due to medical reasons as it may cause more harm to your health [and could even be life-threatening] such as after major operations, certain chronic heart conditions or when you are carrying a sexually-transmitted disease like HIV infection.

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


  1. My lack of desire for my husband is directly related to the fact that he is a liar and cheater. That is just who he is and what he does. He fools most people into thinking that he is such a great guy and a devout Christian (those qualities are what I thought he had as well, which is why I married him) but I soon discovered after the wedding that he is a good actor. So, now I am in a loveless, sexless marriage and not sure where to go from here.

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